Back in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho not only captivated audiences but influenced other filmmakers to the extent that it led to a whole new sub-genre, the slasher film. The continuing influence of Psycho — which has just had an anniversary, having released on June 16, 1960 — gets doubly reinforced this year. Two upcoming releases, Halloween and Suspiria, are new versions of 1970s films that relate to Psycho in a number of interesting ways.
While Psycho needs no introduction, the other two titles might be less familiar. Halloween (1978) is a slasher film (keywords: knife, serial murder) about a deranged killer stalking young women; Halloween (2018) will follow directly from the events depicted in the original. Although there were nine so-called sequels and remakes during the 40 years in between, the new version effectively reduces all of them to fake news.
Suspiria (1977) is an Italian cult classic about an American student who joins a dance school in Germany, only to find that it is run and attended by a coven of witches. It owes its appeal to extreme scares, a spooky soundtrack, and aesthetic use of colour that makes scene after scene look like a painting. Suspiria (2018) will be a re-imagined version.
What binds them together — a timeless masterpiece that has shocked several generations, a slasher film that thrilled ours, and its Italian contemporary that terrified its cult following? Short answer: Hitchcock. The master’s legacy also links the two new versions to this intriguing chain.
His signature runs deepest in John Carpenter’s original Halloween. Think Psycho and the image that springs to mind is the shower scene in which Marion Crane is murdered. Crane is played by Janet Leigh, whose daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, plays the lead role in Halloween (1978). In Psycho, Crane’s boyfriend is called Sam Loomis; in Halloween, Dr Sam Loomis is a psychiatrist who knows all about the killer, Michael Myers.
Halloween also replicates cinematic elements from the shower scene — the camera inviting the viewer to look at the victim from the killer’s point of view; the knife rising and stabbing to create an impression of extreme violence, yet without showing actual contact between steel and flesh.
The family connection to Psycho remains intact in the new version, directed by David Gordon Green. Curtis returns in the same role, 40 years older and apparently not a lot wiser, for Myers the slasher is going to stalk her again.
In Italy, Hitchcock and Psycho left their signature on an exclusive brand of the slasher film, so distinct that it rose above the sub-genre to become a genre by itself. The giallo film, which peaked in the 1970s, is essentially a murder mystery — which is quite un-Hitchcockian considering that the master of suspense was so fussy about the difference between mystery and suspense — but the serial killer takes off from Psycho, the knife his weapon of choice.
Among the genre’s pioneers was Mario Bava, who was obviously thinking of Hitchcock when he titled one of his gialli The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). Another pioneer is Dario Argento, whose later giallo output includes Do You Like Hitchcock? (2006). It is Argento who delivered Suspiria (1977) which, strictly speaking, is a horror film with elements of giallo.
The reinvented version — by Luca Guadagnino, fresh from directing Oscar winner Call Me By Your Name — connects directly to Hitchcock. The student who goes to dance school, Susie Bannion, is played by Dakota Johnson. Best known by the steamy Fifty Shades series, Johnson is the granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, Hitchcock’s lead in The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964).
Johnson has claimed that she was so affected by the shooting of Suspiria that she had to go for therapy. She takes over the role from Jessica Harper, who returns in a different role. Harper has fed into the anticipation by tweeting: “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 83 minutes.” This takes off from the original tagline: “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 80.”
They got it wrong. The numbers should have been swapped — it’s the first 12 minutes of the original that are the scariest —and the tagline would still have been an understatement. Even today, those 12 minutes are more terrifying than the full length of 80 decent horror films put together.