A boy's best friend is his mother.
It has two big famous plot twists; at the time, Hitchcock went to great lengths to keep them secret (including an ad pleading "Don't give away the ending -- it's the only one we have"), but these days, most people know about both through Popcultural Osmosis even if they know nothing else about the film.
Psycho begins as a crime thriller: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals a large amount of cash from her employer and sets out for California, where she plans to hook up with her lover and start a new life. She stops for the night at the out-of-the-way Bates Motel, run by Momma's Boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who lives with his domineering mother in a house behind the hotel.
Twist #1: As Marion has a shower in her hotel room, a dimly-glimpsed knife-wielding maniac suddenly appears and stabs her to death in the film's most famous and oft-parodied scene.
The rest of the film follows the investigation into Marion's disappearance, first by a detective hired to recover the money she stole, and then, after he also falls victim to the knife-wielding psycho, by Marion's lover and her sister. It appears that Norman's mother may be killing off any woman he shows an interest in (the local sheriff mentions two other unsolved disappearances of young women in the area). This leads into...
Twist #2: Norman's mother has been dead for years. Her domination is now entirely in his head, a split personality with the persona of his mother. It is Norman, under the influence of this personality, who has been committing the murders. Though the Mrs. Bates personality insists that Norman is the real killer because she can't move.
Being such a popular movie, it naturally spawned three sequels (one being made-for-TV) that few know exist. Despite Sequelitis naturally setting in, they received better reviews than expected:
- Psycho II (1983). Norman Bates is released from a mental institution after decades of incarceration. He is cured but relatives of his victims conspire to drive him insane again, hoping to have him re-committed.
- Psycho III (1986). Norman is involved with Maureen Coyle, a mentally unstable former nun. Her suicidal tendencies confuse him... just as "Mother" starts up her old habits again.
- Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990): Norman has been rehabilitated and lives with his girlfriend Connie. He panics when he learns that Connie is pregnant, fearing that the child will inherit his mental illness. The film explores his younger years and his problematic relationship with his mother.
There was also an unrelated 1987 TV movie, Bates Motel, involving a man who'd befriended Norman while being institutionalized with him, and on his release learns that the now-deceased Norman has willed the motel to him. A TV prequel series, also named Bates Motel, premiered in 2013.
In 1998, Gus Van Sant released an almost shot-by-shot remake starring Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn. To the extent that it was the same as the original, it was widely regarded as pointless, and to the extent that it was different, it was widely regarded as inferior (probably the most notable difference being a shot of Norman masturbating). But the fact that somebody thought it might be a good idea suggests what a big place the original film has in the public memory. Indeed, Van Sant may have been doing us a favor: in his own words, he did it "so no-one else would have to". Look at the trend of horror-film remakes that have been released during the Turn of the Millenium and The New Tens (The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Hitcher, Friday the 13th, and even a new version of Hitchcock's own The Birds came close to getting made at one point), and you'll notice he was ahead of the game in preventing Platinum Dunes from touching this one.
The shower scene is now part of movie culture, and the music used, along with the film itself, is used in many scholarly courses as prime examples of their chosen subject.
- Adaptational Attractiveness: In the novel, Norman is middle-aged, overweight, and a drinker. In the film, he is much younger and better looking and your basic "boy next door" type. Hitchcock felt the book's Norman Bates was too unlikable; making him better-looking made him slightly more sympathetic to the audience.
- It also makes what's coming more jarring. Norman of the movie initially comes off as more sweet and lonely than creepy or threatening, even with regards to his hobby of taxidermy (he himself says it's too much, but all he has).
- Adorkable: Initially, at least. Norman is handsome and sweet-natured, but stammering and shy - a little socially awkward. Hitchcock deliberately cast Perkins in the role to create this type of character, saying:
I suddenly saw a tender, vulnerable young man you could feel incredibly sorry for.
- Affably Evil: Norman. Movie-Norman/Anthony Perkins-Norman, that is.
- Affectionate Parody / Adam Westing: Anthony Perkins hosted an episode in the first season of Saturday Night Live, which included an almost-obligatory, and hysterical, skit of Psycho.
- In 1990 (the same year that the Beginning was released), Perkins did an oatmeal commercial as Norman Bates.
- Alone with the Psycho: The scene where Norman and Marion have dinner. It works so much better if you pretend you're watching it without spoilers. You begin the scene wondering what the clearly-going-psycho Marion is going to do to the helpless mamma's boy. As the scene progresses you begin to fear Norman just a little bit more than her.
- And Starring: "And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane".
- Animal Motifs: Specifically, bird motifs: the stuffed birds in the parlor and bird pictures on the walls, Norman comparing himself and Marion to caged birds and noting that she "eat(s) like a bird", Marion's surname is Crane, Norman eats candy corn in a birdlike manner, Marion's robbery happened in Phoenix. Even the trademark Psycho Strings (see below) are reminiscent of a bird's shrieks.
- Anti-Hero: Type II or III. Marion steals $40,000, but the man she steals from isn't the nicest fellow. Also Norman in II (Type V) as he has to deal with a couple of rabble rousers trying to Gaslighting him back into a mental hospital (to say nothing of the copycat killer that waited until the right moment--his release--to strike), and in IV (Type IV) as he has worse problems than a mommy complex to deal with--namely, fears that his coming firstborn could inherit his chronic insanity--and eventually incinerates the Bates Motel that had given him such bad memories as to erode at his sanity BIG TIME.
- Anticlimax: The scene in which the audience finds out the truth about Norman's mother forms an effective climax to the film, but as noted under Viewers are Morons, the scene immediately following it (in which the psychologist details every aspect of Norman's psychosis in exhaustive detail) has been described as "an anticlimax taken almost to the point of parody".
- Anyone Can Die: Both played straight and averted. Considering how genuinely terrifying Marion's death is, and how unexpected it is when it comes, there's only one other casualty for the rest of the movie. Hitchcock reels you in twice with this trope.
- Asshole Victim: Lila becomes this in Psycho II.
- Benevolent Boss: In Psycho III when Norman first meets and hires Duke, he's nice to him right off the bat. Offering him Candy and later offering to bring back burgers for him. It's only when Duke tries to blackmail Bates with knowledge of his crimes and keeping Spool's body as leverage that Norman kills him.
- Beware the Nice Ones: Part of what makes the movie so effective.
- Big Bad: Norman Bates. He ranges anywhere from Villain Protagonist to Type IV or V Anti-Hero throughout the series.
- The exception to this is Psycho II, where Norman is set up to be the Big Bad, but it actually turns out to be Emma Spool. In a grand subversion however, Norman steals the title of Big Bad back from her in the very last scene of the film.
- Break the Cutie: Marion. Her death comes AFTER a conversation with Norman convinces her to go back and turn in the money. It's also heavily implied that his mother's abuse did this to Norman, and made completely explicit in the sequels.
- Canon Discontinuity: The Beginning ignores pretty much everything but the original. Presumably because the ending of the third movie suggests he won't be released again. Arguably justified as Norman had been released in the second movie and deemed sane, but was driven insane again rather quickly and went back to committing murders - making the chances of another release very unlikely indeed.
- Chair Reveal
- Chekhov's Skill: Norman Bates, amateur taxidermist.
- Colliding Criminal Conspiracies
- Cool Car: Marion's '57 Ford Custom Fordor.
- Creator Cameo: As with all Hitchcock films. He's standing outside the bank where Marion works.
- Gus Van Sant pops up in the same location in the remake, along with a Hitchcock lookalike.
- Creepy Basement
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Implied in the original; lamentably explicit in the remake.
- Dead Hand Shot
- Dead Star Walking
- Decoy Protagonist: Marion, and arguably Arbogast. Some have argued that after Marion is killed, Norman becomes the film's real protagonist.
- Deliberately Monochrome: Allegedly to save time and money on special effects, as they could use chocolate syrup rather than having to mix up a batch of Kensington Gore. Hitchcock also said that in color, the fake blood going down the drain would be pink, and pink is not scary.
- Dies Wide Open
- Do Not Spoil This Ending: In 1960, at least. If you don't know the twist by now, either you've been living in a cave or you're an idiot.
- Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Although Bates probably wouldn't be so bad if he could just forget about her.
- Evil Matriarch
- Eye Open: One of the more disturbing ones in cinema history.
- Face Heel Turn: Marion's sister goes from seeking justice on her sister's murderer to just plain paranoid when she hears Norman's being released after 22 years in the mental hospital and spends a good portion of II trying to Gaslighting Norman back into a mental hospital where she thinks he belongs, not giving one shit that he's been cured and trying to make doubly sure his mental health never recovers from this second assault on his sanity.
- Face Revealing Turn
- Fan Disservice: The shower scene.
- Fan Service: Janet Leigh stripped down to a bra and slip in multiple scenes.
- The Film of the Book: Really! There was a novel by Robert Bloch!
- Inverted with the sequel to the novel, also by Bloch. Norman escapes and goes to Hollywood after learning they're making a movie about him.
- Foiler Footage: Psycho IV reportedly had 4 endings filmed to fool... someone.
- Foreshadowing: A lot of Norman's more blackly comic lines ("She's not herself today", "A boy's best friend is his mother" and "Living with an invalid, it's practically like living alone.") and his rambling monologue about mental hospitals take on a much greater significance once you know the ending.
- Freudian Excuse: And how! There's a whole speech at the end explaining the Hollywood Psych behind the plot.
- Gaslighting: Poor Norman in Psycho II.
- Genre Shift
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: We see Norman go in to stare at the dead Marion, then later see him leave the room and wipe his hand on his shirt. Yeah.
- Towards the end of the shower scene, when Marion reaches out and grabs the shower curtain, the naked breasts of body double Marli Renfro are visible in the background out of focus (picture here, possibly NSFW).
- Gollum Made Me Do It
- Good Colors, Evil Colors: Marion changes from white lingerie and a light-colored dress to black lingerie and a darker dress after deciding to embezzle the money.
- Grand Finale: Psycho IV was made into this at Anthony Perkins' request, since he knew he was suffering from AIDS and would likely not have lived long enough to make a fifth film.
- Gut Punch: The shower sequence is possibly the single most famous example ever.
- Halfway Plot Switch: The first half of the film focuses more on Marion's fleeing and her interaction with Norman. The shower murder that triggers the latter of the plot doesn't come until halfway.
- Probably one of the best in cinema history, since most people who haven't seen the movie assume the death is the climax... something Hitchcock counted on with his promotions.
- Hand of Death
- Hell Hotel: Codified the "roadside motel with creepy owner" variation.
- Hey, Wait!: Marion starts to drive away from California Charlie's without her suitcase from her old car.
- I Am Your Mother: Mrs. Emma Spool at the end of Psycho II. She's crazy and not his mother.
- Karma Houdini: Only really in the second movie for murdering Mrs. Pool, not that she was so innocent herself. Otherwise averted, as Norman is arrested for the murders in the first and third movies.
- Kensington Gore: Chocolate syrup variety.
- Knife Nut
- Kubrick Stare: Norman gives a particularly unnerving stare directly at the audience in the last scene.
- Made even creepier by the fact that in the last frames of that scene, Norman's face is superimposed with that of his mother's skull.
- He repeats the same stare in the last scene of Psycho III.
- Kuleshov Effect: The shower scene is often used as an example of this trope. After watching it, everyone immediately understands that Janet Leigh's character has been stabbed to death, but if you slow it down, only three frames actually show a knife piercing human flesh (this is fast enough to count as subliminal messaging). The audience's understanding of what has taken place comes entirely from the way the images and sound are arranged, not from the actual content.
- Love Redeems: A theme in all of the sequels, each of which gives Norman a love interest: Mary, Maureen and Connie. It plays with it a little though: it's more that the love of a good woman might keep Norman stable and deal with his sexual repression though, sadly, it doesn't work well enough in the case of Maureen, and Mary's efforts were undone by the actions of her own mother and Emma Spool.
- MacGuffin: The stolen money is just a motivational element for the lead character to run away and wind up at the motel.
- Unlike most Hitchcock movies, however, the motivation's not the apparent one. It's the red herring that helps set up the Halfway Plot Switch's effectiveness, since Bates is clearly broke. That Marion died was an open secret that everyone knew about, so the revelation that Marion intended to return the cash felt to them like Norman or his mother were going to find out and kill her over it. Hitchcock played to audience expectations, then crushed them an hour early. The end result is that the movie first-time watchers expect is thrown out the window less than halfway through the running time, and nobody knows what to expect next.
- Match Cut: The shower drain to Marion's eye.
- Mirror Scare: Subverted. While searching the Bates house, Lila is startled by her own double reflection in a pair of mirrors in Norman's mother's room.
- Mommy Issues: And how.
- Mr. Exposition: The psychiatrist.
- Mummies At the Dinner Table
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In the second movie, Lila and Mary attempt to Gaslighting Norman in order to drive him crazy again and get him sent back to the asylum for the rest of his life. They only manage the former, likely because they weren't counting on Emma Spool's interference.
- Notable Commercial Campaigns: In a campaign considered unusual for the average movie, signs and trailers reminded people not to come in late to Psycho. Hitchcock commissioned these to make sure everyone got a chance to see Janet Leigh's scenes, and they also ensured that viewers would not miss any important plot information.
- Oedipus Complex: What drove Norman to commit his first murders (if his description of events in the fourth movie are to be trusted, anyway).
- It's pretty obvious he suffers from this based on dialogue from the first film.
- Oh Crap: Arbogast clearly gets a moment of this.
- Peek-a-Boo Corpse: Even if you already know Norma Bates is dead, her corpse will freak you out. No eyes!
- It's worse than that. Every bird in the movie was literally a Chekhov's Gun staring right at you.
- Pet The Dog In Psycho III we get an in depth process on how Norman does his taxidermy hobby. Which in turn shows how he managed to get the tools and resources to preserve Norma and later Emma Spool. He has an old bird feeder full of seeds, which are laced with strychnine. The birds naturally take the Bate and drop dead. Norman then hollows them out, stuffs them with preserving stuffing, picks out eyes and sews it together. After a brief hallucination, Norman spots the bag he collected the birds in beginning to move. Naturally it scares him to the point where he backs up against the counter. Only to find to his relief that one of the "Dead" birds was merely stunned and coming out of the bag. Rather than catch it and kill it to add to his collection, he picks it up gently and sends it flying away. His smile throughout the whole thing being much more heartwarming than his usual creepy smirk.
- Psychopathic Manchild: Norman. It becomes more apparent when Lila Crane snoops through Norman's room and finds his toys.
- Psycho Strings: Trope Namer, along with "Psycho" Shower Murder Parody.
- NGG! NGG! NGG! NGG!
- Redemption Equals Death: Marion takes her fatal shower more or less immediately after deciding to go back to Phoenix, return the money, and face the music.
- Sequel Hook: The second movie ends with Norman driven insane again, but thought perfectly harmless by the authorities. He's also back at the motel again with "mother" watching over him.
- Serial Killer: Norman Bates is easily one of the most famous examples.
- Sex Is Evil and I Am Horny: Norman's reaction in the novel when he is peeking Marion in her room.
- Shallow Love Interest: Sam Loomis could be seen as one of these for Marion.
- Shovel Strike: Emma Spool's fate in Psycho II.
- Shower Scene
- The Shrink
- Sinister Shades: Worn by the cop who wakes Marion up in her car.
- Slasher Movies: Not a full member of the genre, but a clear influence on those that followed.
- While the movie does codify the short, vicious bursts of violence punctuating long set-ups, it's otherwise thoroughly averted. Only two people die on-camera, and a third is only threatened. While there's plenty implying that this isn't the first time Norman's killed, even since his mother, the gore is subdued and the violence mostly off-camera.
- Slashers Prefer Blondes. More accurately, Alfred Hitchcock prefers blondes.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Waaaaay over on the cynical side.
- Sorting Algorithm of Mortality / Sorting Algorithm of Deadness: Notable for defying both of these. No one expected the main character to be killed off, and even less expected her to stay dead once it happened. And yet, that's what this film does. Think about how few films defy this rule even today, and you get a sense of just how ahead of its time Psycho was.
- Split Personality Takeover
- Stealing From the Till
- Sweet Tooth
- Taxidermy Is Creepy: Yep.
- The Unfair Sex: Averted. Marion's a thief and Norman's mother was abusive.
- Ur Example: Of the Slasher Movie
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story. One of 1,000 films based on good ole Ed Gein.
- To put this in perspective, the other movie famously based on this is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The primary difference is that Psycho reflects more on how seemingly harmless and normal Norman was, while TCM dwells primarily on the grisly nature of Gein's crimes.
- Viewers are Morons: Surely the only explanation for the psychiatrist scene.
- Roger Ebert criticized that scene in his 1998 review of the film, saying it "marred the ending of a masterpiece" and was "an anticlimax taken almost to the point of parody." Hitchcock, having made Psycho before villains as psychologically screwed up as Norman Bates were commonplace, may have believed that the audience would be unable to accept his behavior unless the motives were spelled out in explicit detail. Knowing that doesn't make the nearly-five-minute speech any easier to sit through, though.
- Villainous Crossdresser: Probably Trope Codifier.
- Villain Protagonist: Marion is a thief. Norman's evil personality is a murderer. Norman's "good" personality tries to cover up the evidence of the evil personality's crimes.
- Wall Slump
- Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Norman. The things he does are quite "mad," but look at who raised him. How could anyone not sympathize with him in at least some capacity?