Saturday, October 27, 2012

Books on Film: Psycho

Halloween is almost here...but not yet. There's still time for one more horror-themed book on film, and for the last novel in the series I've picked the best of the best: Psycho. As far as villains go, the one in this story is the one I've always found to be the most terrifying.

The Book

That's right: Psycho was actually a book before it became possibly the most well-known slasher film of all time. It was written in 1959 by Robert Bloch, and it revolves around a man named Norman Bates. 

He runs a small motel just outside of Fairvale, and lives with his dominating mother. The state, unnamed, has moved the highway and the motel has been struggling ever since. They are arguing angrily about the general state of things when the young, lovely Mary Crane arrives at the motel to rent a room. 

She should've stuck to the highway. She's avoiding it because she's a fugitive. After deciding on a whim to take $40,000 from the real estate company where she works, Mary had to make a run for it. The money is for her boyfriend, who has a ton of debt, and it's going to help them get married. But the plan is looking less and less practical by the time she arrives, tired and hungry, at the motel. When Norman invites her to dinner, she accepts. 

This enrages Mrs. Bates, who seems to hate everyone, and Mary overhears the old woman screaming "I'll kill the bitch!" Still, Mary doesn't back down from her dinner date and she gently tries to draw Norman Bates out over the meal. She asks him about himself, and suggests that he might be happier if his mother was off somewhere receiving the proper kind of care she so clearly needs. Norman insists there's nothing really wrong with his mother, and observes that "we all go a little crazy sometimes."

By the time she goes to her room for the night, Mary has decided to return the money because she fears she may end up just like Norman. She steps into the shower to clean up before bed. It's the last thing she ever does. Minutes later, a figure that looks like an old woman savagely attacks her with a butcher knife. Mary winds up beheaded on the floor of the shower.

It's Norman's fate to discover her there. He toys with the idea of turning his mother in, or otherwise letting her pay for her crime, but ultimately finds he can't do it. He gets rid of the body, and everything at the motel goes back to business as usual.

But pretty young women and $40,000 don't disappear without somebody noticing. Mary has a sister named Lila, and she's not about to give her up so easily. She meets up with Mary's boyfriend Sam to track her down. A private detective named Arbogast, hired to trace the missing money, joins them because there's always power in numbers. Arbogast becomes suspicious when he questions Norman Bates, who says that Mary stayed the night at the motel and left, when Norman won't allow his mother to be questioned. 

Arbogast goes to the house, next to the motel, to question the old woman himself. The old woman ends up killing him, too, this time with a razor.

It's at this point that the twist ending is slowly, painstakingly revealed to end with a chilling scene at the police station. If by some miracle you don't know the plot of the story, I'll not to completely ruin it for you.

Two sequels were written, but neither had a great deal of success. The book did gain some notoriety when Alfred Hitchcock adapted it in 1960, but this is one book that has been outshined by its film version. When you put an amazing horror story in the hands of the greatest horror director, this is to be expected.


Hitchcock made a lot of strange decisions when he turned Psycho into a movie in 1960. He didn't allow advance screenings for critics, and decreed that no one would be admitted to theaters once the film began. He also decided to make it in black and white, though color was available and more popular at the time. 

It didn't matter. Psycho is still one of the best scary movies ever made, and if you haven't seen it then I implore you to do whatever you need to do to start watching it as soon as you're done with this post. Hitchcock's version has since been adapted and several sequels have followed, but the original is the best. How good is this movie? Janet Leigh, who was in the film for only the first forty minutes and appeared in a handful of scenes, won an Academy Award for her turn as Marion Crane (changed from Mary for the film). She became widely associated with the film and became one of the first "scream queens" on the big screen. She's also well-known for being Jamie Lee Curtis's mother.

Anthony Perkins chillingly plays Norman Bates, so well that he was typecast for the remainder of his career. The reviews were mixed, the box office numbers phenomenal. Psycho changed the face of horror movies, and the AFI lists it as number one for the best horror flick ever made.

They're probably right. The film is a very faithful adaptation of the book. It even lifts dialogue straight from the page to bring it to the screen. The shower scene where Janet Leigh dies is now the stuff of film legend. It spans more than 3 minutes and puts the viewer right in the killer's point of view, a technique Hitch was famous for using. The scene contains over 50 film cuts and maddening extreme close-ups that are designed to heighten the terror.

Hitch himself said that his film "came entirely" from the book. That's only mostly true. Read the book, watch the movie, and you will find some small differences.

What Got Adapted?

The book takes readers even deeper into the mind of Norman Bates, who doesn't look much at all like Anthony Perkins. On the page, he's a paunchy middle-aged man who wears glasses, a big difference from the slim, younger, passably attractive Perkins. It makes the character much scarier on film, I think, but it's much more clear in the novel that Norman is terrifyingly introverted and lonely. 

More of Mary Crane's thoughts are also revealed in the book, as are the secondary characters who enter the story a little later. Norman also drinks excessively in the book and maintains a collection of pornography, character traits that are erased on the big screen.

The murder scenes are actually more detailed in the film than the book, a surprising reversal. The author doesn't exactly skip over the murders, but he doesn't exactly depict them in clear, gory detail, either. There is more violence in the book. On film, Marion Crane's head is never severed. No way would the studio have let Hitch shoot a scene like that. So he cut the scene to pieces instead with quick edits, and rumor has it that he used chocolate sauce to create the blood. The sauce had the perfect consistency, and since the film was being shot in black and white anyway it didn't really matter if it was red or brown.

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