Since the dawn of cinema, the horror genre has been present in the seventh art, however, only one film has managed to change the genre of horror forever, and establish itself as a masterpiece and as a cult phenomenon: Psycho (A. Hitchcock, 1960). Although at first the Americans did not give importance to this type of films and there was no genre tradition in their country, in Europe, some directors like Louis Feuidalle with films like Vampires (1915) and his series Fantômes (1913-1914), began to introduce topics of paranormal entities in their productions. Once the Hollywood industry was consolidated, its executives noticed the attraction that the public could feel for this type of films, and saw in the horror genre a new way of making money. In this way, Hollywood took as a basis the European horror films and resorted to literature classics of this genre to take them to the big screen.
As the genre increased in popularity, Universal Studios was the main producer of horror films. During the thirties, a whole series of monsters of a non-human nature arrived in cinemas. To mention just a few, I will quote Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932). They all had something in common: they were owners of supernatural forces that were manipulated to make people reflect on human vulnerability in the face of the unknown. Therefore, the opposition between good and evil was always present.
The classic horror cinema began to create its own generic iconography, composed of cemeteries, scientific laboratories, castles, blood, crosses, sarcophagi, etc. It was the first genre that managed to circumvent the guidelines of the Motion Picture Production Code by showing violence on the screen. Likewise, the genre was also a pioneer in promoting the production of sequels, although these films were increasingly commercial and less artistic, because they were aimed at a very specific target audience: teenagers.
In the 1950’s, new themes related to extraterrestrials appear, so the idea of a single monster's pursuit towards the protagonist, is lost. In turn, the desolate places were replaced by cornered cities. The War of the Worlds (1953) and The Thing of Another World (1951) are two of the most remembered movies of this time.
However, in 1960, the British director based in the United States, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, brought to the big screen a film that changed the history of the genre and that consequently closed the doors of the classic terror, and opened them to modern terror: Psycho.
The film shows the encounter between a fugitive secretary, Marion Crane (played by Janet Leight), who steals a significant amount of money from her boss, and the owner of a motel, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a lonely young man who has a stormy relationship with his mother. Psycho was considered exaggeratedly violent, explicit on a sexual level (Entertainment Weekly magazine has selected it as the seventh most terrifying movie of all time), and despite of that, or for that reason, it became an immediate blockbuster after collecting more than 50 million dollars in the world, according to the film specialised website IMDB.
In this masterpiece, Hitchcock highlights the cinematic suspense, term used today when the audience has more information than the protagonists themselves about what is going to happen or about those events that happened earlier in the story; in short, the viewer is given more importance than the characters in order create tension and suspense. One of the moments in which this Hitchcockian suspense can be clearly seen is in the well-known scene of Marion Crane's murder, the shower scene. Here, the director, with his point of view from inside the shower, shows us the shadow of someone approaching through the curtain, while the defenseless protagonist takes a relaxing shower without knowing that she will be savagely stabbed and killed. The contrast of visual perception and emotional impression is the key to that mythical and unforgettable moment.
That is the imprint of Psycho in modern terror, the shower scene is the hinge between classic terror and modern terror: because unlike classic cinema, at this moment, sex and mutilation are present on screen without any doubt or hesitation, in front of our own eyes. Through the use of montage in the scene, the homicide is dramatized, molded and spectacularized.
Much has already been said about Psycho and its influence in subsequent horror films. It was not only the first horror film that lacked fantastic-scientific or supernatural elements, but also the first psycho-killer of modern cinema made its debut: Norman Bates. One of the characteristic features of the famous filmmaker is that his characters are never completely good or bad; they are defined as being more psychologically complex, dual, with both positive and negative characteristics that make them more real. Norman Bates, is the possessor of a double personality that torments him: a submissive, helpful, sweet and somewhat shy man that contrasts with the obsessive, dominant, jealous and castrating personality of his mother. In order to convey the double personality of the protagonist, Hitchcock uses several visual resources, including the showing of the image of Bates reflected in mirrors or crystals (for example at minute 35 when he speaks to Marion for the first time about the emotional instability of his mother), as well as letting us see his face cut by a shadow (with one part clear and the other dark) in almost all his scenes, symbolizing the good and bad side of an individual. We can see this while Marion is checking in at the motel, when both characters are talking while she is having dinner or at the moment when Norman is going to spy on Marion through the hole in the wall.
Unlike classic terror, this time evil is embodied in the perversity of a person, so it is more real and tangible. From this point in history, films began to depict themes both more rugged and forbidden, and as a result of this, a new horror sub-genre was created: Slasher. Slasher films commonly involve a violent psychopath stalking and murdering a particular individual or a group of people, usually by the use of bladed tools. Well known slasher films include The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), the Halloween saga that began in 1978 and Friday the 13th (1980).
His influence in the industry has been as such, that even after more than five decades since its release, it is still considered a cult film, and his quotes, parodies, and/or rewritings flood without interruption all these years. Psycho had three sequels, a failed TV series and a remake. Almost all these continuations were carried out by Anthony Perkins, who remained linked forever to the tormented character of Norman Bates.
The modern horror cinema is full of psycho-killers, such as Michael Mayers, Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, Hannibal Lecter, etc.
Take for example Halloween (1978) by director John Carpenter, starring Jaime Lee Curtis. In both films a very similar situation is shown: the murder of a beautiful girl. The ferocious slashes suffered by the victims are linked to the desire for that same body. However, in the shower scene, Sir Alfred Hitchcock had already shown us (through the previous voyeurist scene carried out by Bates), the desire that this character felt towards Marion Crane was already a matrix that vertebrated the planning. On Halloween, on the other hand, the act of crime is born inarticulate, presented as a mere premise after which no desire or justification would have served as a motor. We do not know the motives or aspirations that led the murderer to commit his atrocity. This subgenre where serial killers or psychopaths are protagonists, focuses simply on the sensationalism of terror and seeks to frighten the spectator, create repulsion and raise the state of shock to the maximum.
But also the subsequent cinema era would undertake a task different from the Hitchcockian one: in the slasher films the decapitations, mutilations, blood baths, slashes and axes are significant, more than for their narrative function (really scarce), for the imperturbable decision of the camera to film them without bluntness, without concealment, without any recourse to metaphor or spectacularization. Like in Psycho or, even, because of Psycho, the camera is no longer removed from the scene, because modesty is from that moment on, impossible.
However, it is impossible to deny that from 1960, cinema, and especially the development of horror movies, suffered a stabbing, a metamorphosis of which there was no going back. Psycho and his famous director Alfred Hitchcock, marked a before and after in the exciting history of this film genre. Influencing hundreds of films around the world, both Hitchcock and Psycho have become compulsory references for academics, theorists or moviegoers and have changed the Hollywood industry.
Thus, for more than 40 years, this modest film, shot in black and white, with a budget of only 800 million dollars and without great pretensions, became an unprecedented success. Having produced and killed several generations, it has been the subject of analysis and study for millions of film students and has been a cult piece for millions of people, it has changed forever the way you execute and experience the horror genre.
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