Shot/Chaser: Returning to Hitchcock's Psycho
Editor's Note: As part of our Shot/Chaser series, we're following up new release reviews with recommendations for old movie pairings. Zach D’Amico’s review of Waves can be found here. Spoilers: This article contains spoilers for Psycho and Waves. Waves and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho have one very simple, very rare thing in common: both films bifurcate with a shocking twist that sends the narratives zigzagging in directions unknown and unexpected. But if you look beneath the surface, the two films – nearly 60 years between them – share a DNA that makes them uniquely thrilling and one-of-a-kind achievements in filmmaking. Let’s get the obvious out of the way. 59 years ago, Psycho broke all the rules of film by killing its main character halfway through the movie. After robbing her employer and taking off toward her lover in California, Marion Crane, played by an electric Janet Leigh, stops at the now-infamous Bates Motel. A dinner with the creepy proprietor Norman later, and Marion is murdered in her shower – seemingly by Norman’s overbearing mother. It’s both an abrupt stop and a propulsive catalyst for the film, much the way Ty’s arrest and conviction is for Waves. These are more than just clever, novel twists designed to shock – they are storytelling devices. In so many movies, audiences know exactly what will happen, and the intrigue lies only in how it happens, how the characters get to the ending we all know is likely to come. By thrusting audiences into the unknown, Psycho forces us to sit up a little straighter, shift a bit closer to the edges of our seats. By undermining our expectations, the movie demands our attention in a way few others do. In an era of incessant distractions, a re-watch of Psycho – or a first watch of Waves – is a refreshing antidote. But what makes Psycho truly special is what it does with that attention. Hitchcock is known as a master of suspense, but in Psycho he goes further, using his gifts to evoke permanent dread in his audience. The way he frames the Bates house looming above and beyond every doomed character who looks up at it; the overhead shots inside the home, including the famous stumble backward down the staircase; the omnipresent score; the echoing, haunting sound design – all of this takes a rapt audience and crushes them with trepidation, with a sense of foreboding. It’s an approach that Waves helmer Trey Edward Shults would mirror and build on six decades later. This visceral style of filmmaking comes with the added bonus of drawing viewers into the minds of the film’s characters. In Psycho, we feel the paranoia of Marion as she flees the life she betrayed, the relief-turned-confusion at finding the Bates Motel and meeting Norman, and the unease during her dinner with the maladjusted momma’s boy. Waves pulls off a similar feat, thrusting us into the ups-and-downs of Tyler Williams. But where Waves shifts that empathy to a second protagonist at the halfway point, Psycho instead pulls the rug out from underneath its audience, stripping us of any anchor, any reference point to hold onto. We’re left drowning, casting about for someone to know, to learn, to figure out what we already know has happened to Marion. Hitchcock makes his audience suffer; Shults gives his audience a catharsis. Both leave us trembling, showing us the power of cinema.