Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Looking back at some of the “classic” horror movies of the forties, fifties, and sixties, it’s difficult to determine just what (and why) these films were considered frightening. This difficulty applies even to such films as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds.
Maybe I can get some insight into this matter by considering some of these movies’ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. This site awards Psycho (1960) a 99% “fresh” rating, meaning that 99 percent of the site’s reviews award it a favorable review. What is the bases of these favorable reviews?
One critic views the movie as a trailblazer.None of these comments seem all that insightful concerning Psycho’s attractiveness to moviegoers over half a century.
Another critic considers it “shocking.”
A third opines that “Alfred Hitchcock should be credited with making the first slasher film” and thereby providing the “template” for future films of this type.
Still another commentator regards the movie as being “more analyzed” than any other.
According to another pundit, the film is “impressive” in having been well crafted.
Another critic seems to attribute the movie’s success to Janet Leigh’s attractiveness and taste in brassieres: “Janet Leigh, stalking around in pointy brassieres, making bird-gestures, and flirting with the coprophobic Perkins, is one of cinema's most deliciously perverse pleasures.”
One authority claims the film’s popularity derives from several of its scenes: “The music, the setting, the shower scene, the mother in the cellar... everything about this iconic film has passed into cinema history. “
How about the film’s “manipulation of audience identification” and “style”? One critic sees these attributes as being largely responsible for the movie’s enduring appeal.
What about Rotten Tomatoes’ take on the lasting popularity of another horror film by Hitchcock, namely The Birds (1963)? The website labels this movie 95% “fresh,” with reviewers offering the following comments concerning the film:
“The only thing dated is the special effects. The suspense holds up well.”Are these reviewers’ comments any more helpful in establishing this film’s almost half-a-century-long appeal? You decide.
“Although not as horrifically shocking as ‘Psycho,’ [sic] ‘The Birds’ [sic] is a more sophisticated film, and represents a high watermark [sic] in the prolific career of a true maestro of cinema.”
“Alfred Hitchcock's most abstract film (1963), and perhaps his subtlest, still yielding new meanings and inflections after a dozen or more viewings.”
“More novelty than spectacle, but overall a chilling exercise in nihilistic terror.”
“Still a dream come true after you've met enough Californians.”
“It's fierce and Freudian as well as great cinematic fun, with ample fodder for the amateur psychologist following up on Hitch's tortuous involvement with his leading ladies.”
For my part, I have a simple, but, I think, affective, explanation for these movie’s continuing appeal. They were filmed in more innocent times, before the multiplicity of media sources and choices, when the concept of the serial killer was fairly new and the crimes of Ed Gein, upon whom Norman Bates is based, were both contemporary, shocking millions across the country and around the world, thanks to the news and to Robert Bloch’s novel. (The term “serial killer” was not coined until the 1970s, Wikipedia tells us, and Psycho was released in 1960.) In other words, for the relatively innocent audiences of the day, Norman Bates represented a new kind of bogeyman--the transvestite momma’s boy-become-killer whose penchant for helpless young women made every young woman a potential victim of similar homicidal maniacs. Why does the movie continue to appeal to the more jaded audiences of today? I think it does so because of its nostalgic nature, hearkening back, as it does, to a day in which relatively innocent audiences were confronted with a new type of bogeyman.
How, then, do I explain the original and the continuing popularity of The Birds? I think that it represents society’s unconscious fear that something will go wrong. What, precisely, will go wrong, when it will go wrong, and why it will go wrong are unknown and, perhaps, unknowable. They are also, strangely enough, unimportant. What matters is the uneasy, the disquieting, the unsettling and vague notion, the inkling, the hunch, the gut feeling, the intuition that something, sooner or later, is going to happen, something that probably makes no sense and has no business happening, something as absurd as it horrific--and catastrophic: the end of time, the end of the world, the apocalypse that mystics have predicted, again and again, off and on for centuries and millennia. In other words, The Birds symbolizes the haunting suspicion that we don’t really quite deserve the bounty of riches with which we’ve been blessed and that, someday, harpies of some sort, will be sent to us from above to harass and punish us, stripping away the blessings and destroying the bounty. In Hitchcock’s film, the harpies are birds of all kinds, coming, it seems, from everywhere, attacking Bodega Bay, California today and, tomorrow, the world. . . .