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Psycho Killer- Qu'est-ce que c'est?
by Simon Smithson

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Only the fact that they made sequels is scarier

Only the fact that they made sequels is scarier
First of all, thanks to all the people who wrote to me last time around and pointed out the mistake I made in the previous column about private detectives. It was amended by the ever-reliable support staff of Matchflick, but not before my ego had been severely bruised. It's good to know that there are so many classics fans out there- you're all welcome to come over and watch ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES anytime, and the Scotch, cigarettes, and old-school hats will be on me.

I'm no psychologist, but I'm pretty sure that split personalities don't come along quite as often in real life as they do in the movies. I'm also pretty sure that there aren't any axe murderers secretly living on my street (although old Mrs. Mulrooney does get that look in her eyes sometimes when the kids won't get off her lawn). I don't think that the guy at the bus stop has a severed head in his hand luggage, although I do think that he could do with a shower. I don't think the neighbours are mass murderers, I don't think the cellar is full of corpses, and I can't believe it's not butter.

The crazy guys and girls in the movies… they're just that much nuttier than your common-or-garden variety fruitcake (I hereby apologise for the use of the terms ‘fruitcake', ‘cuckoo clock', and ‘one beer short of a sixpack').

Yes, your cinematic nutbar can be relied upon to go crazier than your real life equivalent, and usually in a much messier fashion, too. Norman Bates has his shower, Patrick Bateman has his apartment, Hannibal Lecter has his kitchen- all places where a mad killer can sit down and really just unwind and forget all about the little things.

Little things like the kidneys.

The first cab off the crazy rank is Hitchcock's classic and one of the big names of the thriller genre, PSYCHO. Hitchcock's skill behind the camera was never more on display than in the story of the Bates Motel and its split personality owner and proprietor, Norman Bates. The use of camera angles, narrative technique, and flawless casting all came together to create this acclaimed masterpiece of cinema. Sure, the ‘camera down the shower head' trick probably wouldn't win in a no-holds-barred cage match with say, bullet time, but it was an innovation at the time, and served to heighten the sense of alienation that Hitchcock allowed to ebb and flow throughout the movie.

Anthony Perkins wore the skin of Norman Bates with such consummate skill that everyone involved with MILE HIGH should be given a copy of the movie and then sent home to watch it and think about what they did. Sure, Anthony ‘Johnny Typecasting' Perkins never quite shook off the role for the rest of his life. But, speaking as someone who rates their own movie satisfaction as far higher in importance than another man's career, I say it was totally worth it. Perkins's portrayal of Bates combined boyish friendliness with a hidden psychosis that sometimes brushed his surface, hinting at what lay beneath. Again, I'm
Tastes like chicken!

Tastes like chicken!
no psychologist. But with my hardcore research background, gained entirely from movies, I'm prepared to say that Perkins's performance was EXACTLY how a man who had killed his mother and assumed her identity would act.

In the spirit of craziness, I hired out the Gus Van Sant remake of PSYCHO, to compare and contrast it to the original. Surely, I thought, that it was an idea so crazy that it just might work.

Van Sant has his strengths. And the ensemble cast of his version of PSYCHO- Vince Vaughn, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, and Anne Heche- are all good actors who can take control of a screen with a gesture. The PSYCHO remake, however, was what is known in the industry as ‘bollocks.' It suffers terribly in comparison with the original, especially in terms of casting. Vaughn's Norman Bates is too muscular and aggressive, too solid and compact. Perkins was all the crazier for his lanky-nerd-next-door attitude, and he was able to play off against a cast that didn't seem to be reciting lines just that little bit too quickly, anxious to nail a homage.

PSYCHO's strength lay in the visage of normalcy- Norman Bates is just like any other kid who poisoned his mother and her lover with a fatal overdose of strychnine. Up until the final revelations of his identity, he's just an ordinary guy like you or I- it's his mother whose the crazy one.

Normalcy, even the appearance of it, was the farthest thing from Oliver Stone's mind when he directed NATURAL BORN KILLERS. Stone, in making the film, was able to tap into a vein of pure terror and unleash a portrayal that horrified audiences. To this day, many still check under the bed to make sure that Robert Downey Jnr's Australian accent isn't hiding underneath, waiting for fresh victims.

Not content with that particular crime against nature, Stone and writer Quentin Tarantino (who disowned the scriptwriting credit after subsequent re-writes) delivered a stinging indictment of modern media culture and the glamorisation of violence. Unfortunately the subsequent rise of Paris Hilton has shown just how little influence Stone has over the news. But at least he tried.

The characters of NATURAL BORN KILLERS give credence to the line from PSYCHO- we all go a little mad sometimes. Every character that has more than two minutes of screen time has their own psychosis driving them from one point to another.

Mickey and Mallory Knox, Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, are products of terrible childhoods (ah, psychology. Latin for ‘we get to blame our parents for everything') and a society that gets a majority of its information from disposable news bites and glorifies destruction. But just as Stone vilifies them, so too does he vilify the culture that allows them to flourish.

It was Culture 0, Crazies 1 again when Christian Bale took the role of Patrick Bateman for AMERICAN PSYCHO. Like Norman Bates and Anthony Perkins, the role of Bateman would stay with Bale for a
The 'Your show's been axed!' line didn't make the script cut

The 'Your show's been axed!' line didn't make the script cut
while, erased partially by THE MACHINIST and almost completely by BATMAN BEGINS. With his signature everything-I-touch-turns-to-gold-with-the-possible-exception-of-EQUILIBRIUM approach, Bale turned Patrick Bateman into a black hole of man, endlessly consuming and collapsing further in on himself, much like Enron. As Bateman progressed from violence to frenzy and sucked everything and everyone around him into his whirlpool, Bale showed everyone just how good an actor he can be.

Patrick Bateman, like NATURAL BORN KILLERS's Mickey and Mallory, served as a criticism of culture, in this case in the nature of consumption. Bateman was driven to always have more and more, to possess the most and the best, each successive episode providing less satisfaction and goading him further onto more. A similar feeling can be obtained from signing up to Facebook. Bale's portrayal was so gripping because he veered so suddenly between contemptuous dominance and sobbing mania. And also because Bale should, by rights, be President of the World.

Arguably the best known crazy villain of cinema history is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who Anthony Hopkins brought to life in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Given that the man was named Hannibal it was kind of a given that he would end up a man-eater, solely for the sake of rhyme. Hannibal the Cannibal was fleshed out by Hopkins in HANNIBAL and RED DRAGON, but THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS remains the character's tour de force. Hopkins gave him icy self-control and a complete awareness of the crimes he had committed, the monster that he himself was. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS never showed Hannibal wearing his ‘I'm Smarter Than You' t-shirt, but that was where his menace lay.

For a start, any man who can get Jodie Foster to come visit is doing something right from the get go. Secondly, anyone with the presence of mind to cut off a policeman's face and hide under it to escape is not someone to be trifled with- it's an escape plan that you can respect. I personally would still be trying to dig through the concrete floor with my plastic dinner spoon when the guards came to take me away. Hopkins as Lecter had carefully thought-out plans that were followed through perfectly, which is never a quality you want in your insane killer.

The movies have a rogues gallery a mile long of men and women that have gone off the deep end and thrown a stack of bodies from the diving boards as they did so. SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, MISS CONGENIALITY- all of them testaments to the destructive potential of the human mind when the screws start to come loose. Often, through the veil of madness, the position of the outsider, deeper truths about our world can be revealed- your Mickeys and Mallorys, your Patrick Batemans- they can cast light into some dark places as they smoke a fine cigar over an axed-mangled corpse.

Alternatively, they can just make you look twice at that old guy eating a steak sandwich that he brought from home.

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Other Columns
Other columns by Simon Smithson:

And The Cat's In The Cradle...

I Ain't 'Fraid Of No Ghost

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan

Soldier On

You Can't Spell Private Without I

All Columns

Simon Smithson
Simon was crushed when he found out that 'Ghostbuster' was not an actual vocation, and so went with the next best thing - writing columns for Internet movie sites. He's working on a proton pack of his own, but it's going to take some time.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Simon Smithson by clicking here.

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