Showing posts with label psycho series. Show all posts
Showing posts with label psycho series. Show all posts

Sep 24, 2020

FOUR FROM HITCHCOCK

Throughout his career, Alfred Hitchcock directed 55 feature films, along with numerous shorts and documentaries. That’s not a bad haul, nor a bad legacy to leave behind to the world. Having said that, even the most ardent film fan couldn’t possibly name you half of his films in total. In fact, if you look at his filmography starting from the beginning, it would take you seventeen films before arriving at 1935’s The 39 Steps, really the first film, chronologically, that still enjoys discussion to this day. I’m not picking on Hitchcock, though – this is more just a reminder of the reality. Not a single director has a flawless track record when it comes to output (and if the names Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino just flashed in your mind as a challenge to that, I’m laughing at you). But by now, Hitchcock has reached legendary status, and not just from the strong crop of films he left behind: there’s his larger than life persona as a morbid spokesman for his work; there’s his reputation for being a hard-nosed director unwilling to compromise his vision; and there’s also his penchant for victimizing his cast for reasons both professional and personal. 

Because of his infamy, he’s achieved mythic status, and as such, we assume everything he touched shocked audiences, changed cinema, and left an indelible mark. Not quite. If you asked that same film fan from before to name ten Hitchcock films, undoubtedly these four titles would be among them: Rear WindowVertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. They are sacrosanct, legendary, backbones of their respective genres, and sterling examples of a director fully in control of his talents and resources. 

Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is in the midst of recuperating from a broken ankle and is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. Sheer boredom leads him to watching his neighbors across his apartment complex’s shared courtyard, keeping up to date on the various comings, goings, and personal dramas unfolding in everyone’s tiny homes. It’s through this passive observing that L.B. begins to suspect that one particular neighbor across the way may have murdered his wife. With the assistance of his “girlfriend” Lisa (Grace Kelly), who L.B. uses as a mobile quasi-avatar, they investigate to see if L.B. really does live across the courtyard from a murderer.

Like the other films in this set, Rear Window would inadvertently create an oft visited trope in genre cinema going forward, either through presentation or in conception – in this case, the idea of the voyeur, and of large open windows serving as movie screens that depict the actions of those inside their own bubble, generally unaware of their being watched…or sometimes being complicit in their “performances.” John Carpenter would riff on this concept with a clever reversal in his 1980 television movie Someone’sWatching Me! with Lauren Hutton and soon to be wife/ex-wife Adrienne Barbeau. Australian filmmaker Richard Franklin, who would eventually helm the extremely undervalued Psycho II, would make a road-set homage with Road Games with Stacy Keach alongside a post-Halloween Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Psycho’s Janet Leigh). Finally, following his accident that left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, Christopher Reeve would produce and star in a Rear Window remake in the late ‘90s for ABC, with Daryl Hannah taking on the Grace Kelly role of the adventurous troublemaker. It was…fine. Also like the other films in this set, Rear Window is one of many Hitchcock films that sees a pretty blonde girl (Hitch’s fave) really going above and beyond to make an impotent or uninterested man commit to her beyond mere petty flirtations and casual trysts. With L.B. prone and imprisoned in his wheelchair, he’s powerless to stop Lisa as she decides to take full control of the situation and break into the suspected murderer’s apartment in order to validate L.B.’s beliefs – and this after the film opens with Lisa basically nagging L.B. to marry her, which he declines with reasoning that makes the very concept sound entirely objectionable despite the fact that he’s twenty years older, has the physique of a snapped rubber band, and he’d be incredibly lucky to have her.

A near-death experience leaves former police detective John Ferguson (a returning Stewart) with acrophobia, a debilitating fear of heights, and very retired. An old acquittance, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), hires him out of the blue to follow his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who believes that she’s the reincarnation of another deceased woman named Carlotta. Being we’re in Hitchcock territory, after Ferguson begins his reconnaissance, it doesn’t take long for him to discover, whether or not Elster’s beliefs have any merit, that he’s definitely not on a routine job. And he couldn’t possibly have anticipated how obsessed with Madeleine he would become.

At 130 minutes, Vertigo is one of Hitchcock’s longer features, and most of that running time is filled with heavy exposition and twisting/turning developments that, at times, feel almost more appropriate for a James Bond caper mixed with brooding noir. Hitchcock once again reigns over his use of cinematography to deeply unsettle his audience, using camera tricks and extreme points of view to take away our balance and feeling of stability. The opening scene has Stewart’s Ferguson hanging for dear life from the top of a very tall building as the gutter he’s grasping slowly tears off the wall, and as a nearby officer reaches down to help him, the poor schlub slips and plummets to his death – in just one sequence, both Ferguson and the audience confront the ultimate fear: not just impending death, but our front-row view of our only salvation being whisked away.


Poor Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals a bunch of cash in hopes of buying the domestic freedom of her secret beau, Sam (John Gavin), and blows town. After stopping at a desolate roadside motel, she leaves the worst Yelp review in Bates Motel history, causing perfectionist Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) to respond in…let’s call it an exaggerated manner.

Look, no one needs the plot breakdown of Psycho; considering it’s widely considered Hitchcock’s crowning achievement as a director (these things are subject to opinion, of course, but…it is), Psycho is a masterclass in filmmaking in just about every way – from expert casting (Martin Balsam!) to maximizing low budget filmmaking (the crew was almost entirely comprised of Alfred Hitchcock Presents personnel) to wrenching tension out of every scene through the use of slow-moving cinematography and off-putting angles. Psycho should be taught in film classes exclusively for its use of the camera. There’s the slow opening push into Marion and Sam’s hotel room window (which, while possibly borrowed from 1955’s Dementia aka Daughter of Horror, is still expertly crafted), and obviously there’s also that whole shower-scene thing, but my favorite shot comes as the camera slowly pushes in on Norman standing by the side of the swamp and listening in the dark as Sam calls out for him back at the motel. It’s chilling and perfectly engineered. Honestly, I could go on and on about the 1960 classic that inspired four sequels, a (failed) television show, a remake, another successful television show, the next generation of filmmakers (Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, Richard Franklin, Brad Anderson), and a perpetual mark on the genre, not to mention the permanent ruination of the sense of security one feels while taking a shower in a motel room…but we all know this already. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch, Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano improve the well written source material in every way. Stefano’s screenplay changes Norman Bates from a monstrous killer to a sympathetic figure, and Hitchcock had the forward-thinking idea of casting someone with charming, boy-next-door features instead of someone who more closely matched the unsightly, stocky, balding, and frustrated virgin present in the novel. Even the shower scene is a complete rebuilding, in which Marion Crane’s demise is limited to a few sentences: “Mary started to scream, and then the curtains parted further and a hand appeared, holding a butcher's knife. It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream. And her head.”

Loosely based on the 1952 short story by Daphne Du Maurier, Hitchcock’s adaption depicts a world being overtaken by angry hordes of birds, atypically flocking together in every species to wage an unexplained revenge against mankind – presumably for being the earth-raping assholes we always are. One of many folks caught in the swarm are Melanie (Tippi Hedren), who’s attempting to charm her way into the life of Mitch (Rod Taylor), who lives in an isolated coastal home. The attacks from the bloodthirsty birds increasingly mount until they find themselves trapped in Rod’s house and fending off the birds that manage to find their way in. Who will survive, and what will be pecked from them?

Truth be told, and in spite of its (deserved) reputation, The Birds is a mixed bag. As a youngin’ obsessed with JAWS and all the animals-run-amok films that it introduced me to, I used to consider The Birds my favorite Hitchcock film, but later viewings re-introduced me to a kind of silly film that’s actually at its best when the birds aren’t on screen (school playground scene notwithstanding, because that’s the kind of thing Hitchcock did so well). However, once the opticals of marauding flocks are overlain into the sky and birds both real and dummy are being thrown into Tippi Hedren’s face, it all seems pretty nonsensical. It’s also hard to mentally dismiss how much Hitchcock mistreated Hedren on set, which was the stuff of Hollywood legend for years before HBO’s The Girl made it mainstream knowledge in the earliest beginnings of the #MeToo movement.

Alfred Hitchcock is part of cinema history, taught in universities and film schools, still the subject of modern documentaries like the Psycho-deconstructing 78/52, and conjured in the modern descriptor “Hitchcockian.” The four films above are the top reasons why. Even if Hitchcock had directed four or four hundred films throughout his life, the merits alone of Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds would’ve been more than enough to secure his legacy. 

Mar 14, 2013

REACTION: BATES MOTEL


Like it or not, Bates Motel is back in business. Based on the four-film Psycho series beginning with Alfred Hitchcock's legendary original, itself based on the novel by Robert Bloch, Norman Bates is about to go off his rocker...again.

"Bates Motel" explores the early years with Norman (Freddie Highmore) and his domineering, over-protective mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga). After the untimely death of his father, mother and son pack up their car and head to the prime piece of California real estate Norma was able to buy at a steal. It's not long before the Bates begin to meet the locals...including one Keith Summers (W. Earl Brown), whose family had built and then subsequently owned the Bates' new property for generations, and is none too happy to see it under the care of outsiders. Couple this with the girls at school showing Norman a sudden interest, and Norma begins to feel like she is losing control. Her plan for a fresh start is threatened by the unhinged Keith and her control over Norman looks as if it's slipping.

This being a prequel to the prequel to the original Psycho, naturally the blood starts flowing...before Bates Motel checks in its first guest.

This was tried once before...in 1987 (between the third and fourth Psycho entries.) Starring Bud Cort and Tank Girl from Tank Girl, Bates Motel tried its hand as a pilot but ended up being a one-off TV movie due to audiences' sheer disinterest in the subject matter. In the movie, a fellow inmate from Norman's insane asylum (Cort) apparently inherits the former Bates Motel and accompanying house from his crazy friend and attempts to re-open it for business. Who knows why. Murders happen. Blood flows. Moses Gunn is there, having an awesome name. I guess other stuff. Attempts to watch the 58th generation VHS rip posted on Youtube is a Herculean task of patience, so I can't say I was ever able to sit through the whole thing.

But that's all moot, seeing as how "Bates Motel" is being tried again...only we're going back in time...to the present(?).

I chose to call this a "reaction" rather than a review because it's tough to review the very first chapter of what has been planned as an ongoing series. Not a miniseries, mind you, but an honest-to-gosh television show. We've barely scratched the surface of where the show-runners plan to go, so it's tough to pass judgment on what's essentially a nugget of an idea soon to materialize.

So, what was my reaction?


I was hesitant upon realizing the show was being set in modern times. It's strange to see a modern-day prequel to a film made - and which very much reeks of its year - in 1960. But already I can see what the show-runners are attempting: with Norma's collection of somewhat antiquated dresses, Norman's rather drab ensemble and outdated puffy haircut, and with all the very old house furnishings that came with the house, and which Norma claims they'll toss as soon as they can afford to get some other things (but will likely be sticking around), there is going to be more to this show than a fish-out-of-water, the boy-next-door-is-a-killer pulp tale. It's going to be the old culture clashing with the new. Hitchcock's original film played up the isolation of Norman and his mother, especially after "they moved away the highway." So since we're technically not at that point yet, we need to find another way to isolate the Bates - and if not geographically, than culturally. Oh, sure, Norman already has an iPhone upon moving to their new home (a mistake, if you ask me), but beyond his own mother, who also has one, who do you think he ever called with it? Because of this culture clash, I find the modern updating a little more forgivable  The Bates exist in the modern world, but in their own time. It's too early to tell how this will play out, but it's an interesting choice.

Vera Farmiga is one of her generation's most unfairly uncelebrated actresses. The Departed likely put her on the map, as well it should have, because she's great in the Boston-set crime piece, but she's been holding her own since and struggling somewhat to be re-recognized. She's certainly not a stranger to playing the mother of a somewhat...aloof child (see Joshua and Orphan), but this time she gets to show off her own brand of crazy. Not that we've yet to see any of this craziness per se - this is, after all, only the pilot episode - but something is there, simmering just under the surface. It's handled perfectly subtly, and Farmiga seems to be doing a good job of playing her role right down the middle - she's not all there, and you can somewhat tell, but we're not rooting against her yet (if we're ever meant to.)

The jury is still out on Freddie Highmore as Norman. He seems, at best, adequate for the time being. This might be the most high-profile project he's been a part of since 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That coupled with the jump to television has made the struggling thespian a little too willing to show off his chops. Some of it works, but some of it borders on embarrassment. Not helping him any is the sometimes awkward dialogue (ie, "There's a man on the floor lying in a lake of blood! What do we do, mother? We have no idea what to do!") 

Confessing my ignorance on details of the actual production, the show creators have either opted to film exteriors on the original Universal black lot to include the infamous house and motel, or they have done an admirable job of recreating it - including the house and motel interiors. Either way, good on them. The mere idea of updating the Bates house, forever sitting atop its perch, is blasphemous, and I'll definitely cop to some movie geek chills seeing the Bates house and motel again after all these years.

Oh, and for the record, does Norman seriously meet five gorgeous girls and is taken out for a night on the town by simply sitting on a bench and listening to classical music? The fuck?

Only in the world of make-believe...


Surprisingly, A&E seems to be going ahead with the suggestive incestuous undertones that were only alluded to in the original film, and which became more and more direct in each successive sequel. Nothing too obnoxious - at least so far - just a mixture of slightly unnatural mother/son closeness and a couple suggestive glances... although the soliloquy Norman delivers to his mother to close out the episode might blow the lid off my usage of "nothing too obnoxious."

And that is where my main point of contention comes into play: The relationship between Norman and his mother is essential - it is the driving force to both of their madnesses, and it will make or break how the show plays out moving forward. All during this pilot episode, Norman has made it a point to act out, defy his mother's wishes (and orders), and attempt to forge his own identity. He meets new people rather easily considering the show wants us to buy he is an outcast, and for the most part, the girls swoon to him like crazy (which will likely rile up the "jealous and angry boyfriend" character trope we've seen so many times before). And yet...after Norman experiences a taste of this new life, in which gorgeous girls give him the time of day and he effortlessly makes friends and nothing remotely traumatic happens to him...why does he just opt to leave it all behind for his mother? There's no catalyst - no clear reason why he does so. There's no reason present why this new life just isn't for him. Arcs like this hinge on a moment for a character to realize they were wrong to think they could leave it all behind, but we just never understand why Norman does, and it was a rather weak way for the episode to end.

So what would Alfred Hitchcock think?

Hitch, who is back in a big way recently with this, his titular bio pic, and his less than flattering portrayal as a misogynistic prick in HBO/BBC's The Girl, would appreciate the casting of Highmore - at least in theory. Like Anthony Perkins in the original, Highmore is a handsome if somewhat awkward looking kid; rather unassuming and harmless...at least on the surface. For anyone familiar with Robert Bloch's original novel (it's been ten years since I last read it), Norman Bates was not a primp, skinny, and handsome fellow, but rather described as fat and hideous - a man who no woman would ever consider a feasible partner in any sense. It was Hitch who decided to cast the handsome but plain Tony Perkins in the role, changing not just the character's face, but his dynamism and his drawing power. (As an aside, while the novel does contain a motel room shower murder, it's not dozens of stabs as depicted in the film's iconic scene, but just the one - in which Marion Crane is decapitated by Norman's blade.)

Additionally, citing one particular scene featuring a urinating cop, let's just say Hitch would appreciate the black humor as well, of which he was a master. From a director's standpoint, however, he would appreciate nothing. (Granted, we're in television, here - not film - but even "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" showed a little creative flair from time to time.) Nor would he appreciate the pilot hitting the ground running without taking time to build the Bates' madness. If anyone could milk the inevitable, it was him, and he would call the show's attempt to get right into it cheap and unsatisfying.

As a show free from its lineage and judged on its own merits, it's a decent first trek into scripted narrative for A&E. There's already enough ongoing drama to engage viewers not looking for growth to a previously established character, and there's enough grue to keep horror fans satiated, along with some not-so-subtle shout-outs (Coach Carpenter! Sheriff Romero!), and, of course, plenty of pretty faces. As for me, I'll tune in from time to time to see what's going on with Norman and his mother, but regardless of where they take this show, and regardless of how realistic or fantastic they make it, there's one thought that will always be looming in the back of my mind: Norman Bates' monologue to Marion Crane in the original film is all the back story we ever really needed - summed up neatly and effectively in just a matter of minutes. Because of that, I fear that "Bates Motel" was already irrelevant before the opening credits ever rolled.

Make up your own mind when "Bates Motel" premieres this Monday on A&E