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Psycho Killer, Qu'est-ce que c'est?




Serial killers were all the rage throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with films such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Manhunter (1986), Silence of the Lambs (1990) and Se7en (1995) gracing our screens and providing studios with success after success, which begs the question, where did it all begin and why are we so interested in watching these kinds of movies?

      Psycho (1960) more or less invented what we now know to be the ‘slasher’ film, which ultimately blossomed during the 1980s. The film was adapted from a novel of the same name written in 1959 by Robert Bloch, about a transvestite madman who dressed up as his mother and hacked up passing guests in his out-of-the-way motel. Psycho changed the horror genre forever on its release, by transforming the standard thriller narrative and killing off the lead actress halfway through the film, leaving audiences everywhere somewhat bemused.

      Psycho is a psychological thriller which sits on the fence between suspense and gore. 1960 saw a change in filmmakers’ attitudes towards risqué scenes after some moderation in what censors would allow to be shown on screen at the time. The shower scene in Psycho is especially notorious for the excess of knife-stabs that were removed from the original cut. Despite this, the scene still shocked audiences to the core, without the need for the film to show much blood or actual knife-penetration. The blood is so sparse, in fact, that you wouldn’t think a stabbing had even occurred if it were not for Hitchcock’s clever editing and sense of montage. 

      A similar game-changer came out the same year as Psycho: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. The film stars Carl Boehm as Mark Lewis, a voyeuristic killer who stalks women so as to capture their dying moments on film as he stabs them with a blade attached to the tripod-leg of his movie camera. Critics were outraged at the audacity of the film, which seemed to hold up a mirror the their own voyeuristic occupation and accuse each of them of playing a part in the violence and horror that they hypocritically sought to condemn. Powell’s career nose-dived as a result, and Peeping Tom went down in history as the first film to 'call out' audiences and force them to ask themselves why they like to watch this kind of graphic violence.

      Nevertheless, viewers were not deterred and the slasher became such a huge part of the genre that countless films would go on to repeat the same tropes again and again, film after film, moving horror cinema into heavier gore and torture porn by the early 2000s and pushing aside a more psychological approach in favour of buckets of blood. There were, however, plenty of other films that had featured serial killers before the intersection that was Psycho.

      The first celluloid serial killer appeared in a Portuguese short film called The Crimes of Diogo Alves, as early as 1909. Fritz Lang’s M (1931) is often considered to be the first great serial killer movie, despite coming after Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1926), which was a loose take on the 'Jack the Ripper' murders of 1888. M starred Peter Lorre and was Lang’s first sound film. It follows the search for prolific child-killer Hans Beckert after children have been reported missing and mysterious letters arrive at newspaper offices, leading the police on a wild goose chase. M was based on a play which was influenced by the Ripper killings, as many works have been over the years. 

      Jack the Ripper (1959) itself was a Robert S Baker and Monty Berman production written by fledgling Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and starring Lee Patterson and Eddie Byrne. This particular version of the Whitechapel murders deferred to the commonly-held theory that the Ripper was a society doctor and Ewen Solon is revealed to be the culprit at the end. The killings are relatively tame: in one scene, a 'lady of the night' leaves the Red Goose pub and starts down a spooky alleyway where she comes upon Jack and is stabbed to death. The only violence exhibited is a few stabbing motions shown in shadow on the pavement - but the censor had been as exercised as Jack and he had removed a couple of more graphic knife-thrusts.

      Another 1950s' serial-killer thriller is Screaming Mimi, a 1958 film directed by Gerd Oswald (of Outer Limits fame) and starring Anita Ekberg (best known for Fellini’s La Dolce Vita). The film is based on a 1949 noir novel of the same name by Fredric Brown. Mimi’s opening scene has its main character suddenly attacked by a man wielding a knife as she takes an outdoor shower in a bikini, prefiguring Psycho. The man is eventually scared off, leaving Ekberg physically unharmed but mentally scarred. Screaming Mimi quickly descends into conventional thriller territory, but it is interesting to conject how much influence its opening might have had on Hitchcock when he came to make Psycho, as the shower scene in that does not appear in the Robert Bloch novel on which it was based.

      A more obscure serial killer can also be found in House of Wax (1953), the first 3D colour horror film from a major American studio, Warner Bros, which started as a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and ending as a historically-significant addition to the cinema as a whole. It starred Vincent Price and followed the murderous trail of a disfigured sculptor as he hid his dark secret within the wax figures in his museum. House of Wax was remade (after a fashion) in 2005, with Paris Hilton of all people in the cast. The fiery finale got so hot that it burned part of the studio down in the process.

         Some time ago, the band Talking Heads asked the question (in French!), what is a psycho killer? In reality, the answer is pretty simple; in film, less so. And who is most at fault, the killer on screen or the voyeurism of the audience? Both, probably. Let’s not forget that despite the fact that Psycho was the film that almost single-handedly created the slasher sub-genre, there were many earlier films featuring serial-murdering 'rippers' and warped child killers. Audiences have always expressed a desire to watch murder and mayhem, from the earliest days of the Roman 'games' to the bare-knuckle boxing bouts of the Victorian underworld, so on this Valentine’s Day, remember - don’t date the guy who keeps stuffed birds in his room and his mummified mother in a fruit cellar...