Monday 30 September 2013

DOUBLE REVIEW: Psycho, by Robert Bloch (4*)

~ The Book ~

by Robert Bloch (Robert Hale, 2013)
My rating: 4 stars

"You're a Mamma's Boy.  That's what they called you, and that's what you were.  Were, are, and always will be.  A big, fat, overgrown Mamma's Boy!"

I didn't even know Psycho was originally a novel until very recently, but since I wanted to watch the film this year around Halloween I thought maybe I should bite the bullet and read the book as well!

By now most people know the basics - Norman Bates, lonely motel, a girl murdered in the shower, a psychotic mother - but it was interesting for me to go back to the original and fill in the gaps before I watched the now-iconic Hitchcock movie.  The rest of the story was new to me!  It opens with Mary Crane stealing forty thousand dollars and taking off, with the intention of passing it off as inheritance money and giving it to her fiance Sam, who has refused to get married until he has finish paying off his late father's debts.  Losing her way en route to Sam's town, she ends up at the Bates Motel, where she meets overweight, bookish Norman, who runs the motel and cares for his sick elderly mother despite her constant venomous nagging.  That night the supposedly infirm old woman, jealous of Norman's attraction to their pretty guest, kills Mary, sparking off a chain of events that will pull Norman deeper and deeper into darkness and put everyone Mary loves in danger too...

It's actually quite a gripping little novel despite its age - it was first published in 1959 - and if the twist wasn't now so famous it would have been even more effective as a thriller.  Of course, the film has now eclipsed it almost entirely, and in my mind I read the whole thing in that half-English-sounding posh movie-star American accent that is so ubiquitous in old black and white movies.  The psychology behind the villainy is quite fascinating - Norman seems to know quite a bit about it already - and Norman's inner monologues have a kind of intoxicating, brutal poetry to them as he rattles through his conflicting thoughts and emotions.  It was a quick read, but I'll definitely be keeping hold of it to reread again in the future.

Notable Quotables:
  • "Cold-blooded murder is one thing, but sickness is another.  You aren't really a murderer when you're sick in the head.  Anybody knows that."
  • ""It's all right," he said, wondering at the same time why there were no better words, why there never are any better words to answer fear and grief and loneliness."
  • "Funny, Sam told himself, how we take it for granted that we know all there is to know about another person just because we see them frequently or because of some strong emotional tie."
  • "I can't even hate Bates for what he did.  He must have suffered more than any of us.  In a way I can almost understand.  We're all not quite as sane as we pretend to be."

Source:  I ordered this book from Amazon UK.

~ The Film ~

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock,  starring Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh (1960)
My rating: 4.5 stars

I actually did a paper on Psycho at school for a creative writing practice exam... but I'd never seen it.  I watched it during my first week at university... but my friend talked all the way through it.  So really, I was coming to this first 'real' viewing of the movie as a kind of half-knowledgeable half-new spectator.  Which was probably the best way to be, because I knew what to look for but couldn't quite remember all the details!

So, let's start with Norman Bates.  In the book, he's in his thirties or early forties, overweight and homely, and in my head I imagined him as a kind of cross between Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons and Chris from Family Guy.

Not all that attractive, shall we say.  Aaaaand then there was the movie.  In the movie, Norman Bates is famously played by Anthony Perkins, who looks like this:
Yup, Norman Bates is cute.  I read that Hitchcock deliberately made the choice to cast a handsome guy in his twenties rather than stick to the description in the book, because he wanted viewers to genuinely sympathise with Norman and see him as a boy-next-door type.  I remember watching Psycho the first time (over the top of my friend's chatter, obviously), not knowing the storyline or the twist at all, and thinking Norman was a sweetheart.  This time, knowing about the murderous Mother and about Norman's psychosis, I STILL thought he was a sweetheart - even more so than the book, where he was a little more aggressive and kind of sad.  Aaaaaaand then this happened:

Yeah, that was the moment I stopped watching the film as a proper horror movie and I fell in love with Norman Bates.  Possibly this makes me as psychotic as he is.  :)

Of course, crushes aside, this is a GREAT film.  There are other changes besides the boyish charms of Anthony Perkins, but for me they only added to the movie.  Mary Crane becomes the now-famous Marian (a tiny and fairly pointless change, admittedly), and she gets more attention in the adaptation.  Her part in the story is lengthened and fleshed out, and in turn, the investigation being conducted by her sister Lila, fiance Sam and a private detective after her disappearance is shortened and sharpened (which not only keeps the pace up, but also renders Lila feistier and less whiny).  Hitchcock, though daring for his time, does actually tone down the violence of the book, in which Mary is beheaded, not just stabbed, but he keeps Norman's horrified response at a high pitch to retain the same suspense.  And Perkins IS fantastic, playing a much more sympathetic Norman Bates than the one Bloch wrote: a sweet shy man-boy whose mother has him well and truly under her thumb - in more ways than one.

What I really liked was the ending.  Lila's exploration of the house, particularly the slow panning around Norman's little room, with its small bed, gramophone and childhood toys - that of a boy who was never allowed to become a man - struck a sad note that helped set the tone for the revelations to come.  The famous 'Mrs Bates in the fruit cellar' moment was just as awful and just as tense in the film, even though I knew it was coming (and I DEFINITELY remembered that image from my previous semi-viewing), and Norman's frenzied arrival was that much more 'psychotic' and that much less 'weird guy who needs to get out more'.  The psychiatrist's concise explanation of everything that's happened (no spoilers, just in case!) has greater clarity than in the book, giving it more impact than Bloch's original.

Of course, this is pure Hitchcock, so there's plenty to appreciate in terms of the cinematography.  The camera zooms in through a window at giddy speed; the scenes in which Mother attacks her victims are shot in innovative and interesting ways; tense moments are lit creatively to add to the dramatic feel.  Admittedly, the now-famous 'Arbogast falling down the stairs' moment, then a pioneering piece of filmmaking, actually made me laugh out loud, it was so hilariously awful - but at the time, it would have been the height of special effects!  And the penultimate scene, with Mother's voiceover and Norman wrapped in his blanket, is made utterly memorable by the death's head imposed over his devious smile.  He may have been weird, but Hitchcock was a genius!

Happily I still have the three later Psycho films (NOT with the same director, but apparently still pretty good), plus two more Hitchcock movies (The Birds and my old favourite Rebecca) waiting on my R.I.P. shelf for October, so the fun isn't over yet!

~ The Verdict ~

To read or to watch?  That age-old book-lover's question.  Personally, I'd hedge my bets with this one and recommend that you just do both.  The book only took me about a day to read and does fill in some of Norman's internal confusion via those intriguing flights of thought - but the film is pure Hitchcock magic, beautifully made and with his own distinctive flavour apparent in every camera trick and lighting angle.  Also, the film has that smile, so... *scrolls back up for another look*  Yeah, both.  Do both.