Every now and then, we pause in awe of the people we’ve had the opportunity to spend time with. Doug Trumbull, John Kricfalusi, and Paul Verhoeven in earlier years, Armin Shimerman and Frank Oz more recently — now it’s Martin Landau’s turn, and we couldn’t be happier.
In an extended and wide-ranging interview, we got a chance to discuss the length and breadth of Martin’s career. In the course of talking about his roles in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, and his Oscar-winning portrayal of Bela Lugois in ED WOOD — and much, much more — Martin provides insights on the art of acting, shares anecdotes from the set, and talks about the sometimes seamy politics that drive the film industry. It is, all told, a fascinating exploration of the life of an actor — click on the player to hear the show.
Next vacation, break away to beautiful Bodega Bay, CA, where the welcome is warm, the sun is shining, and the gulls want to peck your eyes out. Don’t order the fried chicken.
With no new genre release in the theaters, the Spotlight gang takes a fiftieth anniversary look at Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic of nature in revolt (and psycho-sexual tension), THE BIRDS. Having all undergone the same, formative (some would say traumatic) childhood experience when the film debuted on broadcast TV back in the sixties, Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons return to one of Hitchcock’s most enigmatic works, placing the film into the context of his long and impressive career, discussing whether its impact still holds (short answer: Oh my God, yes), and trying to sort out its myriad puzzles. Board up the windows, block the fireplace, and click the player to hear the show.
It’s a funny ol’ thing: Guess the studios figured that after the tension of all those family reunions last week, audiences would need to vent some of that sublimated hostility. So this week, depending on where you live, you could spend time with a sadistic murderer with a penchant for elaborate death traps in THE COLLECTION, or with a sadistic murderer with a penchant for weeding out who’s been naughty and who’s been nice in the Xmas-themed SILENT NIGHT.
And if neither of those openings quite fit your taste, well, you’re probably not alone. So after quickly giving their impressions of this week’s two (relatively) big openings, Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons round up some more-desirable, and some less-desirable, holiday-themed horror films to feed your winter-depression-fueled blood lust. Among the titles discussed: GREMLINS, JACK FROST, BLACK CHRISTMAS, and the off-kilter Finnish film, RARE EXPORTS.
Then, Larry gives his quick impression of HITCHCOCK, and Dan briefly reviews the fanciful new Hong Kong martial arts film, DRAGON. Plus: What’s coming to theaters next week. Oh, who are we kidding? Nothing’s coming to theaters next week. Save up that energy for THE HOBBIT.
It’s the rare film that comes along and totally redefines the medium, but such a film is BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR. From its striking visual style to its Oscar-worthy performances to its dazzling special effects to its powerful, environmental subtext, this tale of a small, California town enduring the wrath of a vengeful Mother Nature — in the form of merciless attacks by flocks of deadly birds — is no mere light entertainment, but a truly life-changing experience, as immersive as AVATAR, as revolutionary as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
Andrea Lipinski and Kevin Lauderdale join Cinefantastique Online’s Dan Persons in a sober, critical analysis of this landmark film, analyzing how director James Nguyen has taken the lessons learned from his spiritual mentor — Alfred Hitchcock — and exceeded the master in every regard. Click on the player to hear the podcast, and discover how the pantheon of cinema greats — from Griffith to Scorsese; from Eisenstein to Kubrick — will soon have a new name added to its ranks.
All kinds of news prompt all kinds of discussion from this week’s panel: the rumored casting of Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock in a film about the making of PSYCHO gets theofantastique.com‘s John W. Morehead, CFQ’s Steve Biodrowski, and Dan Persons musing about what behind-the-scenes events could be dramatized in a film that aren’t already well-known; while elsewhere there’s a debate about the relative quality of THE LITTLE MERMAID as compared to BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Plus, John gives his impression of the Science Fiction episode of PIONEERS OF TELEVISION; Steve gives a rundown of ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE UNDEAD; while Dan unleashes his animeniac on DURARARA!! and SUMMER WARS.
One of the proudest moments in the history of Cinefantastique was the October 1986 publication of a double issue (Volume 16, Number 5) devoted to the making of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. The exhaustive and richly illustrated article was written by Stephen Rebello, who went on to publish an expanded version in book form, under the title of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of PSYCHO. This June, Open Road Media published a new kindle edition of the book. As part of their promotional efforts, they arranged for horror film buff and thriller novelist Kevin O’Brien (Vicious) to interview the PSYCHO expert about Hitchcock’s horror classic, which will no doubt be playing on countless television sets this Halloween weekend (not to mention a few revival houses around the country). With the horror holiday looming, Open Road Media offered us an opportunity to present the unabridged interview of one horror expert by another.
Kevin O’Brien: I first heard about Psycho in the early 1960s, when I was just a kid. My oldest sister was afraid of taking a shower if no one else was in the house because of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. So—I just had to find out more about this movie and see it. When did you first find out about Psycho? And do you remember what it was like when you saw it for the first time? Did you have any idea of what you were in for? Stephen Rebello: Well, Kevin, if your sister was one of the many who wouldn’t shower after seeing Psycho, Hitchcock would have advised: “Have her dry cleaned.” As for me, growing up in southeastern Massachusetts, I remember reading in the Boston newspapers these little “teasers” about how the famous director and TV personality Alfred Hitchcock was making this secretive, very different kind of movie. Not the kind of thing he usually did—a full-out shocker-type film. One of these items mentioned that Hitchcock had posted guards at the studio soundstage doors to keep out the prying eyes and ears of the curious. He swore the cast to secrecy about the plot. Well, my young imagination went into overdrive imagining what Hitchcock might be up to.
By the summer of 1960, though, I became obsessed when I saw for the first time the Psycho movie trailer. It played at the most mysterious movie theater around—a slightly eerie, faded, grand, and expansive old movie palace called the Durfee in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. If Norma Desmond had been a movie theater, this would have been it. Hitchcock taking us on a tour of this motel and scary old house made his movie seem strange, spooky, and grown up as hell; so did the constant TV and radio ads, also narrated by the grand old man himself. And the posters in the lobby, with that cracked, shattered yellow title lettering, Janet Leigh wearing a bra and slip, Anthony Perkins looking tense, a shirtless John Gavin and that tagline: A new—and altogether different—screen excitement. To me, it all spelled: hot stuff.
I wasn’t alone. Kids in my school were talking a lot about Psycho and, once the Legion of Decency forbid any good Catholic from seeing it, everyone wanted to see it. I lied, schemed, and cheated my way into the theater that first day. The place was packed and once Janet Leigh drove up to Bates Motel in the rain, you could feel dread building in this audience of mostly tough, working class, largely immigrant people. Once Leigh flushed the motel bathroom toilet—a first in an American movie!—then, disrobed and stepped into the shower, the theater sounded exactly like a kids’ horror movie matinee, even though it was filled with grownups, authority figures, friends of my parents, even one of my teachers.
They yelled like banshees. As the rest of the film went on, the audience talked to the screen and shouted out warnings to the characters. I saw one of my schoolteachers run up the aisle looking gray and nauseous. People were stunned after the shower murder, though. It was that staggering. And when Martin Balsam as the detective climbed the stairs of the Bates house and when Vera Miles tapped Mrs. Bates’s shoulder in the basement, the place went berserk. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since in a movie theater. The audience wasn’t self-conscious, faux-hip, or knowing. Nothing then was meta or ironic. The response was primal. Even though I was too young to understand half of Psycho the first time I saw it, it shook me. O’Brien:Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho is based on the Ed Gein case. Can you tell us about Ed Gein and his crimes? Rebello: As you have in some of your wonderful books, Robert Bloch took inspiration from the crimes of a real-life, deeply disturbing, and dangerous psychopath. Mr. Bloch, a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft, lived in Wisconsin in 1957, just miles from where police that year discovered almost unimaginable horrors at the dilapidated farm and house of Ed Gein, an unmarried, middle-aged loner who was known as an odd duck by pretty much everyone in his community. The police found the nude, headless, recently slaughtered body of a woman hanging by her heels in a shed. A human heart was in a coffee can on the stove. This unfortunate woman wasn’t Gein’s only female victim, as the search revealed. Gein’s various activities included dressing himself with female human remains, grave-robbing, cannibalism, necrophilia and, very likely, maternal incest. Mind you, this was a guy hired by his neighbors to babysit their little darlings. The case became a national sensation, even though many of the police findings were too sensational and twisted to be reported by the press in those days. Although Bloch claimed that even he didn’t know the grisly details, somehow his creation “Norman Bates” was uncannily like Gein in many ways. So, Gein—who appeared to be a meek, bland, slightly effeminate mama’s boy when he was actually the stuff of nightmares—inadvertently became one of Bloch’s inspirations for writing Psycho. O’Brien: How did Hitchcock stumble upon the book, Psycho, and why was he interested in making a “horror” movie? Rebello: Hitchcock had been making films since the 1920s and, by the forties, was pretty much acknowledged as the master architect of motion picture thrillers. By the fifties, he was beginning to feel particularly pigeon-holed in the suspense genre and was always relentlessly pursuing material that was different, unique, attention-getting. He drove his associates and agents insane trying to find things that would ignite his imagination. By 1959, several of his most successful films had been very expensive to make. He didn’t like that. The final straw was when he had lavished time, love, money, and preproduction on a film to star Audrey Hepburn and Laurence Harvey that he had to cancel for various reasons. That was a terrible blow, and that project could have been one of the great Hitchcock films. In a state of agitated frustration, the novel Psycho came to his attention because of an intriguing New York Times review by the respected novelist and critic Anthony Boucher. The book, generally, won strong reviews. Hitchcock had noticed how low-budget, non-star horror movies were making a killing by attracting the younger audiences he was after. Psycho fit in with his idea of trying something bolder, more contemporary, and with economy of scale. He began talking about horror movies with his associates and asking, “What if someone good were to make a horror movie?” But he was one of the few who saw merit in Psycho; many of his associates warned him against making Psycho. They thought it was beneath him. O’Brien: In the book, Mary Crain (Marion in the movie) isn’t stabbed in that fatal shower. And Norman Bates is not nearly as handsome and charming as Tony Perkins. Can you explain some of these alterations and any other differences between the book and the movie?
Rebello: But she is killed in the shower in the novel. In fact, Hitchcock told many people that he was most attracted by Bloch’s notion of a murder coming out of the blue in an everyday, confined setting—the shower, where we feel relaxed and complacent but where we’re utterly vulnerable. Hitchcock was thrilled with the idea of shocking audiences by casting a major star as the heroine and killing her off so early in the picture. That violated every Hollywood rule. Bloch’s heroine has her head cut off in the shower, not exactly the kind of thing that even Hitchcock could have gotten away with, even if he had been tempted. Bates in the novel is middle-aged, pudgy, alcoholic, brooding, unattractive, repugnant. He also has extensive conversations with his mother, which would have been fatal and a cheat on film. Casting Anthony Perkins was a lucky masterstroke; he’s as charming, attractive, sad, perverse, and lethal as earlier Hitchcock killers like the one Joseph Cotten played in Shadow of a Doubt and Robert Walker played in Strangers on a Train. Perkins had already worked with top directors like William Wyler, Anthony Mann, and Stanley Kramer, and Paramount had spent lots of money promoting him as a successor to the late James Dean or comparing him to the young James Stewart or Henry Fonda. Although he had become a teen idol and even made some hit records, things hadn’t quite clicked and, at the time, Perkins felt typecast and owed Paramount a movie. Hitchcock could hire him inexpensively. It was a perfect storm. O’Brien: How did screenwriter Joseph Stefano get involved in the movie? Rebello: Hitchcock had thrown away an earlier draft by James Cavanaugh, a talented young TV writer known for scripts for the series Suspense and Playhouse 90; what got him the Psycho adaptation assignment was his teleplay for the famous 1959 Alfred Hitchcock Presents entry Arthur,in which Hitchcock himself directed Laurence Harvey as a murderous young chicken farmer. No one liked Cavanaugh’s adaptation of Psycho, though, and Hitchcock’s powerful and much-feared agent Lew Wasserman made the case for Joseph Stefano. Hitchcock was amused by Stefano—a talented, offbeat former dancer, singer, and songwriter who regaled and fascinated Hitchcock with intimate revelations from his psychotherapy sessions. They made quite a pair.
O’Brien: I hear Anthony Perkins was Hitchcock’s first choice for Norman Bates. What about the other roles? I hear Eva Marie Saint, Shirley Jones, Carolyn Jones, Stuart Whitman, and Brian Keith were in the running for other major roles. Could you tell us some more about the casting—and who else was in the running? Rebello: Perkins was pretty much “locked” for Norman Bates, but there were brief discussions about Dean Stockwell, Roddy McDowall, Laurence Harvey, and others. Hitchcock wanted the biggest star possible for the female leading role. Hitchcock associates and top talent agents suggested such stars, appropriate or not, as Lana Turner, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Maureen O’Sullivan, and more. For the heroine’s sister, there was talk of Shirley Jones, Dolores Hart, and Diane Varsi, and for Sam, Marion’s boyfriend, Robert Loggia, Stuart Whitman, Brian Keith, Richard Basehart, and Leslie Nielsen were among those in the running. O’Brien: I spotted the Psycho house in an Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode, “The Unlocked Window.” How did they come up with that creepy house, and was it in any other films/TV shows? Rebello: After many discussions with Hitchcock about what he did and didn’t want, art directors Robert Clatworthy and Joseph Hurley designed the house and built it on the Universal backlot, clearly referencing Victorian architecture as typified by Edward Hopper’s haunting 1925 painting House by the Railroad. The art directors appropriated architectural pieces from other standing sets on the Universal backlot, including the house from Harvey. Originally, they built only the front and side of the house because those were all Hitchcock needed to shoot. After Psycho, the house got altered but remained as a standing set and can be seen in several episodes of the Boris Karloff–hosted anthology TV series Thriller,in the Western shows Wagon Train and Laramie,in such feature films as Invitation to a Gunfighter, and, yes, in the Psycho-esque “An Unlocked Window,”among many, many other TV episodes and films. O’Brien: Why did Hitchcock use his TV show crew to shoot the film (instead of his usual cinematographer, Robert Burks)? And why did he shoot it in black and white? Rebello: After becoming so well known in the fifties for his big-star, big-budget Technicolor films, Hitchcock tackled Psycho as something of an “experiment” but also a throwback. He loved referring to it as his “30-day picture” and, just as he did in his early filmmaking days in England, he wanted to try new things while keeping the budget low, at around $800,000. One way of accomplishing this was to work with his trusted TV crewmembers, who were accustomed to working fast and with great skill. In those days, the decision to film in color versus black and white could be as much an artistic decision as a financial one. Black and white was as ideal for Psycho as it was for such other movies of the sixties as The Apartment, Anatomy of a Murder, To Kill a Mockingbird, Days of Wine and Roses, Hud, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, Cape Fear, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Haunting, In Cold Blood,and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. O’Brien: Is it true that Janet Leigh gave John Gavin “a helping hand” during their love scene?
Rebello: That’s what the gifted, very classy, and discreet Janet Leigh said, blushing as she did. Hitchcock and the charming, thoroughly professional Janet Leigh got along beautifully, but somehow he wasn’t especially happy with what he was getting out of John Gavin. He wanted passion, sexuality, heat, and he seemed to feel Mr. Gavin was self-conscious and uncomfortable. Hitchcock apparently took Ms. Leigh aside and asked her to take . . . matters . . . into her own hands. Mr. Gavin responded. What a pair of troupers. O’Brien: Rumors have flown that title designer, Saul Bass, filmed the shower scene. Can you put those rumors to rest? Rebello: Well, Kevin, those rumors flew but they’ve long since crash-landed. There is no underestimating Mr. Bass’s extraordinary gifts as an artist, but too many key people who were on the set have vehemently denied his assertions. I doubt anyone takes the claim seriously anymore—if they ever did. Saul Bass’s contributions to the movie—his visual concepts for the shower sequence and the Arbogast murder on the stairs, the test footage of the shower sequence that he shot using a nude stand-in—are indelible. Let’s remember that Saul Bass provided Hitchcock with a powerful and evocative roadmap for how to film and edit the shower sequence in an era in which extreme violence and nudity could only be suggested but not shown. But let’s also remember that Hitchcock, Robert Bloch, Joseph Stefano, especially Janet Leigh, film editor George Tomasini, and composer Bernard Herrmann are the stars and authors of that now-iconic scene. O’Brien: Any interesting stories about filming the famous shower scene? Rebello: Here are some things that did and didn’t happen during the filming of the shower scene. It was not shot by a Japanese crew. Not a frame of it was filmed in color. Janet Leigh shot the scene virtually nude, which was very brave and completely unheard-of for American movie stars in those days. Hitchcock also hired a nude model to shoot the entire sequence just in case Janet Leigh’s modesty made her guard her body and ruin the shot. That model, Marli Renfro, is definitely visible in the overhead shots. Hitchcock in his elegant dark blue suit and tie would often be seen chatting about wine, travel, and dirty jokes while Marli Renfro sat next to him, completely naked. Male crewmembers on the closed set hung from the rafters to get a better view of Janet Leigh; such a frank, bold scene was unheard of at the time. It was quite an engineering feat to make certain Ms. Leigh had sufficient warm water for the entire length of filming. So, no, Hitchcock did not douse her with cold water to elicit her screams—a silly rumor that undercuts what a skilled actress Janet Leigh was.
Anthony Perkins was not used in the scene in any way; he was already in rehearsals for a Frank Loesser musical on Broadway. Hitchcock wanted to spare Perkins any discomfort or embarrassment and, besides, Perkins had such a distinctive body type that he would have been recognized immediately by audiences. “Mother” was played in the scene by stuntwoman Margo Epper, whose face was blacked-out with makeup to conceal her identity. The sound of the knife stabbing flesh was accomplished by stabbing a casaba melon and also a slab of meat. O’Brien: Is it true that Hitchcock didn’t want music to accompany the shower scene? Can you tell us about Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to the film? Rebello: Hitchcock was out to break a lot of new ground this time. That included his wanting Psycho to look, feel, and sound unlike his elegant suspense movies like The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest, or Vertigo, with their romantic, haunting symphonic scores by Bernard Herrmann. Hitchcock dictated precise notes for sound effects and music for his films; for Psycho, he was after a downbeat, cool, strange jazz score perhaps similar to those director Otto Preminger had from Elmer Bernstein for The Man with the Golden Arm and from Duke Ellington on Anatomy of a Murder. He smelled change in the air, the coming of a new, franker, more violent era, and he wanted the film to be modern, to appeal to a new audience. For the shower murder, he was adamant that audiences would hear only the sound of the water, the heroine’s screams and the sounds of the knife ravaging her body. Tough, savage stuff. He resisted Herrmann’s idea of an all-string score and screaming violins but, once he heard the great composer’s work for the shower scene, he apologized—in his own way, that is—by admitting of his no-music dictate, “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion.” O’Brien: I’ve seen a few seconds of Janet Leigh actually taking off her bra during that scene in which Tony Perkins spies on her through a peephole. But this didn’t make the US version of the film (check the special features of the DVD). How much trouble did Hitchcock encounter with the censors? Rebello: Hitchcock had been challenging and tweaking the hypocrisy of censorship from the beginnings of his career. He threw down the gauntlet with Psycho, deliberately upping the ante with suggestive situations, exposed flesh, provocative themes, imagery, and subtext. When Paramount submitted the screenplay to the censors for review, as all major films had to in those days, their decision came back that Hitchcock was skating on extremely thin ice. They demanded less frank dialogue and lots of changes, for instance, in the way he proposed to film such things as the opening sequence with Janet Leigh and John Gavin shacked up in the hotel during her lunch break, the shower sequence, and more. The censors were especially infuriated about suggestions of incest between Bates and his mother. Hitchcock mostly ignored their restrictions and made the film he wanted to make, with some concessions. On the whole, he played the game brilliantly—deliberately inserting things in the script that he knew he wouldn’t get away with but that would distract the censors from things he was willing to fight for. When the censorship board demanded that he recut the shower scene, for instance, he didn’t touch a foot of the film; they didn’t notice. In the end, the censors weren’t a match for him. But make no mistake—this was a major battle. They could have stopped the movie from being released. Hitchcock didn’t get away with everything, though. He wanted Janet Leigh bra-less in the film’s opening, her breasts brushing John Gavin’s bare chest. O’Brien: Is it true that Hitchcock didn’t have much confidence in Psycho when he viewed the finished product for the first time? Rebello: The early cast and crew private screening did not go particularly well, although that’s hardly unusual in Hollywood. The film apparently played flat, unexciting; it lacked tension. Hitchcock secretly always held the view that if the film really didn’t work, he’d edit it to an hour and show it on television. A later screening for close associates—this time edited more tightly and accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s score—played much better.
Many people today don’t realize that even more effort and planning went into the scene of the private detective being killed than the heroine’s. It was the stabbing of the detective that brought the early audience right out of their seats with terror. As you know, Kevin, Hitchcock didn’t hold any sneak preview screenings for the public, and there weren’t even advance screenings for the press. Some say that Hitchcock wanted to keep the film’s revelations a complete surprise. Others argue that Hitchcock was unconvinced that Psycho was up to his usual standard and that he wanted to do preemptive damage control. To anyone who questioned him, he’d just shrug it off and say, “It’s only a movie.” Even his personal production assistant tried to calm down people on the set who were worried that Hitchcock was going too far: “Don’t worry. He’s already planning the next movie in his head.” O’Brien: “No one will be admitted into the theater after the start of the film.” Can you explain this mandate and other marketing strategies Hitchcock used? Rebello: In those days, the price of a movie ticket bought you not only a feature film, but also newsreels, short subjects, previews of coming attractions, and a second feature film. People would drift in and out of theaters as their interests and schedules permitted. That’s how the old expression originated: “This is where I came in.” Psycho helped change all that. Hitchcock was a master showman and, taking a cue from the publicity campaign for the superb French film Les Diaboliques, he created the aura of an “event” around Psycho.
He made himself the star and centerpiece of the movie’s advertising campaign. At the first-run engagements of Psycho, theater owners were instructed to hire uniformed guards to stand outside theaters to prevent audiences from trying to enter the movie house once the film had begun. Great publicity! Life-sized cardboard cutouts of Hitchcock stood in the lobby, and recorded messages from Hitchcock informed ticket-buyers of the reasons behind his unusual admissions policy and also hyped them to expect to be terrified and stunned. At one showing, audiences waiting to get in were wrapped around the block and, when it started to rain and they wouldn’t leave, Hitchcock was contacted by the theater manager and asked what to do. “Buy them umbrellas,” he said. Before the era of Facebook, Twitter, spoilers, and text messages, audiences loved being surprised and loved the chance to feel that they were part of the ritual that seeing Psycho turned out to be. O’Brien: What was the public and critical reaction to Psycho when it was first released? Rebello: American critics gave the film mixed to negative reviews—“a blot on an honorable career” as one called it. Hitchcock himself speculated that he’d put critics’ noses out of joint by refusing to invite them to the usual free advance screenings. Critics actually had to suffer the terrible indignity of having to pay to see the film along with the rest of us—the great, unwashed public. On the other hand, the public response to the movie was phenomenal. Audiences lined up around the block for the very first showings and the film was held over for weeks and weeks in many theaters. Psycho was a cultural phenomenon, the kind of movie that you’d hear people talking about at grocery stores, post offices, everywhere. Interestingly, when the movie turned out to cause a sensation, some of the same critics who panned it suddenly got religion and named it on their end-of-the-year “best lists.” The public “got” Psycho—or, as Hitchcock put it, “went Psycho”—long before the critics did. Over the years, of course, the movie has been acclaimed as a masterpiece. O’Brien: I couldn’t wait to see Psycho when it was set for its TV premiere on The CBS Friday Night Movies in September 1966. But something happened in Kenilworth, Illinois (one town away from where I lived at the time), that caused the TV premiere of Psycho to be canceled. Can you explain? Rebello: CBS pulled that network premiere after the September 18th murder of twenty-one-year-old Valerie Percy, who was brutally killed with a hammer and a knife by an unknown assailant in the family home she shared with her twin sister, her mother, and her father, then US Senator Charles H. Percy. You may remember that there was a big international investigation and a $50,000 reward but Ms. Percy’s murder remains an unsolved crime to this day. The film was rescheduled, but pulled again after the tragic fire on the Apollo space mission. In the end, the movie never had a network TV showing. Hitchcock took considerable heat from the press about his “responsibility” in contributing to what some called “the American cult of violence.” When a young man on death row said that he killed his most recent victim after seeing Psycho, Hitchcock said, “He had killed two other women before, so when the press called and asked if I had any comment, I said, “Yes. I want to know the names of the movies he saw before he killed the other two, or did he kill the first one after drinking a glass of milk?” O’Brien: Finally, can you tell us why you think Psycho continues to scare us and influence so many other thrillers—fifty years later? Rebello:Psycho continues to scare audiences and inspire filmmakers because the story works, the characters resonate, the dialogue is full of dark little gems, the imagery is stunning, and the mood, subtext—the film’s dark underneath—is troubling, primal, and universal. As directed by Hitchcock, it’s a one-of-a-kind collision of sexy soap opera, crime thriller, old dark house Gothic, black comedy, tragedy, and psychosexual mind warp.
For some, it is a perfectly enjoyable, enthralling, well-made “movie-movie,” yet it also works on deeper subconscious levels in subversive and masterful ways. No wonder we’re still enjoying Psycho, analyzing it, having nightmares about it, quoting it, parodying it, being influenced by it. And here I’ve gotten the privilege of talking with you about it, Kevin, while, later today, I go back to my involvement in preparations for a major feature film set against the making of Psycho that will begin production early next year. Somewhere, Hitchcock is having the last laugh at all those who warned him not to make Psycho. It wasn’t “only a movie,” was it? O’Brien: Thank you for your time, Stephen! It’s a thrill and an honor to talk with you. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho is one of my all-time favorite film books. Rebello: The thrill and honor are also mine, Kevin. Next time, I get to interview you, and we can start with one of my favorites, Vicious.
I come from a generation of fantastic film fans who wanted a greater depth of knowledge about the films we loved. This moved beyond knowing who the actors and even the directors were. We knew about the special effects technicians, the make up artists, the matte painters, the model makers, stop-motion animators, and even who composed the scores. Some of my favorites included Bernard Herrmann, James Bernard, Jerry Goldsmith, and of course John Williams. A few moments reflection on the movie going experience, especially in regards to the horror genre, reveals how important music is. Some of the more noteworthy examples are the shower scene in PSYCHO, the main theme for JAWS, and the memorable music for John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. Unfortunately, while the images of horror have been the focus of much critical and academic discussion, little attention has been paid to the music. Addressing this deficit, Neil Lerner has edited the book Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear (Routledge, 2010). Lerner is Professor of Music at Davidson College, where he teaches courses in music as well as film and media studies. His work on film music has been published in numerous journals, essay collections, and encyclopedias. Lerner discusses horror film music in this special interview for Cinefantastique Online. John Morehead: Neil, thank you for being willing to discuss your book here. Can you begin by sharing a little of your background in music, and why, on a personal level, you chose horror as the genre of film for analysis in terms of music’s significance and impact?
Neil Lerner: First of all, I want to you thank you and Cinefantastique for your interest in this work. As a longtime fan of Cinefantastique, it’s a great honor to get to discuss these things with you.
My professional background is as a musicologist, and my dissertation studied music in some U.S. government documentary films. At the time I started working on my dissertation, there were only a handful of music scholars who were taking film music seriously. So that’s partly why I went with these documentary film scores, by established concert hall composers like Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland: because they were in many ways safer to the academy. It was also a case where I was confident I could get to the relevant archival material, like score manuscripts and production papers, something that’s still not easy to do with Hollywood scores.
One question that I found myself drawn to throughout that research on documentary scores was whether or not a composer could do more experimental things in a score for a documentary than in a Hollywood fictional narrative. I actually found several instances where composers could push the compositional envelope in a documentary film score—like using extended dissonances, or writing fugues, things that didn’t happen too much in Hollywood’s mainstream scores—and that question of where and how modernist strategies enter into film music continues to interest me.
Finally, I’ve always been a fan of horror films, but I started studying film more seriously in college, which, believe it or not, was at Transylvania University. I had one particularly brilliant professor there who took great pleasure in talking about vampire films in his film courses, and his intellectual curiosity was contagious. In many ways, then, I’ve been on a crash course with this topic. John Morehead: Can you sketch how music developed in terms of its inclusion in the horror film? Viewers take its presence for granted in contemporary cinema, but may forget that there was a process of development as it was included in film, and in horror as well, beyond the jump from silent films to sound. Neil Lerner: I think studying music in horror films brings with it the same challenges as in other genres in that transitional period between “silent” and sound film: composers had multiple strategies for dealing with different kinds of dramatic situations; it’s often difficult or impossible to reconstruct with certainty what early musicians did (in cases of live accompaniment); and it’s too easy to over-generalize based on just a few examples. There’s still a good deal of basic research to be done in trying to map out just what was done in horror films in the 1920s, but we have some important clues in a book like Ernö Rapée’s Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures (1925), which lists all kinds of categories and topics that musicians accompanying film could have used. That book doesn’t have notated music, but rather it has lists of possible pieces that would fit each topic, giving us now an idea of what music was considered appropriate (at least according to Rapée) for different genres. If you look up “horror” in the Rapée, it directs you to the topics of “gruesome” and “outcry,” which themselves then direct out to other categories like “dwarfs, ghosts, spooks, and mysteriosos” (for “gruesome”) or to “dramatic” in the case of “outcry.” It ends up suggesting quite a wide spectrum of music that was available to someone accompanying a scary scene, but certain basic ideas tend to surface over and over again in these pieces, and these are things that aren’t unique to music for horror film, but rather things that fall in a much longer tradition of ways that composers could create a sense of fear or dread: extended unresolved dissonances, surprising bursts of sound, unfamiliar timbres, etc.
I do think Robert Spadoni’s recent book on horror film and the transition into the sound era makes a strong case for the significance of the sound track and how it could make films more horrific. The success of horror films coming out of Hollywood (starting in 1931) really does overlap in interesting ways with the coming of synchronized, recorded sound to the cinematic experience.
John Morehead: Your book begins appropriately with a consideration of the organ in CARNIVAL OF SOULS in a chapter by Julie Brown, with a comparison of the same instrument in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. Was this the first major instrument to be used in horror films, and how significant is it in associations with the genre today? Neil Lerner: I don’t know if we can say that it was the first major instrument of horror films, just because I’m not certain we know enough yet about music in horror film in the 1920s, but Julie Brown’s work makes a compelling case for why the organ would recur so much in horror films. Namely, the instrument’s connections with certain kinds of religious spaces as well as its associations with funerals are all rich things to explore in a genre (horror) that probes at our sublimated anxieties. The tradition of the baroque organ is one where its huge sound was supposed to overpower its listener through sheer volume and acoustic weight, in ways that Robert Walser has compared with heavy metal music (and how heavy metal music works in horror films, when it starts to appear, etc., is another topic that needs work).
The film that I researched for the book, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931), makes the organ a central icon connected with Henry Jekyll, adding a musical dimension that doesn’t occur in Stevenson’s novella. I believe it’s there to provide a quick and efficient clue to Jekyll’s character: he has a certain level of wealth and high culture sophistication in that he plays Bach organ works for pleasure at his home, and it also suggests something of Jekyll’s piety and goodness (towards the end of the film he cries out to God).
Yet there’s another component to Jekyll’s organ playing that I explore in my essay, and that’s the possibility that Rouben Mamoulian’s conception of Jekyll & Hyde might set the entire narrative up as a dream occurring in the midst of Jekyll’s organ playing. The film opens with Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, a piece that recurs in the middle of the film—with some of the middle of the organ piece—and then the film closes with the final measures of the organ work. I know it’s a fairly radical way to read the film, but I found some other clues in the literary references that I believe at least complicate some of our assumptions about that film and how it works. John Morehead: Of course, PSYCHO is perhaps the horror film most associated with striking music, as in the infamous shower scene. In the interesting chapter on this film, Ross Fenimore connects the film’s “aural fragments” of imagined and real voices with the musical “screams” of Marion’s (Janet Leigh) death as she is stabbed in the shower. Most viewers are familiar with the significance of Bernard Herrmann’s score to the film, but may not have connected this as part of a bigger aural whole that paints a picture of terror. How do these elements come together under the direction of Hitchcock? Neil Lerner: I agree with you that the shower scene music from PSYCHO has become an iconic example of horror music, but I’d extend it even further, to say that it’s become one of the most iconic examples of all film music. Ross Fenimore’s essay raises some important questions about the music and to whom it might be connected (to Marion? to Norman? to Mother? to someone else?), which becomes really interesting when you start to factor in the film’s trickery in regards to connecting voices to characters.
I don’t know, however, how much credit should go to Hitchcock’s direction. I mean no disrespect to Hitchcock here, but I think it’s important to remember that Hitchcock originally wanted that shower scene to have only natural sound effects (like shower and knife sounds) without music. Herrmann lobbied to put music into it, and Hitchcock acquiesced, but Herrmann probably paid a heavy price later with Hitchcock for upstaging his director with a better idea. Herrmann’s score here is just brilliant; he was a composer at the peak of his powers, creating music that continues to yield new readings and interpretations. It’s just so marvelously simple and effective in its blend of extended, unresolved dissonances (major sevenths and minor seconds), descending registral gestures (moving from high to low), and repetition. Plus there’s the effect of having the string instruments play the quick portamento, the sliding up on the string, which creates a terrible ripping or tearing effect; it fills in the blanks of what’s happening because visually, we never actually see the knife ripping through flesh, but aurally, we get a clear idea of what’s happening. John Morehead: As a long-time horror fan I should have been aware of this, but it was not until I read Music in the Horror Film, and Claire Sisco King’s chapter on music in THE EXORCIST, that I realized that the film includes an unconventional approach to musical scoring at the insistence of director William Friedkin. Why did he approach music in the film in this way, and how is this reflective of cultural anxieties of the time as well as the film’s narrative? Neil Lerner: It’s hard to try and get inside a director’s head, but Claire Sisco King does a fabulous job of collecting all sorts of evidence from the production of the film, thereby giving us clues to what might have been motivating him. I was struck at Friedkin’s resistance to thinking of THE EXORCIST as a horror film, because it reminded me of Rouben Mamoulian’s similar remarks about DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. I have a hunch both of these directors might have felt that horror as a genre was perhaps too undignified for the kinds of larger ideas they were addressing, and appropriately enough, both of them ended up transforming and complicating the genre in pretty important ways. Friedkin was motivated by a kind of documentary impulse in THE EXORCIST, and Claire Sisco King argues how this probably led to the unconventional musical choices he made. She then goes on to read the music in relation to the larger cultural anxiety of a widely perceived crisis of masculinity. I think her essay can help viewers to see THE EXORCIST in a new and different way—note the visual metaphors here, it’s just tough to escape them—but the underlying goal behind all of the essays in the book is the idea that by paying closer attention to the music, the ear can lead us to see these films in new ways. John Morehead: I was raised on the fantastic scores of folks like Bernard Hermann, James Horner, and a little later John Williams. But one of the others I enjoyed was director John Carpenter with his synthesizer music. Your book includes a chapter discussing Carpenter’s music in THE FOG, and I wonder how original and significant you see his electronic scoring in this and other films like HALLOWEEN and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK? Neil Lerner: I think there’s still a good deal of basic work that needs to be done on this question, but K. J. Donnelly’s essay makes a strong case for the potential returns in giving close attention to film scores that might be thought of as too simple or basic. A good deal of scholarship on film music has tended to focus on fully notated orchestral film scores, but of course there’s a much wider spectrum of musical strategies out there, like rock or jazz, and Donnelly has been an important scholarly pioneer in this regard.
The synthesizer timbres weren’t original to John Carpenter—several of the important Vietnam-era horror films, like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, or LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, have some prominent use of electronic instruments—but Carpenter does seem to have done something that worked well and proved influential with the synthesizer scoring in HALLOWEEN (1978). Plus I just think those early modular synths were incredibly cool, so I’m happy we got a picture of a Moog in the book. John Morehead: It is understandable that, since film is a visual medium, the image has been the primary focus of film analysis, but given the significance of sound and music to film, particularly to horror (not to mention science fiction and fantasy), why has musical analysis been largely ignored? And is this situation starting to change? Neil Lerner: My college film courses emphasized that film is a visual medium, and of course much of the writing about film does that also, but maybe because I was studying music while taking film classes I was more attenuated to what was happening in the soundtrack. I’ve always found it interesting that so much of the attention in film goes to the visual elements, but the experience of film (and now television and video games) is almost always tied together with a soundtrack. One might speculate that there’s a larger cultural bias against the acoustic, that there’s a hegemony of the visual; what we consider basic educational skills dwell largely if not exclusively on things that are visual, like reading, but where in our culture do we teach about the sonic and the musical? I believe most of us are self taught in regards to knowing how to interpret the music we encounter with a film or video game—if we’re raised watching these things, we figure it out from the context—and most people can interpret these musical codes with a great deal of nuance, even if they aren’t trained in music and have no idea how the music is doing what it does. It’s useful, therefore, to have music scholars devoted to studying music in screen media as a way of providing students and devotees with another tool in their own lifelong encounters with these things.
As a music historian, I’ve long heard the truism that concert hall music in the twentieth century, particularly the experimental, avant-garde styles, hit a kind of impasse where audiences became disinterested in it and where many of these musical languages then found their way into film genres like fantasy and horror. One of my goals with the book was to help to provide some examples of that, whether it be through the radical sound collage that Mamoulian created for the first transformation scene in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE or the later appropriations of Penderecki in THE EXORCIST or THE SHINING. There’s still a great deal of work to be done in tracking all of these musical languages, and that’s exciting for musicologists, film scholars, and folks who love movies.
Thanks to the enduring popularity and critical respect afforded to Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960), the character of Norman Bates has emerged as one of the premier icons of the horror genre. Norman is memorable because he appears, at first, to be shy and sympathetic – a lonely boy-man under his mother’s thumb. Even when he turns out to be a murderer, we still feel sorry for him, because he is the victim of a mental illness (split personality) that he cannot control; in fact, the murderous portion of his personality is so distinct that he seems almost to be possessed by the spirit of his dead mother – leaving the “normal” part of his Norman self untainted.
That is the concept created by screenwriter Joseph Stefano, based on the character in Robert Block’s novel PSYCHO (which in turn was loosely inspired by the real-life case of serial killer Ed Gein). However, much of the credit for the character’s success belongs to actor Anthony Perkins; in fact, the screen version of the character was written with him in mind. Initially, Stefano was not sure he could make the book’s character (a somewhat sinister reprobate) sympathetic, but director Alfred Hitchcock told him to forget about the novel’s presentation and imagine Perkins in the role.
Perkins brought his own contributions to the character (such as the nervous stutter). Much of his success in the role was due to confounded expectations: he seemed so likable and harmless that it was a genuine shock to learn the truth about Norman.
Unfortunately, those very qualities that initially made the revelation about Norman a surprise, soon became clichéd markers identifying on-screen psychos, and to a large extent Perkins’ later career was dominated by his identification with Norman. Not only did he reprise the role in three sequels; he also played variations on the character in films like PRETTY POISON and CRIMES OF PASSION (which ends with the Perkins character in drag, just like Norman).
Yet Perkins was never resentful of the character; if anything, he seemed pleased by the recognition it afforded, and he had the sense of humor to spoof his image. While hosting a televised performance at the Comedy Club, he drew laughs simply by lapsing into the familiar Bates mannerisms, pretending to mistake a blond woman in the audience for Janet Leigh, and his Saturday Night Live sketch “The Bates School of Motel Management” is a classic piece of comedy. Posing for a magazine cover to promote PSYCHO 3 (which he also directed), Perkins went so far as to wear pink trousers, as if deliberately mocking the dark image of his on-screen alter ego.
“I do have affection for Norman as a person,” Perkins said. “He does the best he can out of the diminished circumstances with which his personality stranded him, and […] Norman’s childhood was difficult and traumatic. Norman is, at heart, a benevolent soul, with a dark side, but Norman’s conscious mind is always on the positive things in life.” Perkins did not feel constricted by the recognition and fame he earned as Norman: “I think it’s identified me. I think that people who see me and think of me in terms of this role usually, as they’re talking to me, will also say, ‘Oh but I also liked you in this or that.’ So I think it’s better to be identified with one role and then jog someone’s memory into remember another role, than it is to see a celebrity or an actor coming at you down the street and saying, ‘Oh, there’s um…he was in…” [There’s that] empty feeling that the actor has about not really being remembered for anything except for being a face on the screen somewhere, so I prefer this.”
Perkins claimed that Norman was not only his most famous role: “I think it’s my favorite role as well. So many thousands of people have come up to me on the street and in hotel lobbies and in department stores and have shared their experiences of seeing the films with me. It’s always been with the greatest amount of pleasure that they’ve done so. They’ve told me stories about the dates they had with their future wives, and they’ve told me stories about sneaking out of the bathroom window and seeing it against their parents orders — and many stories like that, which have imprinted it into their minds. Always with a feeling of having been entertained and having been taken in by the story and having a good time. Of course, I enjoy that.”
Of reprising Norman Bates in three sequels, Perkins was upbeat, stating that the character was interesting enough to warrant revisiting: “I don’t want to use the quote again, but it’s never failed me, so I will: it is the Hamlet of horror roles, and you can never quite get enough of playing Norman Bates. It’s always interesting. And pursuant to that, when you read a script, when you read a PSYCHO script, a sequel, and you see dialogue that’s been written for Norman to say, if it’s right, it pops right of the page, and if it’s wrong, there’s something off about it. So he’s a character who has really emerged in a dimensional way. And of how many characters, how many screen characters can that be said? You know it’s a great compliment to the original concept by Hitchcock.”
Because of the classic status of the original film, the subsequent sequels tended to be held in somewhat low regard by critics, even though PSYCHO 2 proved to a commercial success. Some critics, including screenwriter Joseph Stefano, even suggested that PSYCHO 2 and PSCYHO 3 had taken a serious tragic figure and turned him into a campy character. Perkins, of course, disagreed:
“I think that Norman shows a progression in his personality. In the second PSYCHO picture we saw a Norman that was far more aware of his potential for violence than in the first film. In the third film, we saw a more saddened Norman who found himself revisiting not only the scenes but the temperatures of the first two films, so I think the development of the character keeps it from being a carbon copy of the original.”
As for the alleged camp, Perkins said, “I don’t think you can look at either of [those] two sequels […] and point to and correctly identify any elbows in the ribs or any camp humor in them.” As for any black humor, Perkins insisted that it had existed all the way back in the original. He recalled that, during the initial release of PSYCHO, audiences “laughed so hard that Hitchcock was so dismayed and wanted to take the film back and remix some of the dialogue scenes so that they would be heard. […] they laughed almost throughout the picture. Hitchcock claimed that it was the first time that an audience had gotten the jump on him – the first time he hadn’t been able to read his audience. Finally, he gave into it and used to call PSYCHO a comedy. Whether or not he originally thought of it as a comedy, I don’t’ now. But I was with him in Chicago and New York when it opened, and you could hear the words [because] they laughed so hard.”
Still, whatever humor and/or sympathy the character engendered, Perkins acknowledged that Norman would always retain his menacing quality: “That will always be the basis for any PSYCHO film. Norman hasn’t changed that much – he still has a bad side.”
The actor concluded, “Of course, Norman’s problems couldn’t be solved – that wouldn’t be fair. Norman’s case is a tragic one, and the pictures are tragedies. Therefore, the only way that you could really resolve Norman’s problems would be to kill him off.” RELATED ARTICLES:
This low-budget black-and-white shocker is one of the great achievements in the horror genre, although it eschews the monsters and supernatural trappings usually associated with the genre at that time, in favor of a psychologically based approach to terror. As producer Howard Hawks had done with THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, producer-director Alfred Hitchcock took the familiar horror movie clichés and reused them in a new, contemporary setting. Although a realistic tale (loosely—very loosely—inspired by actual events), the approach to filming is full-blown Gothic. The lonely road and the rain the drives a victim to seek shelter where there is only danger—this is the stuff of classic horror movies, as is the spooky house, a fine 20th Century stand-in for Dracula’s castle. And of course, the lurking menace hiding in the attic or the basement—what more could you ask of a horror movie? Read More