The 1960s contains a plethora of fantastic and revered horror films like Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Repulsion (1965); Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), and Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). However, horror films of the 1960s are a bit of a weak point in my fandom as I haven’t seen many of the great releases of this decade (or not great releases for that matter!). One film that I have seen, and have loved, for many years is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
Psycho was one of the first classic horror films I watched and recently I revisited it when author/feminist Sady Doyle did a mini-lecture before a screening of it. Sady Doyle has written about Psycho in her book Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy and the Fear of Female Power, where she delves into the two deeply developed/ingrained female archetypes in the horror genre— the dead blonde (Marion Crane) and the bad mother (Mrs. Bates). Albeit briefly, in the lecture (and in the book), Doyle talks of the division of women into these two types (“hot victims” and “castrating harpies”) and how this makes violence perpetrated by men virtually invisible.
The shower scene in Psycho is infamous both for horror and non-horror fans and the accompanying Bernard Herrmann score is iconic. The beautiful Janet Leigh elegantly played Marion Crane, our protagonist and a scandalous character of the era, alongside Anthony Perkins who is extraordinary in his portrayal of the disturbed Norman Bates. As well, the cinematography is brilliant.
Psycho speaks to the duality of human nature, sexuality, mental illness, and more. It sparked controversy due to taboo scenes of showing unwed lovers in bed together, a flushing toilet and our female protagonist, Marion, in a bra. Another controversial issue was the “gender-bending” aspect - the now problematic ending “diagnosis” of Norman Bates as a transvestite.
Psycho was based on Robert Bloch's 1959 novel of the same name and the character of Norman Bates is (very) loosely based on a known American ghoul, Ed Gein. Gein was a murderer of women, and a robber of graves! Both Gein and Bates had dominant mothers they were deeply bonded to (along with their mutual, obvious, mental conditions). I believe Psycho is an early example of a slasher film and it was a horror film that was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actress for Janet Leigh and Best Director for Alfred Hitchcock.
This choice for my monthly pick on 1960s horror might seem like a typical or “obvious” choice but Psycho is a classic film for good reason! It’s beautiful, spooky, weird and it was shocking for filmgoers of 1960, and I can definitely get behind that.