October 20, 2008

0 Psycho Killer Night on Turner Classic Movies

Is there anybody who hasn't seen Psycho (1960), the landmark shocker directed by Alfred Hitchcock? If not, it is being shown on the Turner Classic Movie channel on Saturday, October 25, at 5:00 p.m. (PDT). This is the movie that created a new genre, the slasher film, the movie that in one brilliant sequence—the infamous shower sequence that lasts less than three minutes and is composed of more than fifty different shots (the exact number is still being debated)—opened the door for filmmakers to depict violence more graphically and blurred the distinction between art and sensationalism. And in the conclusion, when the origins of Norman Bates's psychosis are explained by a pompous psychiatrist, erotic perversion became an acceptable subject for titillating escapist entertainment.

But whether you watch Psycho again or not, be sure to catch two other movies being shown that same night that are essential complements to the Hitchcock film. At 12;45 a.m. (PDT), technically on October 26, TCM is showing schlockmeister William Castle's Homicidal (1961). Many believe that this film is a rip-off of Psycho made solely to capitalize on the success and notoriety of Hitchcock's film. In truth, Homicidal bears fewer resemblances to Psycho than some of Brian de Palma's later Hitchcock pastiches and is an immensely entertaining movie well worth watching in its own right.

The similarities to Psycho are clear, although in reality few of the elements that Homicidal emulates were completely innovative when Hitchcock used them, although admittedly he did so in more imaginative and more visually artful ways. Homicidal opens with an enigmatic sequence in which a mysterious young woman checks into a hotel and pays the bellman, a complete stranger, to marry her. At the end of the wedding ceremony, without warning or apparent motive she pulls out a knife, brutally stabs to death the justice of the peace who has just married her, and flees. She drives to the small town of Solvang, where she lives in a creepy, isolated mansion with an elderly woman who is wheelchair-bound and mute. She is in reality Emily, already the wife of a young man named Warren, who after many years in Denmark has just returned to his childhood home to claim the fortune he will shortly inherit. The paralyzed woman is Helga, Warren's childhood nurse who had accompanied him abroad and returned with him and his new wife.

The viewer is given to understand that Emily is a mentally disturbed homicidal maniac. While Warren is absent on business, she terrorizes and threatens the helpless Helga. Also menaced by her are Warren's half-sister Miriam and Miriam's pharmacist boyfriend. Before the movie's end the plot also includes the wanton vandalizing of Miriam's florist shop, her false implication in the murder of the justice of the peace, and a gruesome decapitation. At the end of the movie Warren and Miriam drive to the mansion. Warren goes into the house to confront his deranged wife while Miriam stays in the car. When he doesn't return, she decides to enter the house to look for him.

When Miriam hesitates at the door, Castle reveals his obligatory gimmick, in this case a "fright break," a short pause in which the audience is given time to reflect on the significance of what has happened in the movie and predict what will happen when she finally opens that door and enters. I will not disclose what happens when she goes inside except to say that the ending of the movie makes plain that nothing is what it seemed and leaves the viewer with a final ambiguity: Is the villain really a psychopath or just a greedy schemer trying to gain control of the fortune through an elaborate and clever conspiracy?

Homicidal has many things to recommend it. The movie makes excellent location use of Solvang, California, in its pre-Sideways days before it became a yuppie destination for wine tourists. In those days it was a kitschy, Disneylandish Danish-themed tourist village known for its ornamental windmill, Danish bakery, and Andersen's Pea Soup restaurant. The photography by the masterful Burnett Guffey (with two Oscars to his credit, for From Here to Eternity and Bonnie and Clyde) is first-rate. The performances by Jean Arless and Eugenie Leontovitch are outstanding, and television stalwarts Glenn Corbett and Patricia Breslin are well cast as the "normal" young couple drawn into the perverse situation. This is the best William Castle movie I've seen, successful both as sheer entertainment and as a comparison to the better-known Psycho.

If Homicidal predictably cannot match the level of artistry of Hitchcock's Psycho, it does come close to matching its hyped-up element of shock. In comparison, the great British director Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), which is being shown on TCM directly after Psycho at 7:00 p.m. (PDT), easily equals and possibly exceeds Psycho in both of these areas. This is the notorious film that when released so alienated critics with its perverse and sensational subject matter—child abuse, voyeurism, sexual fetishism, and serial murder—that it essentially ended the commercial career of a great film artist. The movie was rediscovered in the late 1970's when a group of admirers led by Martin Scorsese arranged for it to be shown at the 1979 New York Film Festival. Peeping Tom is, to put it briefly, a bona fide masterpiece and nothing like Powell's earlier, more dignified films such as A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes.

In the movie, Carl Boehm plays Mark Lewis, a studio
cameraman who carries a home movie camera around with him and obsessively films aspects of his daily life. But he takes his activities much further than that, secretly filming not only the quotidian but also the unsavory and hidden aspects of life. At one point early in the movie he hires and films an attractive young woman who slowly turns her head to reveal a hideous disfigurement on one side of her face. But Mark's worst obsessions are even more shocking.

He gets his biggest kicks from compulsively repeating the same murderous scenario, from luring or hiring a woman to be filmed and then performing the same perverted ritual again and again. His camera mounted on a tripod, he moves in to film a tight c
lose-up of his victim's face. As he approaches, he slowly raises the front leg of the tripod to an upright position. As the model realizes that she is about to be impaled on its deadly-sharp tip, her expression becomes one of terror. It is the capturing on film of this expression of the model's fear at the realization of her impending death, as well as the exact moment of her death, that is the object of Mark's prurient fetish. In a room in his childhood home, where he still lives, he archives these snuff films and rewatches them repeatedly. The phallic and erotic implications of the erect leg of the tripod and its penetration of the model are unmistakable, and critics and audiences of 1960 must have found these implications quite unsettling.

Unlike Hitchcock or Castle, Powell withholds none of this from the viewer. His object may be to shock, but after the first killing he is not interested in surprising or mystifying the viewer. Peeping Tom is from the beginning more of a case history than either Psycho or Homicidal. Later in the movie the origins of Mark's psychopathology are revealed. From childhood, Mark was the object of his twisted father's behavioral experiments, in which he clinically and dispassionately documented on film Mark's entire childhood and the psychological effects on the boy of this continuous surveillance.

Mark, the victim of incessant voyeurism, has as an adult become a filmic voyeur himself. He displays many symptoms of autism—ritualistic or compulsive behavior and problems both with social skills and with communication. (At this time, autism was commonly believed to be the result of lack of affection in childhood, a theory since completely abandoned. Today autism is thought to have a genetic component, and Mark's father's treatment of him as an object rather than a person might be interpreted as an indication of autistic tendencies in the father as well.) His cinematic activities have become a substitute for life, for social interaction and sexuality. And he uses his camera to explore his own particular obsessions, fear and death.

The screenplay of Peeping Tom is much richer thematically than that of Psycho. In Psycho Norman Bates is clearly The Other, a scary freak to be feared by the viewer, not identified with. Peeping Tom, by contrast, forces the viewer to become complicit in Mark's activities: It requires that the viewer reconsider the implications of the act of moviewatching, for Mark's behavior is by extension the activity of the moviegoer carried to its furthest imaginable extreme. Mark's snuff films are both an escape from life and an attempt to explore some of its most incomprehensible mysteries, and isn't this exactly what the best movies do? To add another layer of complexity, Powell refuses to exempt the filmmaker from this self-examination. In the sequences that show home movies of Mark's father filming the young boy, the father is played by Powell himself.

At one point in Peeping Tom Mark and another employee of the film studio are sitting next to each other, waiting to be interviewed by the police in another room. Mark actually has his camera with him and tells his friend that he plans to film the interview. "Are you mad?" the colleague asks. "Yes," Mark answers, giggling nervously. "Do you think they'll notice?" The police might not notice right away. Mark is, after all, a boyish, reserved, and polite young man who seems eccentric but harmless. By this point the audience know differently but have likely developed an ambivalent attitude toward him, for Mark is himself a childhood victim of extreme psychological abuse and is driven by uncontrollable compulsions. Peeping Tom does what few movies have ever succeeded in doing, creating a sympathetic monster.

Be sure to catch the psycho killer triple feature—Psycho, Peeping Tom, and Homicidal—on Turner Classic Movies this Saturday. Psycho is a keeper, a movie to rewatch and savor, to marvel at its unforgettable set pieces that transcend the movie's rather lurid plot, to admire how skillfully Hitchcock manipulates audience response and stealthily insinuates his bizarre sense of humor into a basically grim situation. Homicidal is a movie that aspires to do nothing more than thrill and entertain while being viewed, and it does this quite successfully. Peeping Tom is a movie to ponder during and after watching, a work satisfyingly rich in thematic resonance, a self-referential exploration of the deeper meanings of the art of making movies and the act of watching them.


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