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When “Horror” didn’t mean “Horrible”: Remembering Hitchcock

Written by: Ron Bricker

Image The bathroom door is slowly being pushed open…the noise of the shower drowns out any sound. The door is then slowly and carefully closed. We see the shadow of a woman fall across the shower curtain. Marion's back is turned to the curtain. The white brightness of the bathroom is almost blinding. Suddenly we see the hand reach up, grasp the shower curtain, rip it aside…Marion turns in response to the feel and sound of the shower curtain being torn aside. A look of pure horror erupts in her face. A low terrible groan begins to rise up out of her throat. A hand comes into the shot. The hand holds an enormous bread knife. The flint of the blade shatters the screen to an almost total, silver blankness…an impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film. Over it the brief gulps of screaming. And then silence. And then the dreadful thump as Marion's body falls in the tub…

Sounds like a scene from the latest Rob Zombie movie doesn’t it? Actually that’s the classic shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho which was filmed nearly 40 years ago and for my money holds more thrills and chills then any Halloween and Nightmare On Elm Street movie put together.       

With a film career that spanned over 30-years with such titles as Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Rope, Dial M for Murder and of course the all time classic The Birds, Hitchcock has enough thrills and chills in his film library to scare the bejesus out of the most jaded thriller/horror fan. And the most amazing part is that he did it all without showing a single drop of blood nor body part. Hitchcock’s style was psychological—he’d thrill the pants off of you but it was never a cheap in-your-face kind of thrill.  Several of his films have been remade over the years in an attempt to duplicate this style but what these films may have had in technique, they lacked in substance: (Rear Window redone by Christopher Reeve and then again as Disturbia, Dial M for Murder  redone as a A Perfect Murder with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow, and a “why the heck did they bother” scene by scene redo of Psycho with Vince Vaughan and Anne Heche. What Lies Beneath starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer was sort of a homage to Hitchcock’s style but that movie was really more schlock than shock.

The genius of Hitchcock’s films was in his use of music, editing and of course, brilliant directing. A man way ahead of his time, many of his film tricks are still being used in movies today.  The dreaded close-up of the hand on the door knob as the door slowly opens to something unknown on the other side was a device that Hitchcock developed and was first used in  Psycho and singularly creates more thrills than a roomful of Jasons brandishing bloody electric saws. 

The only Hitchcock films that ever actually showed a glimmer of violence was Psycho and The Birds.  In Psycho’s famous shower scene, the violence was more hinted at than actually shown.  All the viewer saw as Janet Leigh was being stabbed in the shower was a shadowy figure on the other side of the shower curtain, a hand with a knife and Leigh screaming for her life.  There were no gory shots of Leigh’s cut up body.  The terror came from the editing: quick shots of a shadowy figure standing on the other side of the shower curtain, a hand holding a knife, a close up of Leigh’s screaming face, then a final shot of the shower drain as the blood flowed out of Leigh’s lifeless body (legend has it that the “blood” used in that scene was actually chocolate syrup as Hitchcock decided that its color and consistency looked like the real thing).  In The Birds, the classic story of our fine feathered friends running amok in a small town in San Francisco, Hitchcock again kept the body count to a minimum but sacrificed nothing to scare us.  Rather than showing scenes of bloated bodies with their eyes pecked out, Hitchcock again used his genius of directing and editing:  quick shots of birds flying perilously close to children; a single shot of a bird quickly taking a single peck at actress Tippi Hedren’s forehead; visuals of birds pecking their way into a house as the inhabitants desperately try to block their entry.  When a dead body is discovered however, the viewer never actually sees it.  Rather, a character stumbles across the unseen body, reacts, then runs home and describes in gory detail what they saw.  Somehow, in a Hitchcock movie that’s all you really need.
So all you thrill fans out there, for a guaranteed thrilling good time, be sure to run out and rent a few classic Hitchcock DVDs then sit back and prepare to be entertained…but be sure and keep the lights on.


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