How to Make a Movie Murder Right: Psycho vs Halloween
The butcher knife is one of the many everyday household items that have become a weapon of choice in today’s horror movie genre. Eight inches of cold steel often becomes someone’s last breath, or the last line of defense. The popular use of the kitchen cutlery (as well as many other long sharp pointed objects gave way to the sub genre known as Slasher. We all know that a maniac wielding a butcher knife would be a terrifying ordeal, but how do writers and film directors bring the menace to life. We will examine the use of the butcher knife, as well as the directorial mastery of scene) in two different films, Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2007) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Halloween (a reimagining of the classic John Carpenter film) was chosen because Michael Myers is an iconic name and figure in American horror and is a bit more in tune with the blood guts and gore of today’s market than is 1978 original. Psycho was chosen because many feel as though this move was the proprietary spark behind the Slasher film explosion of the 80’s.
Psycho is the tale of Norman Bates. Norman is a very lonely hotel owner that still lives with his mother. Norman and his mother seem to have an unusually close, symbiotic relationship. After a younger woman is murdered in his hotel, Norman goes on the assumption that his mother got jealous of his attraction to the woman and the idea that he would be tempted to leave the hotel to pursue her. Playing the good son, Norman hides the body. When police show up to find out what happened, the truth behind the murder and a few others comes to light. Mrs. Bates had actually been dead for some time. Sometime after his father’s death, Mrs. Bates found a new lover. Feeling he was losing the only important person remaining in the world to him, Norman killed them both, but could not come to grasp what he had done. At that point his psyche fractured. Norman’s mother lived in his mind (and cross dressing actions) because of his own his own twisted sense of guilt.
Halloween tells the story of Michael Myers. In the Rob Zombie reimagining, we become more in touch with the boy that became the monster. At around the age of ten, a very troubled Michael finally fights back against years of aggressive bullying and kills his attacker. This was only the catalyst as Michael returned home and went on to kill his older sister, her boyfriend, and his mother’s boyfriend. Michael committed to an asylum where he claims he cannot remember doing any of the horrible actions that landed him there. Under the care of Dr. Loomis, Michael slips further and further from reality over the next 15 years. Due to the reckless and careless actions of the overnight security, a massive framed, completely psychotic Michael escapes the asylum and heads back to the home he once knew to find his baby sister. Zombie doesn’t make it clear as to whether Michael simply wants to reunite with her, or kill her, but Michael kills a slew of people that presented the slightest obstacle on the way. Michael finally captures his sister and tries to explain to her their relation, but she is too fraught with fear to understand. The two play a dangerous game of cat and mouse that ultimately ends with her unloading a bullet round into Michael’s face.
The scenes to be compared are the death of the mother’s boyfriend in Halloween and Psycho’s famous shower murder. These are two very good scenes as they are very similar in the raw base content. Each scene involves murder of a very vulnerable person (one showering, one sleeping) using a kitchen knife. Psycho made films such as Halloween possible all thanks to the shower scene. Audiences before had never witnessed an on screen murder in such a personal manner. “During the shower scene, it is said that people fainted, vomited and ran screaming from the theater… In the frenzy, it is easy to believe that at least some fans’ terror mushroomed into a full-blown phobia” (Fritscher). Hitchcock was able to generate such a volatile reaction thanks to his use of the camera. When the character Marion is in the shower, the camera shot is over her shoulder looking back at the door. It would feel as though we are in the shower with her (personalizing the scene to the audience). The tension builds as it take about 10 seconds from the shadowy figure entering until they bull back the shower curtain. Lighting and music play an important role here. Hitchcock does not want you to see who the attacker really is, so he keeps the Norman in total shadows. The infamous screeching violins add shock to the incident immediately as Norman pulls back the curtain. Once the attack starts, Hitchcock masterfully used cut scene to keep the audience wired. Marion is attacked for about 20 seconds, but no one segment of the attack lasts longer than three seconds. The longest cuts are actually high angle shots of Marion. High angle shots “also tend to make characters look small and are often used by directors to symbolically suggest insignificance or withering authority” (In Point.org). Interestingly enough, these are all scene where Marion is struggling to fend off her attacker. When she loses her “authority” after these cuts is when she is “cut up” the most. He goes back and forth between shots of Norman swinging the knife, to tight shots of Marion screaming, a midriff shot, Marion’s stumbling feet, etc. He keeps the camera jumping around to convey the complete confusion the victim’s last moments alive. Perhaps the final iconic portion of the scene is the extreme close up of Marion’s eye that pans back to revel her entire dead body. Hitchcock had to be a little creative when it came to capturing the complete stillness of death, as his actress could not remain still for the entirety of the shot. Hitch cock actually was panning out of a freeze frame. “Note how, in the finished scene, a droplet of water hangs from Janet Leigh’s [the actress’s] hair until the circling of the camera steadies out and begins to pull back, which is were the frame is unfrozen” (Making A Killing).
Halloween shot the knife murder scene a little differently. Michael Myers did not attack his victim as much as he executed him. The scene starts to pick up when a seemingly bored Michael decides to grab duct tape and a kitchen knife from the drawers. He duct tapes his mother’s boyfriend to the recliner and slits his throat in on quick slice. What makes this scene chilling is the camera angles and camera techniques. A combination of first person point of view shots and “shaky cam” technique bring the audience into the murder much unlike anything else could. The first person allows us to see as the victim saw, while the often frowned upon “shaky cam” technique (Gleiberman) is used subtlety so that the audience experiences the victim’s struggle for life. Another thing that the first person shots do is gives us a nice (inverted) low angle shot of Michael. A low angle shot “tends to focus attention on the size and significance of a character or object. Often directors will use this kind of shot to symbolically announce the power and authority of one of their characters without literally telling the audience this information” (In Point.com). The blood plays a major part in the scene. The flow from the neck is capture from several different angles. We watch the victim bleed out before we ultimately step into their own eyes and die with them. The piercing part of the scene is the very end of the murder when Michael stares down in the camera. This would pull the audience in, as they would feel that this twisted little boy is staring at them as a next possible victim.
While both Halloween and Psycho used good camera angles and techniques to makes their scenes believable, Halloween is missing some key factors that could have taken it into the next level. Problem one would be sound design. The Halloween score was a bit too subdued, while Psycho snared your attention with the violins. The second major problem with the Halloween scene would be the build up/pay off ratio. Hitchcock presented the threat in the bathroom and ten seconds later there was an “action filled” attack scene. Halloween took too long to get to the point. It takes over one minute for Michael to attack once he enters the room and once he does strike, the bound victim squirms just a bit before they pass. The build up to the actual murder was too much to be accompanied by that payoff. The problem lies in today’s filmmakers to use gratuitous amount of blood and gore on film. The blood squirting from Michael’s victim was supposed to carry that scene, but it did not. A New York Daily News review of Halloween speaks to the problem with the decline in the horror genre as of late. The filmmakers are attempting to “shock rather than scare, and does it by heightening the imagery of violence rather than by heightening the tension” (NYDN). Conversely, while Norman Bates stabbed his victim several times, not only was there no physical wounds displayed or created on camera, the little bit of blood shown was diluted in shower water (no flowing thick river).
Halloween was a good movie. It gave interesting backstory tied together by some dynamic camera angles and eerie lighting; however, Psycho is a great movie. Top to bottom, Hitchcock used creative camera angles and techniques, powerful score, good lighting and all to create one of the most memorable scenes/films of all of film history. There is a need to get back to basics in the horror genre. Directors must work closely with their sound designers to ensure that the “punch” in every moment is delivered as necessary. They need to remember that true fear comes from a place of mysterious tension, not blood splatters and dismemberment. Perhaps the tastes of the public have changed to drastically since Hitchcock’s time to produce another dramatically successful thriller with as little blood as Psycho, but to ignore its success would be obscene. While slasher films may continue to gross millions in the box offices, it would seem that none of them will ever live up to their phobia inducing predecessor.
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