x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Cutting edge: Psycho 50 years on

It was at the forefront of cinematic production 50 years ago. Today, we pull back the shower curtain to examine the horror classic.

It is arguably one of the most famous movies in the world and kick-started the slasher film genre. This week it is 50 years since Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho hit cinema screens and entered into cinematic legend, and it is still as terrifying and thrilling to behold as it was all those years ago. Most people are familiar with the story, which sees a young woman on the run, Marion (Janet Leigh), meet a grisly end after chancing upon an isolated motel and befriending the motel owner, Norman (Anthony Perkins).

Filmed towards the later stage of Hitchcock's career, Psycho remains (alongside Vertigo, North by Northwest and The Birds) one of his most acclaimed movies - despite initially receiving mixed reviews. Adapted from the novel from 1959 of the same name by Robert Bloch, the plot is loosely based on the events surrounding a real-life serial killer, the Wisconsin native Ed Gein. As well as inspiring the character of Norman Bates, Gein also influenced the making of several other noted horror films, including The Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Hitchcock, made aware of the book via one of his production assistants, acquired the rights for the novel despite lack of support from his backers, Paramount, who didn't think an adaptation would be a success. After much to-ing and fro-ing, Hitchcock eventually offered to personally finance the movie, as well as wave his $250,000 (Dh918,000) director's fee in exchange for 60 per cent ownership of the film's negative. It was an offer Paramount could not refuse.

Despite the studio deeming the book "too repulsive" to film (indeed several elements, such as the famous shower scene, were softened in Hitchcock's adaptation) the acclaimed director began production on November 11, 1959. Restrained by his tight budget - which came to just under $807,000 (Dh2,963,000) - Hitchcock played on his impressive reputation to hire his two main stars, Leigh and Perkins, for a fraction of their normal asking prices.

Filming was done in black-and-white partly to keep the budget in check. It was also felt that filming in black-and-white would prevent the shower scene from becoming too gory. The three-minute shower sequence, in which Marion is brutally murdered by an as-yet-unknown assailant, is undoubtedly one of the most famous scenes in movie history, and is still considered a groundbreaking cinematic feat.

Pivotal to the entire plot, the scene takes place just before the halfway point of the movie. Featuring 77 different camera angles, it took an entire week to shoot (such was Hitchcock's perfectionism) and famously employed chocolate syrup to create the realistic effect of dripping blood. It has been claimed that Leigh was kept unaware of the outcome of the scene, so as to make her reaction all the more authentic, but this is just one of many myths that were denied by both the star and director. Others include the fact that the knife is never actually seen coming into contact with Marion (on closer inspection there is one frame that clearly shows the knife puncturing her abdomen) and that ice-cold water was pumped from the shower in order to elicit a more realistic scream from the actress.

Regardless of the methods of filming, the scene would not be as highly regarded as it is today were it not for the accompanying score. Hitchcock initially wanted to film the sequence without any music, but relented thanks to the pleading of the film's composer, Bernard Herrmann, and added the composition into the final cut. So impressed was he with the outcome (the score was created by means of screeching violins, violas and cellos) that he almost doubled Herrmann's salary as a consequence.

Psycho, which reached cinema screens almost seven months after production first started, gave Alfred Hitchcock his biggest ever hit. It spawned two sequels, a prequel, a TV series pilot, and a colour scene- for-scene remake directed by Gus Van Sant. None was particularly well received. And 50 years later, the film has well and truly permeated pop culture and its influence can still be seen in many recent feature films and TV shows, from the killing-off of Drew Barrymore within the first 10 minutes of Scream (1996) to Principal Skinner's fraught relationship with his mother in The Simpsons. That's without mentioning the numerous films that have sampled or parodied Herrmann's score in one way or another. It looks like the Bates motel will be in business for many years to come.