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Psycho Legacy, The (DVD Review)

18 Oct, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 10/19/10
Shout! Factory/Vivendi
$19.93 DVD
Not rated.

There are some people whose idea of a good time is to take a wave at the beach and then have some waiter bring them a zombie (that would be me). Then, there are the people who want to see a bunch of aging fanboys photographed in rooms, talking about Norman Bates. This said, there’s a pretty fair time to be had with writer/director Robert V. Galluzzo’s comprehensive documentary, which goes way beyond the original Psycho and its influence (monumental) to deal with the franchise’s other components (II, III and IV), which never get all that much airtime.

Making its presumably non-coincidental Blu-ray debut this week, the original Psycho celebrated its 50th anniversary this past summer. I remember the day it opened at the downtown 3,000-seater about half-an-hour away from my home. I had either just turned 13 or was about to, and my best friend (who’d already read the original Robert Bloch novel; boy, we were full of ourselves) joined me with two others to catch the first show at noon. At that point, my Hitchcock experience was Rear Window, his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, the director’s weekly CBS television show and his classic Richard Kiley nail-biter 4:00 for the NBC-TV anthology series Suspicion (in between all these, I had missed The Wrong Man and Vertigo). Of course, none of this was any preparation for what followed.

Psycho was the first Hollywood movie to show a woman in her underwear having something between a quickie and a long-ie with a married man during their lunchtime hotel tryst. The first to show a flushing toilet. The first to kill off the central character about 45 minutes into the movie, leaving us with no one with to identify other than Norm (thank you). Hitchcock shot the movie cheaply and hurriedly with his TV crew; it is his only feature from Strangers on a Train through Marnie that was not photographed by Robert Burks, who had won an Oscar for shooting To Catch a Thief.

Our reaction, no question, was that we’d just seen a hell of a show — but perhaps because I had seen only a few hundred movies by this time, it wasn’t until many years later that it really sunk in just how much of a mold-breaker Psycho was. Certainly, it raised the bar on psychological horror/suspense, just as (to my mind) The Night of the Hunter had five years earlier. It not only spurred countless imitators (there was even a sub-cheapie that followed a year later called Anatomy of a Psycho) but also three sequels that didn’t materialize for decades, all featuring lead Anthony Perkins.

There’s footage here — both in the documentary and the DVD’s bountiful extras — of Perkins at some festival or museum Q&A session being cheerful and funny about his Bates legacy, which had in many ways killed his career for anything beyond goofball roles. Up until this point, the actor had mostly been a romantic lead, often went by the chummier “Tony,” and had even recorded LP’s and singles for label-of-Elvis RCA Victor, scoring a No. 24 Billboard charter with Moonlight Swim. Just two months before Psycho came out, Perkins even played a college basketball star in Tall Story — in one  scene squeezed into the small shower of a house trailer with Jane Fonda in her screen debut. No more.

The better parts of this documentary have less to do with rhapsodizing fan opining and more with the decision of Perkins to take on an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”) attitude. A full 23 years after the original, producer Hilton A. Green (interviewed here  throughout) brainstormed Psycho II, which was directed by Australian Richard Franklin. Once Perkins signed on, it became a more important project, taking the strategic move not to try equaling the original at its own game but, in fact, presenting Norman (now judged legally sane after confinement since 1960) as a sympathetic character. Of course, in a way he always was; one never sensed that a homicidal maniac dressed in mom’s clothing was the way he envisioned the best Norman Bates that he could be.

Players you’ve heard of (Diana Scarwid, Jeff Fahey) and players you likely haven’t spin anecdotes about how much fun Perkins was on the set playing practical jokes and chumming up the crew — particularly on Psycho III, which he ended up directing. On the other hand, a couple key talents on Psycho II (screenwriter Tom Holland included) bring up how prickly he was with then newcomer Meg Tilly (not interviewed here) on II. And one gets the sense that Psycho IV director Mick Garris is possibly being diplomatic after the fact in terms of creative differences the two of them had, though apparently matters ended on an up note. This documentary has whetted my appetite to see or re-see the sequels, which Universal Home Entertainment packaged together on a 2007 DVD, available at minor cost on Amazon.com. I just ordered it.

The DVD extras include the entire 41-minute Q&A with Perkins; a tour of the exteriors (there aren’t many interiors) of the motel set, complete with a bloody mop outside room No. 1; and another one in the home of a collector who has an entire Psycho room in his house, including a standee of Perkins in his signature role and the “mother” prop from Psycho II, which he keeps in a coffin. Let’s go on a moonlight swim, honey, and then we can come back to my room.

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