Does Psycho still shock?

Simon ParkinAlfred Hitchcock's Psycho was a box-office sensation that changed cinema. As it returns to the Norwich big screen on its 50th anniversary, SIMON PARKIN looks at why that shower scene still has the power to shock.Simon Parkin

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was a box-office sensation that changed cinema. As it returns to the Norwich big screen on its 50th anniversary, SIMON PARKIN looks at why that shower scene still has the power to shock.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

When Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho opened in cinemas 50 years ago no-one, except perhaps the master of suspense himself, could have predicted the lasting effect it would have.

On the face of it, the plot doesn't sound that promising. A woman steals $40,000 from her boss, hides out in a secluded motel and is murdered by a cross-dressing psychopath. Her sister investigates and the killer is arrested.

Most Read

However the film, shot for less than $1 million in black and white rather than Technicolor, was devastating. It was a scandalous cause c�l�bre and a box-office sensation that changed films forever.

The infamous shower scene, which took Alfred Hitchcock six days, 77 camera set-ups and one very wet Janet Leigh to create, in particular scandalised the film-going world: a fusion of sexual titillation and extreme violence whose influences can still be seen in almost every subsequent horror film.

To mark its 50th anniversary the film has just been re-released and even today the shower sequence, in which Leigh's character is slashed to death, is still shocking.

Liam Wells, director of film and video at Norwich University College of the Arts, says cinema's power to shock is at it's most effective when the audience is left to imagine, hidden in the shadows, half seen, half expected, waiting to jump out on an unsuspecting viewer.

'Hitchcock's Psycho will never lose it's edge,' he says. 'Despite its age and endless TV and cinematic parodies and reproduction in every horror film, it still has the genuine power of shock.'

Comprising over 70 shots, each lasting just two or three seconds, for the shower scene Hitchcock mixed fast cutting and Bernard Herrmann's now endlessly parodied screeching violin score, to create a the illusion of gore, violence and nudity - though it actually shows very little.

'The rapid edits/angular framing and piercing stabbing 'musical' elements of the scene ensure a very physical reaction from the audience,' says Liam. 'There are of course few moments of genuine shock in today's cinema, not least because we all too often see too much and we have seen it all before. The success of Hitchcock's most famous scare is in its violent movement - musically and visually, and not in what we actually see on screen.

'We see very little, only getting a very raw sense of what has happened through the combination of the film-makers craft of image editing and the composer's musical relationship to the images.'

The illusion was to give a very clear suggestion that it was Leigh being hacked to death, by Anthony Perkins as the cross-dressing maniac Norman Bates.

Even Leigh herself was shocked when she say the result. In her first interview after the film's release, she shared the audience's horror: 'I believed that knife went into me. It was that real, that horrifying. I could feel it!'

Never one of under sell his films, in the run-up to Psycho's release in 1960, Hitchcock did everything he could to build up the suspense. His most controversial move was a "no late admission" policy, with posters declaring 'No one will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance', alongside a picture of Hitchcock points at his watch.

Hitchcock did most of the promotion on his own, forbidding Leigh and Perkins from making the usual television, radio, and print interviews for fear of them revealing the plot. The director had bought up all copies of the original novel, which he had optioned for a paltry $9,000, so that hardly anyone would know how the story ended. He also filmed on a closed set and forced cast and crew to sign an agreement promising not to mention the ending to anyone. There were no advance screenings.

On its release the reaction of critics was mixed. Most British reviews panned it, questioning Hitchcock's taste and judgment with nearly all voicing their dislike of the gimmicky promotion. The public loved the film though, with lines stretching outside cinemas. The film shattered attendance records at the London Plaza Cinema where it has its British premiere and there were lines stretching outside cinemas across the country.

Psycho was, by a large margin, the top moneymaking film of Hitchcock's career. It is still one of the largest-grossing black-and-white films and helped make Hitchcock a multimillionaire and the third-largest shareholder in Universal.

t Psycho is showing at Cinema City until April 22.


Psycho has an X certificate but anyone nervous or impressionable will tell you in this instance nothing less than a 'Z' should be attached. For this is an absolute full-blooded Chamber of Horrors. Psycho makes Dracula seem like a character from Babes in the Woods.

Hitchcock's latest gimmick is that no-one will be admitted once it has started. When I left the cinema it was like coming around from a nightmare.

If it's a course of shock treatment that is required, Psycho will fit the bill. Others, like myself, will feel they need treatment after Hitchcock's excursion into the horrific.

t Eastern Evening News, September 6, 1960.


Going Out asked a panel of Norfolk film experts which movie moments have shocked them the most.

t Jack Thompson

Manager of Cinema City.

Blue Velvet, specifically the moment when Dennis Hopper's character is inhaling laughing gas and abusing someone at the same time. I watched it at a friend's house, and was probably too young to be seeing it. Even now I cannot listen to Roy Orbison. Psychologically it really affected me, I just couldn't get my head round it. I've not seen the film since and don't want to.

t Claire Treadwell

Marketing and communications manager at Screen East.

The scene in An American Werewolf in London where David is in hospital and he has a dream/nightmare about running through the woods. At one point, he comes across himself laying in a hospital bed in a forest clearing, all seems calm and quiet and then he suddenly opens his eyes with horrific teeth and black scary eyes. I loved that film and could watch all the gory bits apart from that particular scene. Still can't watch it!

t Liam Wells

Film and video course director at Norwich University College of the Arts.

Michael Haneke's The Hidden, contains a scene which I believe is as shocking in its suddenness and visual brutality as Psycho, but to say more would just say too much. It's a moment so unexpected and shocking I still have to look away when I screen it to students.

t Christine Woods

PA to the Screen East CEO.

At the time, I found it shocking when Annie Wilkes in Misery hobbles her favourite novelist Paul Sheldon, who she is holding captive after rescuing him from a car accident, by smashing both of his ankles with a sledgehammer.

t Sam Burton

Talent executive at Screen East.

One of the most shocking scenes for me is in Pulp Fiction when Mia Wallace takes an overdose and Vincent takes her to Lance's house where they give her an injection of adrenaline and she comes to, sits up gasping, with the needle sticking out of her heart.