The shower. The stairs. The fruit cellar. Alfred Hitchcock's immortal, terrifying Psycho at last gets a 4K UHD upgrade as part of The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection, joining Rear Window, Vertigo, and The Birds. The movie that made Norman Bates a household name and scared a generation of Americans away from their showers looks terrific in a slick HDR10 presentation that brings this grisly thriller to life like never before. Though some nagging video issues remain, the image quality is often stunning, and the addition of a DTS:X audio track heightens the impact of many scenes. If you've got a 4K setup, you'd be crazy not to add Psycho to your collection. Must Own.
Most film buffs enjoy a good debate, and one topic that never fails to generate discord among classics aficionados is "What is Alfred Hitchcock's best film?" Ask 50 different Hitchcock fans and you might just get 50 different answers; so varied and nuanced is the director's work. Though plenty of Hitch's admirers would surely pick Psycho as the cream of the crop, I believe any serious student of the Master of Suspense would put this grandfather of the modern slasher film in its proper perspective – as a gritty, gimmicky, somewhat exploitive yet engrossing and tense study in terror. Masterpiece? In many ways, yes. Hitchcock directs Psycho with the same care, artistry, and invention that distinguish his entire film canon, and, as a result, it has been copied, ripped off, examined, and dissected more than perhaps any other Hitchcock picture. As far as notoriety goes, none of his other movies can touch it. Mention Psycho and you think Hitchcock; mention Hitchcock and you immediately think Psycho. The two will be forever entwined. No doubt about it, Psycho is a great, immortal, influential movie. But Hitchcock's best? Not to me.
Even calling Psycho the quintessential Hitchcock picture is, in my opinion, misguided. Those with only a passing knowledge of the director might think Psycho typifies the kind of fare Hitch regularly churned out. But in reality, this gruesome, low-budget shocker is a Hitchcock anomaly, far removed from the elegant, romantic mysteries and grand-scale espionage flicks that compose the bulk of his catalogue. Its impact, though, cannot be minimized. With its startling and (for its time) graphic violence, sexual overtones, and hint of misogyny, Psycho changed the face of the modern thriller, ushering in a more explicit era, free of the taboos that previously constrained and asphyxiated the genre. Without Psycho, would we have A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, or Halloween? Who knows? But Psycho certainly paved their way. So should we thank Hitchcock for spawning a new genre of thriller, or condemn him for creating a film that inspired generations of inferior and ever more violent and gory copycats? That's another topic for debate.
What Psycho does so well, and so much better than its more lurid descendants, is the way it makes its story initially relatable, allowing us to invest ourselves in the characters and their dilemmas before taking an unexpected detour into the grotesque. What begins as a straightforward, linear story about a troubled woman (Janet Leigh) who steals a large sum of money so she and her illicit lover can embark upon a new existence suddenly veers off in a totally different direction. With a few swift thrusts of a butcher's knife into a woman's naked body as she luxuriates in a warm shower at a rundown roadside inn known as the Bates Motel, it transforms itself into an unsettling tale of murder, cover-up, sexual deviance, and insanity. In a heartbeat, one story ends and another begins. Psycho brutally proves we really don't know what lies around the next corner – or on the other side of the shower curtain – and bloodcurdling horror can confront us at any moment.
Hitchcock, though, is much too substantive a director and too good a storyteller to rely on cheap thrills. Psycho is remembered as a physically violent film, marked by brutal slayings in the shower and on the stairs, and for its climactic chamber of horrors twist. Yet those three scenes comprise less than three minutes of the picture's 109-minute running time and feature surprisingly little gore. (Hitchcock's genius lies in his ability to make us think we see more than we actually do.) Sure, they leave an indelible impression, but they can't quite overshadow the more intriguing and complex psychological studies of both Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and Marion Crane (Leigh), whose paths coincidentally and fatefully cross one dark and stormy night. That's where the true allure of Psycho lies, and Hitchcock expertly develops those characters so we identify and empathize with them. He also sprinkles in some welcome bits of ghoulish humor to take the edge off, and frames it all with his patented visual artistry. A close-up of an eye peering through a hole in the wall, reflections representing duality and duplicity, high and low angle shots altering perspective and enhancing a sense of unease…Hitchcock delicately and seamlessly weaves them into his fabric so we're only marginally aware of his technique.
Though Norman, the mother-obsessed, browbeaten motel proprietor, grabs the bulk of attention, each time I see Psycho the character of Marion becomes more fascinating and dimensional. Would we remember Janet Leigh at all if she hadn't been stabbed to death in the shower? That's yet another topic for debate, but take away her ear-splitting shriek when she first lays eyes on her knife-wielding attacker, and her performance in Psycho remains quietly riveting from her opening scene lolling around with her illicit lover in a seedy hotel to our final look at her lifeless face pressed against the bathroom floor in an even seedier and far more creepy motel. Leigh balances sex appeal with vulnerability and a thoughtful introspection that makes her sequence of the film infinitely more interesting than the by-the-book Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew mystery investigation that comprises the picture's second half, as Marion's lover, Sam (John Gavin), and sister, Lila (Vera Miles), try to figure out what happened to her. Psycho never really drags, but the more mundane nature of Sam and Lila and their methodical pursuit of the truth make the film more pedestrian, save for the instances where they share the screen with Norman. (The tacked-on psychobabble that comprises the film's final minutes may be necessary, but its clinical presentation is a definite buzz-killer and one of the few elements of the film that seems a bit cheesy.)
Leigh justly earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal, but Perkins was inexplicably passed over for his iconic turn as the troubled Norman. Though Norman Bates may have been (sadly) eclipsed in the modern era by the more flamboyant Freddy and Jason, he remains one of the most recognizable figures in horror movie history, thanks to Perkins' finely etched, complex portrait. Whether he's nervously stuttering when discussing sensitive issues, delicately swinging his hips as he climbs the stairs, or exhibiting a wealth of boyish charm, Perkins embodies the character so completely it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the part (especially Vince Vaughn, who gamely – if misguidedly – took on the role in Gus Van Sant's purposeless remake). Miles brings some chutzpah to the cardboard Lila and Martin Balsam makes a strong impression in his few scenes as the doomed investigator, Arbogast.
Mood is an essential element in any Hitchcock film, and in Psycho, Bernard Herrmann's all-string score creates and sustains a marvelous sense of unease from the opening credits forward. Innovative, discordant, and wonderfully screechy, the brash music of Herrmann enhances suspense, accentuates the violence, and creates a wonderfully eerie feeling of foreboding that sustains itself throughout the film. It's difficult to envision Psycho without its score, and the picture's impact would never be as potent without it.
And potent is exactly what Psycho remains a half century after it scared America away from the shower. Whether it occupies the top slot on your list of Hitchcock favorites is irrelevant. Psycho is unique among Hitchcock films in its tone, execution, and look, and will continue to fascinate – and scare – audiences far into the future. "We all go a little mad sometimes," Norman says to Marion. "Haven't you?" "Yes," she responds. "And sometimes, just one time can be enough." One time, however, will never be enough to drink in the story and style of Psycho. It's a movie to watch, enjoy, study, and scrutinize over and over again.
NOTE: This edition of Psycho includes two versions of the film - the original theatrical cut and an "uncut" version containing additional footage that supposedly presents Psycho as Hitchcock originally envisioned it. Before anyone gets too excited, that "additional footage" only amounts to a few extra snippets that were deleted due to objectionable content. (The material comes from the uncensored German release and has been available to view on the internet for years.) A shot of Marion removing her bra, a lingering look at Norman's bloody hands as he cleans up after the murder, and a couple of extra knife jabs into Arbogast's body comprise the restored footage, which in total runs less than a minute.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 4K UHD edition of Psycho arrives as part of The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection, which also includes Rear Window, Vertigo, and The Birds. Almost identical to the 2012 Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection with regard to packaging, the discs are housed in a handsome digibook, which comes in a slipcase with raised lettering. Both 4K UHD and standard Blu-ray discs lie in slots in the "pages" devoted to each film. It's an attractive layout, but the discs fit a little too snugly in their slots, making their retrieval somewhat difficult. A leaflet containing the code to access the digital copies of all four movies is tucked inside the book's back cover. Sadly, no accompanying booklet is included with this collection. Video codec for all four films is 2160p/HEVC H.265 (HDR10) and default audio for Psycho is DTS:X. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Universal has done a terrific job upgrading this classic thriller to 4K UHD. The 2160p/HEVC H.265 HDR10 presentation isn't perfect, largely because Psycho - from a visual standpoint - has always been far from perfect. Shot on a shoestring budget and purposely made to look a bit dingy and dirty, the film lacks the black-and-white gloss of more elegant productions...and that's a huge part of its effectiveness and appeal. This transfer faithfully honors Hitchcock's vision and John L. Russell's cinematography, maintaining the grain structure while heightening the clarity to often stunning levels. Occasional softness is present and fluctuating grain intensity lends a couple of scenes a slightly snowy look, but such deficiencies rarely detract from the overall brilliance of this presentation.
Psycho is packed with extreme close-ups and they are fantastically rendered here. Individual pores, hair follicles, various skin textures, and facial blemishes are all razor-sharp. Reflections and long shots are crisp, too. The silhouettes of Mother in the upstairs window of the Bates house are clearer than ever before, as is both the faded finery in her bedroom and faint reflection of Norman in the motel office window that foreshadows his split personality when he brings the dinner tray to Marion. The rain and shower spray are well defined and the nocturnal scenes sport better contrast and clarity than in previous versions.
Blacks are just as inky as they've always been, but whites are cleaner, brighter, and richer. Grays seem a tad more varied, heightening depth and dimension, and costume textures appear more vivid. Shadow delineation is excellent, and despite the enhanced clarity, the faint specks and marks that remain on the print don't seem quite as noticeable as they are on the Blu-ray.
Though this transfer is obviously a 4K UHD upconvert from the existing master, the improvements in clarity, richness, depth, and contour are substantial enough to merit an upgrade.
At first, the new DTS:X track doesn't seem to offer Psycho anything new aurally. Bernard Herrmann's iconic, screechy, all-string score sounds rich and robust, but it doesn't assault the ear drums like I expected...and that's probably a good thing. Throughout the initial scenes in the hotel room, office, and Marion's home, the audio is intentionally muted to heighten the growing sense of unease. Then it starts to rain, and that's when this track kicks into high gear. The desert downpour cascades over us, with the sound of falling water emanating from every speaker. At one point, I honestly thought my ceiling was leaking. It's a great effect and the enhanced audio executes it flawlessly.
Aside from a few screams, horn honks, and Herrmann's dissonant score, Psycho is a very quiet film, and this terrific track exploits all the nuances to perfection. Footsteps are wonderfully crisp, as are squeaky doors, the bubbles of the swamp, the rattle of the shower curtain as it's ripped from its rings. Even the actors' voices exhibit a greater richness of tone, drawing us deeper into their intimate exchanges. Never has Leigh's throaty alto sounded so mellifluous, and Mother's raspy, shrill barking brandishes more bite than in previous renditions.
Surround effects are sporadic but highly effective. At times, Herrmann's score envelopes and bits of atmosphere bleed to the rears (the sound of a shutting door emanating from the left rear speaker gave me a jolt), but the track remains refreshingly true to its source. A wide dynamic scale fully embraces the music, so distortion is never an issue. The upper register is impressive, but it's the bass frequencies that really shine, highlighting the dulcet foreboding of the cellos that eerily underscore so many scenes. Every word of dialogue is crystal clear, silences are clean, and not a single bit of surface noise sullies the track. Without question, Psycho has never sounded better, and this high-resolution track immerses us in all the creepiness like never before.
(Purists will be happy to learn the film's original mono track is also included on the disc, presented in DTS 2.0.)
UPDATE 9/16/2020: Universal has announced an issue with the mono track (the studio erroneously included a downmixed version of the DTS:X track instead of the original mono track) and plans to issue replacement discs to rectify the problem. (There are no issues with the DTS:X track.) Both the 4K UHD and Blu-ray discs will be replaced. To get your replacement discs, please contact Universal at https://www.uphe.com/en/contact-support or directly email the studio at [email protected]. We will update this review once we receive and examine the replacement discs.
All the supplements from the previous Blu-ray edition have been ported over to this release, and the good news is they all reside on the 4K UHD disc, as well as the standard Blu-ray. For a complete review of the supplements, click here.
The Bates Motel has never looked more inviting. The 4K UHD release of Psycho raises the fright quotient of Alfred Hitchcock's iconic shocker, thanks to an often stunning HDR10 presentation that preserves the film's gritty, low-budget look while enhancing clarity, heightening depth, and fully immersing us in the twisted psyches and horrific acts that comprise the fascinating narrative. A new DTS:X audio track ratchets up the creepy atmosphere, an alternate "uncut" version supplies a few extra titillating images, and all the supplements from previous releases are included on the disc. Psycho in 4K may not be a format standard-bearer, but it's still a crazy-good release, especially when paired with the other films in The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection. Must Own.