I’m not sure what this says about my world, but Ed Gein is everywhere I turn these days. In my day job as a writer and editor for horror magazine Rue Morgue, I’ve spent perhaps a little too much time lately with the Butcher of Plainfield, tracing his cinematic legacy from 1960’s Psycho to the upcoming Texas Chainsaw 3D. Besides a string of TCM movies, I’ve revisited 1973’s Three on a Meathook, 1974’s Deranged, and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. The list goes on and on—more than five decades of movies inspired by the shy Wisconsin farmer who would forever redefine “mommy issues.”
Well, toss one more on the meathook, as Gein’s face is the first we see in Hitchcock. The movie begins with a restaging of one of Gein’s less sensational murders—Ed whacks his brother on the noggin with a shovel, and then proceeds to not make a lampshade or mask out of him. The camera pans over to reveal a spectator to the grisly (but bloodless) scene: Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), who tells us just how important Gein will one day become. Gein (Michael Wincott) will make periodic appearances throughout the film, which chronicles the conception, troubled production, and ultimately triumphant release of Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece, Psycho.
Based on Stephen Rebello’s 1990 book, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, and directed by Anvil: The Story of Anvil director Sacha Gervasi, Hitchcock posits that cinema’s long-reigning Master of Suspense was actually a two-headed beast. On its surface, this is a film about a film, but the heart of the movie is the relationship between Hitchcock and Alma Reville (Helen Mirren), the filmmaker’s wife and creative collaborator. Though she spent most of her professional life in Hitch’s pot-bellied shadow, Hitchcock frequently shines the spotlight on Reville as she works behind the scenes to help the notoriously persnickety director realize his vision—and, in effect, invent the modern horror film.
Not that she ever set out to help redefine our idea of monsters, of course. According to Hitchcock, Reville had little interest in the 1959 Robert Bloch novel that so captivated her husband. When Gervasi’s film begins, North by Northwest is a hit and Paramount is pushing Hitch to do another spy movie. Reville wants him to adapt a novel by Whitfield Cook (played by Danny Huston), the Strangers on a Train screenwriter whose close friendship with Reville raises eyebrows (including Hitch’s). But the director will not be swayed; when Paramount refuses to bankroll Psycho, Hitch decides to finance it himself.
Hitchcock is at its best when Psycho is front and center. Film buffs probably won’t come away with any new insight into the production itself, but it’s a lot of fun watching the film come together as Hitchcock takes on censors and meticulously orchestrates Psycho’s many iconic moments. Scarlett Johansson plays Janet Leigh with a disarming blend of sweetness and sexuality, and even Jessica Biel turns in a solid performance as Vera Miles, one of a string of actresses with whom Hitchcock became strangely obsessed. The movie loses its focus when it devolves into a marital drama, and makes a nearly fatal miscalculation when it attempts to employ some of Hitchcock’s own trademark cinematic flourishes, but luckily finds its feet again in time to deliver a satisfying ending.
Hitchcock elicited masterful performances from his casts in spite of having some notoriously harsh ideas about actors—the director is rumored to have once referred to them as “cattle”—so it’s fitting that Gervasi’s affectionate docudrama hinges on a handful of terrific performances. Hopkins, working under makeup created by legendary FX studio KNB, has plenty of fun with the filmmaker’s trademark mannerisms without ever falling into caricature. Mirren is less hampered by a pre-defined persona, so she has much more leeway in her portrayal of Reville, a woman who held her own as both Hitch’s wife and his creative partner.
Hitchcock is perhaps a little too ambitious for its own good, and falls flat when it makes a brief, misguided detour into thriller territory, but if you’re a film buff, it’s impossible to not get caught up in the charms of Gervasi’s entertaining account of what is essentially the invention of the modern horror film.