Alfred Hitchcock hails from the UK, but it wasn’t until he moved to the US early in his career that he truly gained fame. His first American film was Rebecca in 1940, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Not a shabby first endeavour.
Hitchcock returned to England to make one last British film, Frenzy. It’s on this film, and the style that he brought to the horror genre, that be focusing on in this essay.
Hitchcock directed a great number of films, many of them receiving awards and recognition. Perhaps you don’t consider yourself very familiar with the director. Maybe you haven’t seen any of his silent films, or even Vertigo, Rear Window, Birds, Marnie… but, I dare you to say you’ve never seen or even heard of Psycho!
A little detour and a walk down memory lane with Psycho
Psycho is arguably Hitchcock’s only horror film, depending on your own definition of the genre. The 1960 film is incredibly ground-breaking and it turned Hitchcock into a well-known ‘horror director’, even though, as I mentioned, his work was mainly thrillers.
Labels aside, Psycho is one of the most important films in the genre. It tells the story of Marion Crane, a young woman who is in love with Sam, a married man. But that does not stop them having risqué lunchtime rendezvous. Marion is so blinded by love that she makes the horrible decision of stealing $40000 from her job in hopes that it will help her and Sam start a new life together.
She is a good girl, though. She had good intentions. Her actions came from a place of love (literally), but ultimately it was a bad thing to do. Marion realises the mistake and decides to go back and return the money. Unfortunately for her, she stops at the Bates Motel and never makes it back.
She is killed by what appears to be an old woman during her very pleasurable shower. This is just the beginning, though. Psycho is so much more than just the iconic shower scene. For starters, the scene happens in the first 30 minutes of the film, totally confusing the audience, as the protagonist dies and they are left wondering with whom they should align themselves.
Family horror and the psychosexually disturbed killer’s POV
With this film, Hitchcock re-established horror and its source. No longer was horror coming from outer space (as in the sci-fi films from the 50s), or from exotic creatures in faraway lands (King Kong or Dracula), or from man-made creatures (The Island of Dr Moreau and Frankenstein).
Psycho brought the horror into the family and into our normal lives. Norman Bates is the guy next door. He seems nice, he’s handsome and well put together, but he is damaged – very damaged.
His psychopathy has origins in incest, and this is highlighted as he dresses up as his mum to kill women who arouse him sexually. Watching films now, we’re not surprised when we see disturbed families, they’re everywhere. Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, The Amityville Horror… they’re all classics, but looking back, it all ‘started’ with Hitchcock’s 1960 film.
The second most important legacy left by Psycho, which goes hand in hand with the horror in the family, is the psychosexually disturbed killer. What this means is… simply speaking, the killer’s motives are caused either by gender confusion (Norman Bates becoming his mother) or by more overtly sexual problems (Norman’s incestuous relationship with his mother).
There were numerous films in the 70s and 80s, mainly exploitation films, that drew heavily on this concept – Don’t Go Into the House, Pieces, Homicidal, Silence of the Lambs, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (see how much this film is cited?) House of Whipcord, Black Christmas, just to name a few).
And lastly, by killing off the heroine in the first half of the film, Hitchcock tells the audience they have to watch the film through the killer’s point of view. Again, watching films now, we see this as a cliché – an eerie camera in the woods, we hear muffled breathing, the soon-to-be victims are unaware of the danger…
All this is overused in horror and we no longer cringe if we have to follow the killer’s point of view. Usually, people actually root for the killer. In Friday the 13th, for example, audiences go back to the films to see Jason and his elaborate kills, rather than cheering for the teenagers.
Now, Psycho wasn’t the first film to deliver all of that. In fact, in the same year, the British film Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell, did all of those things. The killer point of view is even more highlighted here, as the killer films his own kills to watch later on. There’s also a very average-looking, psychosexually disturbed killer. However, deciding which film should take credit is irrelevant.
Much like we saw on the review for House of Whipcord, whether it was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Black Christmas in 1974 that created the slasher genre (or Halloween 4 years later), it doesn’t really matter. What is important, though, is which film consolidated it all – which film made all of this visible. No question that Halloween is a much more impactful film than the other two, therefore, it is often given the title of the father of slasher films. Same with Psycho and Peeping Tom – Hitchcock’s film is widely known whereas Powell’s British gem is not, thus the former takes credit.
The Main Course
Nevertheless, now that we’ve established Hitchcock’s influence on horror with Psycho and its impact on later films, we can turn to the main course.
We are gathered here tonight to have a look at Hitchcock’s last British film and his penultimate film overall, Frenzy! Although Frenzy is very different from Psycho, both films share many similarities. Frenzy is set in London and it follows the ‘Necktie Murders’ – women are being raped and then strangled with (you guessed it) a necktie.
Psychosexually disturbed killer? Check. Violence against women? Check. Everyday man as a killer? Check. Killer Point of view? Check.
As the film progresses, the plot develops into a very Hitchcockian story. We follow Richard, a troubled guy who is laid off from his job at a pub. He finds himself thrown in the middle of the murders, as he is framed for them by Rusk, his ‘friend’ and the real killer. Here we have Hitchcock at its best. His whole motif of ‘an innocent guy who gets involved in troubles beyond him and is unable to prove his innocence’ is so strong here that Richard actually goes to jail for a while.
Hitchcock loved doing that, and many of his films have that premise – The Lodger, Blackmail, Saboteur, Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and North by Northwest are just examples of a much bigger oeuvre.
The ways in which Frenzy is similar to Psycho here are augmented. Norman Bates was so controlled by his mother (‘A boy’s best friend is his mother’) that he becomes her after her death whenever a woman ‘tries to steal him away’. Though by becoming his mother, cross-dressing and changing his voice, she asserts her power over him and the victims (although we only see one female victim here).
In Frenzy the motive is a bit different, but still very much misogynistic. In the only death scene we see, Rusk rapes Brenda (‘lovely, lovely, LOVELY!’) and after he is done he instantly becomes enraged and blames her (‘Bitch! Women! They’re all the same. I’ll show you’). He then proceeds to strangle and kill her. One can say that Frenzy is much more blunt on its representation of misogyny. Here the camera is with them in the act. In fact, the close ups on their faces, on Brenda’s breast, and the high angle camera showing Rusk on top of her only heightens his power over her.
Here, it was the first time Hitchcock used nudity in his films – when the women appear dead, they appear naked. This, of course, did not help the director’s reputation for mistreating women – critics and authors have written that Hitchcock represents a wide range of female identity only to punish them at the end. His relationships with his actresses are equally disturbing (we all know the anecdote about The Birds). But here they are humiliated, they are striped, literally, of everything for male pleasure.
Thus far, it is possible to see that Frenzy is slowly helping to establish the slasher genre. It is widely considered a proto-slasher, films that predated the subgenre and had a set of reviewcharacteristics common to slasher film but weren’t consciously made as one. Peeping Tom and Psycho are examples of proto-slasher, as are the splatter films made by Herschell Gordon Lewis like Blood Feast and Color Me Blood Red. Homicidal, which is William Castle’s own Psycho… the sub-genre continues until Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
But let’s look at some different aspects of Frenzy for a little bit. The 1972 film is masterfully directed, the camera work in the film deserves its own analysis and the film has one of the best last lines ever (I will not be writing it here otherwise it might spoil the film). Much more interesting than filming the rape/murder scene in close-ups, is how Hitchcock tackles a death scene.
When Babs dies, the camera exists the room and the building to finally stop in the middle of the street. The scene is constructed as we follow Babs and Rusk into the apartment, as Babs and Rusk are alone, the camera (in one movement) leaves the flat, goes through the corridor and out of the front door, framing the entire building as we know what is happening inside. Here the danger is placed amongst the normality of London, in broad daylight. Babs’s death scene is built on atmosphere and creates tension that pervades the film – another scene that indulges in tension involves cold fingers and potatoes.
These moments, however, are carefully placed between comic scenes to let the audience breathe a little bit, but also to highlight the police’s inadequacy. We laugh with the inspector and his wife – he desperately wants to have mash and gravy but his wife insists on cooking the most god-awful things (in my opinion, the true horror in this film is the soup with fish). This is another one of Hitchcock’s trademarks – the inefficacy of authority figures.
Speaking of mash and gravy, let’s take a moment to absorb the Britishness that is Frenzy. Hitchcock’s nationality overflows here, it is almost like a character itself. The aerial shot in the opening sequence places us in the middle of the river Thames with the Tower Bridge making way for us. Of course, the elegant trademark of Britishness that is usually sided with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and the castles of Hammer films is contrasted with the murky waters of the Thames and the dead body floating in it.
The film is set in London, but it’s specifically in Covent Garden and Leicester Square that it finds its home. The camera wanders through Covent Garden’s market, hiding the danger in terraced houses, and Richard and Babs’ meeting point is the Odeon in Leicester Square. The detective, after the ordeal of eating his wife’s cooking, lavishes in an English breakfast and the conversation here is placed in pubs in-between pints.
Frenzy is without a doubt (in my opinion) one of Hitchcock’s best. As we’ve seen, it belongs perfectly in the stream of horror films of its time, putting its own spin on some of the soon-to-be-established conventions of the horror genre. Its suspense holds audiences and the last 20 minutes, though a bit rushed, have more twists than a croissant. Definitely worth a watch!
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