Bloody Postmodernism: A Comparison of Psycho and American Psycho

 ‘Director Hitchcock bears down too heavily in this one, and the delicate illusion of reality necessary for a creak-and-shriek movie becomes, instead, a spectacle of stomach-churning horror.’  (Kolker, 2004)

Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic and evocative horror, paved the way for the horror genre with its provocative sexuality, graphic violence and perhaps the biggest twists an audience had seen in the 1960s. American Psycho (2000), Brett Easton Ellis’s controversial novel brought to life on the big screen, is a satirical view of Wall Street and the capitalist, consumerist, ‘yuppie culture’ of the 1980s. This essay will carry out a critical, theoretically informed analysis and comparison of two scenes from within these films, evaluating target audience, cultural contexts, and the relationship they have to the overall narrative artefact.

Both directors Alfred Hitchcock and Mary Harron were extremely deliberate in their direction, every shot created with purpose, whether it be a shadow over half of Bates’ face, an owl perched above his shoulder, or the facemask peeled off Bateman’s face in the mirror (Pramaggiore and Wallis, 2011); but their styles in portraying similar themes were very different.

This essay will analyse and compare the different ways in which directors Mary Harron and Alfred Hitchcock present similar themes and motifs within the films Psycho and American Psycho, as well as their choices of cinematography, non-diegetic devices such as music and narration, and the cultural context and influence of both films.

Further, using Barthes theory on the Five Narrative Codes (1970), this essay will compare the ways in which both the ‘Morning Routine’ scene and the ‘Parlor’ scene use proairetic coding to create tension. In addition, the essay will explore how both scenes use semantic codes to deliver a series of deeper messages to the audience in the form of motif and symbolism (Pramaggiore and Wallis, 2011). Further, the essay will discuss how the hermeneutic codes create and answer enigmas in Psycho, but leave enigmas unanswered in American Psycho, a key element of postmodernist horror.

Finally, the essay will discuss the evolution of the horror genre, from classical horror to postmodern slasher, and analyse the relationship between industry and audience in the development of genre. In addition, the essay will note how Psycho was one of the first influential slasher horror films, which paved the way for postmodern slasher horrors such as American Psycho.

Because this essay is a close analysis of two scenes, there are limitations to the amount of content and detail that this essay can cover. As such, the essay will concentrate on four keys areas – the relationship between genre and audience, an analysis of the mise-en-scene, a comparison of the themes and tones of both films and a discussion of postmodernism in the two films.

Context and description of films:

Pushing the boundaries of film censorship, Alfred Hitchcock shocked the 1960s audience with two twists in Psycho that they had never seen before. Killing off the main character a third way through the film, the director disorientated the audience, and made them ready to focus on perhaps one of the most macabre, yet charming and most disturbed psychopaths of the time: Norman Bates. This departure from the ‘Classic Hollywood’ narrative, focusing on a brave protagonist with perfect morals, completely shocked the audience, defying their expectations.

Further, critics and audiences were shocked by the violence shown on screen, ‘the shocking violence – even a shot of a flushing toilet – were radical in commercial cinema at the time’ (Robb, 2010). However, Clover would argue that Psycho did not show any more violence than other films of the time, instead the censorship issue lay in the idea that the film ‘sexualised the motive and the action of violence’ (1992. P. 21-64) – a frequently occurring element in the slasher horror.

Moreover, both films received a mixed reception by critics and audiences upon their release. American Psycho was met with outrage from leading feminists, notably Christian Bale’s Step Mother — while Psycho caused a stir upon audiences and lacklustre reviews among critics.

Themes, tone and technology:

Dealing with the themes of consumerism, misogyny and alienation, to name just a few, American Psycho is littered with dark humour, moments of exaggerated, comic violence, and an almost mirror-like reflection of the machismo filled, ‘yuppie’, monotonous society prevalent in the 1980s. Using a voiceover narration throughout the film, the audience is given a disturbing yet comic insight into the anti-hero’s psyche. Indeed, the audience is forced to watch from the warped, unfeeling point of view of Bateman, almost becoming complicit in his brutal actions, yet remaining detached at the same time as we witness this anti-hero protagonist lose control.

However, while it can be inferred that the filmmaker has intended to deliver a series of messages, metaphors and social critiques throughout the film, the audience is allowed to discover them for themselves.

Covering the themes of mental health, the Oedipus complex and sexual repression, to name just a few, Psycho was and still is a spine-chilling reminder that killers are not always as obvious as people might assume. While the anti-hero (or in this case you could argue the antagonist) is a charming and shy ‘mummy’s boy’ half of the time, his other half is inhabited by a psychopathic killer in the form of his mother, Norma.

Interestingly, Hitchcock funded Psycho himself, using a TV crew to shoot, and for the most part scenes were shot using only two cameras (Rebello 1990). This came at a time when ‘Old Hollywood’ was in crisis, the rise of broadcast television providing audiences with entertainment on a quicker and cheaper scale. Hitchcock combined the production of TV with the performance and stardom of film, creating something completely new for audiences. However, by filming in black and white, Hitchcock also brought to the audience’s mind a memory of the old cinema, and of a more prosperous time for Hollywood. Laura Mulvey describes that Hitchcock produced ‘a sense of the ‘new’ out of a rearrangement of the ‘old’’ (2006, P.85).

Furthermore, shooting in black and white not only cut the cost of the production, it also enabled the film to pass through the strict censorship of the 1960s (Rebellio 1990). In contrast, however, it can be inferred that American Psycho, created in the wake of violent slasher horror films, did not have to worry as much about strict censorship, due to a change in culture, and the audience’s numbness to onscreen violence. This also meant that the main narrative of the film was able to include the bloodshed and graphic scenes included in the original novel’s narrative. Interestingly both Psycho and American Psycho share the themes of sexualised violence and murder – key elements of the slasher horror genre.

Defining genre and postmodernism:

Since the 1960s, horror has advanced from classical Nosferatu (1922) style, focusing on the protagonists’ killing of the evil monster, to the postmodern, contemporary slasher horrors such as American Psycho. In contrast to classic horror films, there seems to be a trend with postmodern horror in concentrating more on the all-too-human antagonist, rather than the classic horror monsters such as Frankenstein’s Monster or Dracula.

Scholars have long since argued the definition of postmodernism, and in some cases, whether it exists as a concept at all. Lyotard (1979) argues post-modernism is a condition, and a pushing away of the grand narrative, Owens (1983) argues that postmodernism is ‘a crises of cultural authority.’

However, for the purposes of argument, this essay will consider postmodernism to be, ‘a critique of the established order, in the names of the obstructed ambitions of individuals (Gitlin 1981. P.347) and a focusing on heterogeneity rather than the meta-narrative, or the idea of a Classic Hollywood Narrative, and finally a deconstructing of universal truths and binaries.

Using this definition therefore, the essay argues that Psycho is indeed a postmodern film, or at least contains postmodern elements due to its breaking down the rigid idea of being male or female, good or bad (deconstructing universal binaries). Linda Williams writes, ‘Psycho’s array of dislocations – between normal and psychotic; between masculine and feminine (…) I would like to identify as postmodern’ (2000 p.360). However, Zizek disagrees, stating that Psycho is a modern film due to the dialectical tensions between the historical and the present, which he feels was embodied between the old family style house compared to the modern hotel (1992 p.231).

Further, while there is some contention as to the genre Psycho fits into, this essay will argue that, like American Psycho, it belongs to the genre of the slasher horror. Stom and Miller discussed genre as if it were a process: ‘The process-like nature of genres manifests itself as an interaction between three levels: the level of expectation, the level of generic corpus, and the level of the ‘rules’ or ‘norms’ that govern both’ (2000 p.165). This means that genre is made up of audience expectation, the body of works identified as being similar, and the classic rules of that category.

Using that theory of genre, it can perhaps be argued that Psycho does not fit in to the category of slasher horror – due in part to the 1960s audience expectation of a thriller or a mild ‘creak and shriek movie’, as referenced in the quote at the beginning of this paper. Especially, when considering that as the time of its release Psycho would only have been compared to previous horror films, as the slasher horror subgenre had not yet emerged.

However, going further, Neal writes: ‘Genres should be conceived as a grouping of literary works based, theoretically, upon both outer form (specific metre or structure) and also upon inner form (attitude, tone, purpose—more crudely, subject and audience’) (2000. P.11). Using this definition of genre, considering the inner and outer forms of the ‘slasher film’ when compared to Psycho, perhaps it can be considered a slasher. Indeed, the slasher horror genre and Psycho both share an eerie tone, horror fuelled purpose, first person viewpoint of the antagonist, and of course the brutal, sexualised murders; ‘approached as a horror film, Psycho is often regarded as a turning point in the history of the genre,’ Gitlin writes (1989. p.46 -47).

Moreover, this essay argues that a key element of the slasher /postmodern horror film is the blurring of the lines between binary opposites, for example good and evil or reality and illusion. In Psycho, Norman Bates is a character that certainly blurs the line between good and evil, not only in his actions but also in his own psyche. In comparison, American Psycho blurs the line between reality and illusion, leaving key enigmas unanswered by the end of the film. Pinedo explains:

‘The universe of the contemporary horror film is an uncertain one, in which good and evil, normality and abnormality, reality and illusion become virtually indistinguishable’ (Pramaggiore and Wallis 2011).

Further, another key element of the post-modern, slasher horror is the form in which the antagonist takes. Stom and Miller write, ‘the spectacle of the monster seems to take second billing to the increasingly numerous victims slashed by the sexually disturbed but entirely human monsters’ (2000 p.211). This essay argues that this shift in perspective from classical monster to troubled human antagonist originated from Hitchcock’s Psycho, where half way through the film the narration shifted to Bates’ first person point of view. Because of the ingenuity and success with this idea, a new trend began in blurring the lines between good, bad, right, and wrong, opening up new psychological possibilities. Therefore, it can be inferred that it was the success of Psycho that paved the way for a new sub-genre of slasher horror films, which bred American Psycho.

However, Schneider describes the slasher film thusly,

‘loosely defined as a horror film in which isolated psychotic individuals (usually males) are pitted against one or more young people (usually female) whose looks, personalities, and/or promiscuities serve to trigger recollections of some past trauma in the killer’s mind’ (2000 p.73-87.)

This definition, while not necessarily fitting American Psycho and Psycho exactly, does borrow elements that can be found in both films. For example, the psycho-sexual triggered murders appear in both films, brought out by Bate’s repressed attraction to Marion in Psycho and Bateman’s attraction to power in American Psycho. Further, Altman (1990, p.12) explains that the fluid relationship between semantics, the building blocks of the genre, and syntax, structural arrangement, can account for the hybrid nature of film, or the ‘differing levels of genericity.’ In conclusion, while American Psycho and Psycho do not fit rigidly within the definitions of the postmodern slasher horror, they do contain elements, allowing for a fluidity between genres.

Mise-en-scene:

The morning routine scene in American Psycho is the third scene in the film, shown directly after the audience are given a glimpse into Bateman’s psychotic and aggressive nature, hidden behind his outer physical perfection. In the scene, the audience are shown Patrick Bateman as he performs his morning routine, describing to the audience via first person narration, each step and his reasons behind performing them. Bateman’s first-person narration focalizes the narrative through his perspective, making the audience complicit in his comic thoughts as he showers, exercises and uses copious amounts of branded product.

The use of this style of narration not only gives the audience a glimpse into Bateman’s psyche, but also raises the question of his psychology and motivation in narrating the story, and further whether he is in fact reliable – a key unanswered enigma at the end of the narrative as a whole (another key element of postmodern horror). A further non-diegetic aspect of the scene is the tranquil, blissful piano that plays throughout Bateman’s routine – almost mimicking an advert as Bateman describes his many branded products and walks through his bland designer inspired apartment, and showers like an actor from a ‘Head and Shoulders’ advert.

This helps to show the idea that the modern ‘yuppie’s’, or Patrick Bateman’s life, is essentially made up of consumerism and product placement. Individual taste and thought is irrelevant in this lifestyle. However, the tone of the music then shifts, strings blaring and the blissful music fading away, as Bateman peels off his face mask, revealing his ‘true self’ to the audience. The strings play to change the tone in the scene, adding an eerie sense of dread, not unlike the technique Hitchcock used in Psycho.

The use of lighting in this scene also reinforces an important message: the cinematographer uses natural, high-key lighting, which not only shows the time of day, but also to shows Bateman, a psychopathic murderer, in the beams of lighting shining on him through the window. This represents the idea that murderers can be found anywhere, and that they do not always hide in the dark. However, it is interesting to note that this choice of lighting and music is an unusual one for the horror genre.

Moreover, the scene begins by showing the audience the bland, branded apartment via a tracking shot, creating the illusion that we as the viewers’ are entering the property and panning to have a look around each room. The cinematographer also uses this tracking shot method to approach the shower, almost voyeuristically, as Bateman showers in the nude, zooming in to a middle close up. This is a useful method in introducing the idea of voyeurism to the audience early on in the film, whilst also showing the audience Bateman’s perfect body, which goes hand in hand with his narcissism.

Within several shots in the scene, Harron plays with the idea of reflection. An over shoulder POV shot zooms in to a picture of the Les Miserable poster, with half of Bateman’s face reflected in the glass, then later as Bateman looks into the mirror, two reflections surround him. The motif of reflection is deployed as a symbolic representation of Bateman’s two-faced nature, one side the perfect, cultured executive, the other the psychopathic axe murderer.

In terms of characterisation, Patrick Bateman is viewed via objective treatment vigorously exercising and precisely slathering himself with various branded products, showing his vein and narcissistic nature. The voice over narration is delivered in an almost robotic, perfectly enunciated way, again showing the idea that Bateman is not quite human: ‘Patrick Bateman represents the “ultimate consumer, someone who is composed entirely of inauthentic commodity-related desires [and who] cannot exist as a person’ (Jameson. F., 1983, p. 111-112).

The ‘parlor scene’, from Psycho, appears towards the beginning of the film when the audience is first introduced to Norman Bates. This scene is pivotal to the overall narrative artefact as it is the first time the audience is given a glimpse of Bates’s split and dangerous nature.

Hitchcock’s use of non-diegetic sound is key in setting and maintaining the tone of the scene. Strings are played as the conversation unfolds, softly at first but then increasing, almost like an animal stalking its prey. Silence then falls, to make full dramatic use of scene and the dialogue and performance within it, with the strings returning moments later but more eerie and intense, building a sense of fear.

Further, Hitchcock uses hard, low-key lighting, not uncommon in the horror genre. However, he makes use of shadow in the scene to create subtle hints metaphors within the scene. For example, when Bates leans forward the audience see a shadow fall across half of his face – highlighting his duplicitous, split nature – not dissimilar to Haron’s use of reflection in American Psycho to convey a similar meaning.

The use of cinematography shots within the scene play a key role in ramping up the tension. Though not much physical action takes place, the use of eye line medium shots, swapping to reverse shots, allows the audience to feel as if they are caught right in the middle of the tense exchange. Hitchcock then swaps to a low angle shot, showing the Bates in a towering and menacing light, almost as if he, like the stuffed owl above his shoulder, is about to swoop down on his prey. The way the shots were edited clearly reflected Eisenstein’s (1987) thinking on montages. He hypothesised that editing should emphasize the differences between shots – something seen clearly within this scene.

In both films, the fabula and syuzhet occur in the same order – presented in the form of a linear narrative. As Barthes hypothesized (1970), films are synthesized by a series of interwoven codes. In Psycho the proairetic coding creates copious amounts of tension – though ironically, it is the lack of action and movement that creates suspense, rather than the action itself, as the audience wait to see how the exchange between Bates and Marion will end. In American Psycho there are many unanswered enigmas at the denouement of the film, again enforcing the idea that this film is postmodern.

Further, semantic codes are seen throughout the scenes in both films, and are pivotal to understanding the deeper meaning throughout the narrative. For example, the mask Bateman peels off his face in the mirror, appears on the surface as just another part of his daily routine, however its connotations are that Bateman is in fact peeling off his metaphorical mask to reveal his true nature to the audience. In a similar way, Hitchcock used symbolic coding in the ‘parlor scene’ with his use of props. Indeed, the owl placed just above Bates shoulder seems like merely a stuffed animal on the wall, however it connotes both the watchful eye of Mother over Bates and also the predatory nature of Bates himself, almost as if he, like the owl, is about to swoop down on his prey.

Both Hitchcock and Harron used reflection as a means to convey a message to the audience. Whilst this cannot be seen in the ‘parlor scene’ in Psycho, it can be seen throughout the film. In American Psycho Bateman’s reflection is shown several times, often either appearing as two reflections or merely half a reflection of his face, in order to show his split personality and two-faced nature. In the ‘parlor scene’, Hitchcock uses light and shadow to convey the same message, with half of Norman Bates face covered in shadow and half in light. Whereas, Harron used natural lighting shining through the windows, illuminating Bateman, as if to present the message that killers can often be found in the light of day – again a postmodern horror element shared with Psycho.

Conclusion:

Cultural evolution has allowed for change in modern horror cinema. Hitchcock had to shoot in black and white and use back and forth shots to show violence and pass through censorship, as a 1970s audience would have been unable to deal with that amount of shocking onscreen violence. However, due to a change in perception of onscreen violence, and an audience numbed by previous bloodshed in slasher films, American Psycho was able to show bloody violence.

In both Psycho and American Psycho props and cinematography were used to deliver a set of deeper messages and meanings to the audience; Hitchcock used the stuffed owl over Bates’ shoulder to signify his predatory nature, swooping down on Marion, perhaps even representing Mother watching over him. Further, he used lighting and the movement of Bates leaning forward, to show a shadow across half of his face – highlighting his split nature. Similarly, Harron used reflection in the morning routine scene, to show Bateman’s split nature, and the prop of the facemask to show the audience how he wears a figurative mask day to day to hide his psychopathic personality.

While American Psycho is clearly a postmodern slasher horror, Psycho’s genre is much debated. However, using hindsight, slasher horror genre rules and Lyotard’s definition of postmodernism, this essay rests on the idea that Psycho was one of the first influential postmodern slasher horror films.

Further, while both films contain similar stories, with some overlapping themes and choice of point of view, the directors have presented the narratives in very different ways. The non-diegetic aspects of the films are exceedingly different; American Psycho using first-person narration and mainstream pop music to make a satirical point about 1980s culture, while Psycho elects to use classical music to create a sense of horror and dread.

 

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