“Oh, mother! Blood…blood!”
Moviegoers and TV viewers can’t get enough of the red stuff. Bates Motel debuted to 4.6 million viewers, the most for a drama premiere in A&E history, showing what a powerful chokehold Psycho, and the slasher film subgenre it spawned, continues to have on our cultural psyche. The modern day-set prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary film is a show that the Master of Suspense himself might have liked: most notably because it identifies so strongly (and empathetically) with the central mother-son duo of Norma and Norman Bates. That distinguishes Bates Motel from much of slasher storytelling these days, movies that are so deliberately anti-humanistic that they’re not actually scary. Or that get so bogged down in elaborating every last bit of backstory, that they take all the mystery out of a slasher scenario…and aren’t scary. Or they go the way of a spoof…and aren’t scary. So what happened to the scare factor of slasher storytelling? On the occasion of Bates Motel’s killer debut, let’s retrace the genre’s bloody breadcrumbs to find out why, starting with the movie that kicked off the whole thing.
Alfred Hitchcock Releases Psycho in 1960, and the Slasher Film is Born
It’s hard to overvalue the impact the Master of Suspense’s film made upon its first theatrical run and the influence it’s had on 53 years of cinema since. Everything about it was unique. Its marketing campaign, including a trailer in which Hitchcock took us on a tour of the Bates House and Motel, was an elaborate bit of misdirection, indicating nothing of the out-of-blue terror that awaited its audience. With gimmicks like a nationwide ban on movie theater employees allowing patrons to enter Psycho after it began, it was pretty much the beginning of hype culture and spoiler culture. Except that it really delivered the goods.
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Psycho rewrote the rules of horror filmmaking. For decades, Hollywood had mined fear in monsters, the supernatural, aliens, mutants from nuclear blasts, but rarely from anything like serial killers. There are a few exceptions of course. John Brahms’ 1945 version of The Lodger is a clear predecessor to Psycho in its uniquely Freudian take on the Jack the Ripper story, featuring Laird Cregar, in a towering performance, as the infamous London killer. Cregar’s Ripper was obviously suffering from a hard case of incestuous homoeroticism—he’d fallen in love with his brother—and had to vent his hatred against all womankind with a knife after a woman drove his brother to commit suicide.
Like The Lodger, and unlike all the monster movies that preceded it, Psycho drew deeply upon modern psychology in its portrait of Norman Bates. As inhabited by Anthony Perkins, here was a guy with a guilt complex related to his mother so severe that he basically adopts her personality and violently suppresses his male sexual urges by slashing to death the objects of his fancy: beautiful young women like Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane. But the really interesting thing about Psycho is that, for as much time as it spends having a psychologist character explain all of this Freudian stuff at the end, the movie—and Hitchcock—also seems profoundly skeptical of that psychological reading. How can headshrinking possibly explain all the crazy things that people do in this world? The psychologist who pops up at the end seems to give a rote explanation for Norman and his crimes, but Hitchcock doesn’t give the shrink the last word: he gives that to Norman, staring directly into the camera, as “Mother” talks about how she would “never hurt a fly.” And then suddenly, Hitch cuts to the closing shot of the movie, of a car being pulled out of a swamp. It’s like he’s saying that some mysteries can’t be explained. They’re as murky as that swamp and our attempts to make sense of them are inherently wrongheaded. The real truth is that crazy s*** that has no explanation can happen in this world, and can happen a lot, in fact. And that crazy s*** can have life-altering (or -ending) consequences. You can be going along, driving north to be with your boyfriend after having stolen some money from your company and thinking that crime alone will alter your life forever. Then, something completely out of left field, totally unrelated to your hopes, dreams, and fears, can enter your life and derail it. Psycho is fundamentally about the uncertainty of life, its precariousness, its randomness, and, above all, how the story continues after you’re gone.
‘Bates Motel’ At SXSW
Post-Psycho Slasher Cinema Found Its Terror in Outsiders
This was the first step to making slasher movies less thought-provoking, and it arrived as the next great wave of horror flicks after Psycho. We’re talking about ‘70s horror, particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. In Psycho, Norman Bates actively tried to appear “normal,” even if his attempts to do so made him especially abnormal. But on the surface he did pretty much seem to be like your typically awkward twentysomething—aside from the taxidermy hobby, his tendency to walk everywhere with both hands in his pockets, and a neverending hunger for candy corn. He was the boy next door. Except that this boy next door was also a serial killer. With The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, arguably the next great slasher flick after Psycho, the abnormal wasn’t located under a veneer of normalcy. It was just abnormal, no matter how you looked at it. There was a family of creepy, incestuous hillbillies, led by a chainsaw-wielder wearing a mask of leather, who lived up to their creepiness by killing young people who stray onto their farm. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is basically just Psycho meets Deliverance. Rather than the unnatural and the horrific being a part of everyday life, as Hitchcock had implied, director Tobe Hooper marginalized horror. It was to be found outside of civilized life, where people operate by different rules. That’s also the underlying premise of John Carpenter’s Halloween, where robot killer Michael Myers is just a mental hospital escapee. He’s a crazy guy! And crazy guys do crazy things like kill people.
Slasher Cinema Became Increasingly Puritanical, Making It Less Scary
Though The Texas Chainsaw Massacre featured hillbillies killing teenagers or twentysomethings, you didn’t get the sense that any of the young folks were being punished for there transgressions. That would not be the case in Black Christmas, Halloween, and Friday the 13th, all of which imply that teenagers who have sex or otherwise stray outside the confines of traditional morality are fair game for punishment at the dagger tip of a maniac. In essence, they get what’s coming to them. And only the virgin can be the “Last Girl Standing.”
Carlton Cuse Says Making ‘Bates Motel’ a ‘Psycho’ Homage ‘Isn’t Engaging’
This is the first time that the actual scariness of the genre began to be undermined. If you don’t identify with the characters who are getting killed, if you think that on some level they’re getting what they deserve by being stabbed to death, how can you genuinely be frightened for them? In order to feel fright on behalf of a movie character, you’ve got to have empathy for that character. In fact, you could argue that horror in its purest form—horror movies that elicit genuine fright—have to be humanistic by their nature. If you want to see the people onscreen get slaughtered, then you’re not going to be scared. You can’t have suspense if you’re not invested in the survival of the characters, only shock. The killings, then, become the equivalent of money shots in porn—context-free arousals of momentary sensation.
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Again, Hitchcock’s unique perversity stands in contrast to the more puritanical streaks you’ll find in the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises. Rather than Marion Crane being slashed to death inside Cabin No. 1’s shower at the Bates Motel because she stole that money and had sex with her boyfriend out of wedlock, she is only killed after she has resolved to return the money and make good. She takes the shower to symbolize her purification, that she’s redeemed herself. She wears a white bra instead of a black bra. And then she’s killed. Hitchcock gives us the exact opposite of what would come later—he kills the good girl.
NEXT: A Nightmare on Elm Street is one step forward for the genre. Scream is two steps back. Plus, the rise of torture porn and the "origin story."
Though some of its sexual politics are no more progressive than what you’d find in Halloween or Friday the 13th, Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street does represent a different, more provocative punishment narrative. Rather than the young people being idiots who need to be killed, the teenagers in Nightmare are suffering because of the sins of their parents, and they need to redeem their parents’ sins in order to save themselves. Years before, the parents of a bunch of high-school kids had committed an act of vigilante justice: they cornered a known sex offender, Fred Krueger, in a warehouse and burned it down, with him in it. His body died, but he lived on in spirit form to menace their children in their dreams. The implication is that the parents didn’t obtain justice correctly—they did so in a way that was vengeful rather than noble—so Krueger's evil was never properly exorcised. The kids, led by Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), have to reclaim their lives from the horrible consequences of their parents’ mistake. Here, the young people are the heroes, and the old, “wise” folks are not so wise.
Scream(s)…of Laughter? The Slash Spoof is Born
Craven himself would help put the nail in the coffin of slasher cinema. By turning it into a joke. His Scream movies diced up the genre’s conventions and revealed how staid they had become. The only way to make slasher movies fresh was to make fun of their very existence, until the spoofs themselves become even more uninspired than the movies they’re making fun of (see: Scream 3 and 4).
That’s why Drew Goddard’s The Cabin In the Woods was such a revelation. More a legitimate satire than a spoof, it showed real affection for the genre, created a truly lovable group of college kids to root for, then came up with a hilariously mythic explanation for why they’d have to die—and even beyond that, why we’re filled with bloodlust to want to see them die. It’s the one and only entry in this entire genre that locates the mentality of wanting to see people slaughtered onscreen in the same part of the human psyche that used to find human sacrifices, gladiatorial matches, and public executions to be forms of entertainment.
Other than The Cabin In the Woods, the slasher spoofs have discouraged emotional investment beyond the level of light chuckles. In a sense, they’re not that far afield from the torture porn sub-subgenre, where fear of death (the essential ingredient for true horror) totally evaporates and is replaced by a longing for it. The audiences who go to see Saw or Hostel and get off on people being mutilated in increasingly Baroque ways are no longer afraid of Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger. They themselves have become Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger, even if they confine their bloodlust to the images they vicariously receive onscreen. These movies don’t encourage identification with the victims, they only identify with the killers. That’s the complete reversal of a true horror movie setup.
Getting back to Psycho, if we accept that part of what made it so great was its view that psychology couldn’t explain what happened, by extension, then, examining the biographical details of Norman Bates’ life shouldn’t be any more revelatory. Hence, the inherent (possibly damning) flaw of Bates Motel. Doesn’t an origin story by its very nature seek to dispel any mystery about its subject? And isn’t the presence of mystery an important part of horror? In the long run, that could be a major issue for A&E’s show. So far, though, I don’t think so, because Norman hasn’t shown any sign of being a psycho himself just yet, and also because the show seems to empathize so strongly with both him and his mother.
That said, the “high concept” mindset of Hollywood that demands that each little crevice of every major franchise be explored and explained in detail has meant the return of shallow pop psychology to a whole bunch of horror projects. There are almost as many horror franchise origin stories as there are superhero origin stories these days: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning; Rob Zombie’s Halloween, which showed Michael Myers’ early days; The Exorcist got not one but two prequels; and now Bates Motel. It used to be that horror flicks were turned into franchises by getting sequelized. Now, if there are too many sequels, make a prequel, with all the details that the original filmmakers didn’t think were necessary to include in their first film.
So, yeah, slasher films—and really, horror movies in general—have all but creatively expired, even if they're still making box office ticket-takers happy. Compared to almost all of its copycats and successors, it seems that Psycho is the film equivalent of the Last Girl Standing: fierce, untainted, and as strong as ever.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: A&E; Lionsgate; Compass International Pictures; Paramount Pictures; Dimenion Films]
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A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Don Draper might not be the pinnacle of “good boyfriend material,” but his portrayer Jon Hamm has been in a happy relationship for 15 years—and with a woman you probably know: Jennifer Westfeldt, the actress, writer and director behind the upcoming comedy film Friends with Kids, also starring Hamm, Kristen Wiig, and Adam Scott as the man who decides to enter the realm of parenthood with platonic friend Westfeldt.
Westfeldt is an interesting and accomplished artist in many fields, and a model individual for respectable celebrity personal life. And although you likely know her work, there might be a few things you did not know about Westfeldt…
She Directs, Writes, Produces and Stars in her Movies
Friends with Kids is Westfeldt’s directorial debut, but it is hardly the first time she has had multiple roles on the set of a film. Westfelt wrote, produced and starred in the 2001’s Kissing Jessica Stein and 2006’s Ira and Abby, both films about chaotic, misappropriated relationships that were rushed into on a whim—a theme that continues through Friends with Kids. It’s a wonder that a woman with such a passion for erratic, dysfunctional relationships has been in a happy and healthy one for 15 years.
She Saved Jessica Stein from Oblivion, Making the Movie Herself
Production on Kissing Jessica Stein wasn’t going well—the studio was hard on the offbeat project, eventually rendering it something that would likely never find form. But after the studio lost interest, Westfeltd and her partner Heather Juergensen bought back the rights to the film—which likely took a good deal of negotiation—and funded the project independently from intake on shares. As a result, we got the smart, original rom-com that launched Westfeldt’s multi-hyphenate career.
She’s Not Just a Movie Star: She Does TV and Theater, Too
One of Westfeldt’s earliest jobs was on the ABC sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, opposite Ryan Reynolds and Traylor Howard. Over the course of her career, Westfeldt has starred in several Broadway and off-Broadway productions, including Wonderful Town, for which she earned a Tony nomination for her role as Eileen.
She and Hamm Live Like Normal People (Which, as Celebrities, They Are Not)
Westfeldt and Hamm live together in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City—granted, Manhattan apartments are on the expensive side, but there is nothing overtly ostentatious about their home or the way they lead their personal lives. They deliberate about the decision to have children, make compromises for the relationship, and make a point to never go more than two weeks without seeing each other, despite their demanding work schedules.
She Is Descended from Swedish Nobility
Granted, this doesn’t have anything to do with her career or personal life, but it’s still a pretty interesting bit of information. The writer/actress comes from the noble family of Wästfelt, one of many lineages introduced at the Swedish House of Nobility and listed in the country’s Book of Peerage. Perhaps we might be in for a romantic comedy/drama about a noble Swede who hastily takes up with a commoner, to chaotic results?
With the new role of director on Westfeldt's plate, it is easy to assume that her career is still on the rise. Might this be the first of many directorial projects the writer/actress takes on? Could we be seeing more of her signature brand of romance and comedy on the big screen? Or maybe something different: a comedy about a long lasting relationship between two lauded celebrities. She's obviously done the research.
Click the above photo to see more images of Jennifer Westfeldt and Jon Hamm. Source: The New York Times
Gilly Noble (Chris Klein) is a gentle innocent chap who works at the animal shelter and dreams of finding his biological mother. When he walks into the local beauty salon he gets his hair (and ear) chopped by the beautiful Jo (Heather Graham) who instantly becomes the love of his life. But soon after their engagement it's revealed that Jo's mother (Sally Field) is Gilly's as well subjecting him to every incest joke imaginable. By the time Gilly finds out it was all a mix-up Jo's already engaged to a shady millionaire (Eddie Cibrian) so Gilly sets off to stop the wedding with the help of a pilot with no legs (Orlando Jones).
Since this movie is produced (but not directed) by Peter and Bobby Farrelly and follows in the same vein of their "are-they-really-gonna-go-there" brand of toilet humor parallels to their massive hit There's Something About Mary are inevitably drawn. But Chris Klein is no Ben Stiller and because Gilly has no comic dimensions of his own (everything just happens to him) he doesn't do much more than make puppy eyes and look shocked. Graham continues her one-step-forward two-steps-back career by relying on wide-eyed sympathy glances rather than actual acting. Sally Field almost escapes wrath by playing gold-digging white trash with true camp -- but we said almost.
If J.B. Rogers making his directorial debut was going for groans rather than laughter he sure got them. Preview audiences weren't exactly rolling in the aisles when Gilly pieces together a mustachioed disguise from the trash behind Jo's beauty salon not realizing he's using waxed-off pubic hair. They also didn't really howl with laughter when Gilly somehow loses the engagement ring inside a (really fake-looking) cow's butt and then gets his hand caught inside. The film tries its hardest to cram in all the gags it can in a mercifully short 97 minutes but forgot to make sure they were funny.