Saturday, February 9, 2013

"Psycho" virgin

It’s sad no one can ever see Psycho for the first time.  Even those who actually do see it for the first time have been told to watch out for the shower scene.  They’ll think the music is an imitation of other slasher movies.  They’ll dislike that it’s in black and white.

My mother and I loved movies.  Even before I started going to school, she’d take me with her shopping and cap the day with a movie.  I knew enough to be quiet in the dark.  Once, when I was bored and fidgeting in church, she reprimanded me.  After church she said, “You can sit through Gone with the Wind but you can’t sit still through church?”  Yeah, well, mom.

We shared taste in movies, including Hitchcock’s movies.  We’d seen Vertigo and North by Northwest in the theater and Alfred Hitchcock Presents every week.  We’d seen Suspicion, Spellbound, Rebecca and on many others on TV.  We were well-versed in his movies, enjoyed him very much, and saw the preview.  Thus, we anxiously awaited the coming of Psycho to Lancaster.  

Movie publicity was different in 1960.  Reviews came out after the movie opened, not on opening day.  Even Time refrained from pre-opening reviews, which meant you waited until Monday or Tuesday to read about what opened the weekend before.  The Lancaster papers didn’t review movies.  In other words, aside from the preview, we didn’t know anything about Psycho when we entered the Capitol Theater on North Queen Street in Lancaster.

I was 13 in the summer of 1960.  Both Mother and I were actually quite excited to be among the first in Lancaster to see this latest Hitchcock movie.  The Capitol had a very long lobby which was full.  People leaving from the previous show looked stunned; some were laughing, but mostly they were in a trance.  As we entered the inner lobby, we were told the best remaining seats were in the balcony, so up we went.

After the usual pre-feature items, the black and white Paramount logo came up and it was time to settle in.  The music sounded odd and the opening credits felt nervous.  In the first scene, I could feel Mother become uncomfortable when Janet Leigh was in her bra and slip; I, on the other hand, was happy to see a shirtless John Gavin.

We thought it was fun that Hitch appeared early in the movie and we recognized his daughter as Marion’s co-worker.  Marion took the money and ran, so this was going to be about theft.  The scene with the cop waking her in the car and showing up at the used car lot cemented that idea.  I waited for her to meet up with Sam (especially if he was shirt-free again) and see what they’d do with the money.

Anthony Perkins seemed kind of weird and the stuffed birds gave me goose bumps.   The house on the hill behind the motel looked pretty spooky and Norman's mom sounded strange, so there might be some haunted house stuff.  I remember feeling uncomfortable when Norman spied on Marion in her room.  Dwelling on Marion taking a shower was maybe more than we needed to see, although the shot of the water coming out of the showerhead was pretty cool.  Then Mother Bates stepped into the bathroom and everything turned on its head. 

I don’t remember whether I screamed; I remember being scared and confused.  Nothing prepared me for that murder.  There were no slasher movies as such.  Although I went to horror movies with my friends, that was humans against monsters or ghouls.  When someone was stabbed in the movies, it was once in the gut, a little over-acting, no blood, fall down.  Suddenly, the star of the movie was naked in a motel shower being stabbed by Mother Bates with sounds of the knife and music I’d never heard before, and blood flowing down the drain.  And then the star was dead.  The entire experience was incredibly unsettling.  Nothing – nothing – set it up.   

The next shock took a little longer to register:  I found I was kind of rooting for Norman.  I wanted to tell him about the newspaper with the money and was surprisingly relieved when Norman took the paper and tossed it into the trunk with everything else.  And when the car paused sinking in the quicksand, I sympathized.

It truly became just a sit-back-and-let-it-happen movie after that sequence.  I knew I wasn’t going to second-guess Hitchcock.  And the pictures:  the overhead shot when Mother Bates rushed out of the bedroom and attacked Arbogast; following Lila around the house; jumping when she saw her reflection; the hands; freezing when she saw the body outline.

By the time Lila found Mother Bates in the fruit cellar, I was so into the movie I played right into it.  The unwigging of Mother/Norman did me in.  But Hitch still wasn’t done:  The dissolve from Mother Bates/Norman’s face to a skull was as memorable as anything.

Mother and I left stunned.  I didn't look at the people standing in line for the next showing.  I don’t know that Mother and I talked much on the way home.  Later in the year, the family took a trip to Florida and I found it incredibly difficult to take a shower in some of the motels we stayed in.

50 years later, when I know Psycho will be on TV, I cancel other plans so I can watch.  I will haul out the DVD just to savor it again.  I have no doubt that it is one of the most perfect movies ever.  I can be grateful about being one of the first to have seen it, but I am also sad that no one now can see it the way I experienced it in the balcony of the Capitol Theater on North Queen Street in downtown Lancaster.

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