In Alfred Hitchcock Psycho, a secretary in a real estate office, Marion Crane, steals $40,000 from her boss and attempts to skip town. Because of her greed, she is ultimately murdered by a serial killer with “multiple personality disorder”, Norman Bates. In Mary Harron’s American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is a narcissistic investment banker who only cares about material items and his reputation. His extreme obsession with materialism leads him to hate everyone and everything. This intense loathing of the world pushes him to become a serial killer. These films challenge conventional Hollywood filmmaking techniques and essentially redefine the genre of Horror because of their unique serial-killer protagonists and the identity crisis that drives the characters to become killers. Although accomplished through different means, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Mary Harron’s American Psycho also provide a stark social commentary on the downfalls of materialism and the dangers of the lust for wealth.
Prior to the creation of Psycho, your run-of-the mill, horror-flick, serial killer would be either a disfigured, ugly monster or an introverted, awkward stalker. However, “Psycho was Hitchcock’s anti-thesis to many of the larger than life Technicolor thrillers …that preceded it “(Kendrick). In other words, Hitchcock rejects the Hollywood film standards of the early 1960’s/late 1950’s in Psycho, by creating the character of Norman Bates. Unlike his predecessors, Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins, is portrayed as a handsome, charming, and suave man. Hitchcock “wanted audiences to be able to sympathize with Bates and genuinely like the character, so he made him more of a ‘boy next door’” instead of an oafish brute (Leigh). Bates charming persona is captured in the still frame below, from the scene where he has a lengthy conversation with Marion.
Although superficially, Bates comes off as good-looking, charismatic, normal guy, he has an extreme case of multiple personality disorder, a mental disorder in which “two distinct and relatively enduring identities or dissociated personality-states alternately control a person’s behavior” (manual of medical disorders). In, Norman’s case, the alternate personality that controls his behavior is that of his mother. When Norman was a young boy, his mother brainwashed him into believing that “sex is evil and that all women (except herself) are whores” (Princeton.edu). When his mother becomes romantically involved with another man during Norman’s adolescence, He is overcome with jealousy and murders both of them. He “develops dissociative identity disorder (a.k.a. multiple personality disorder) assuming his mother’s personality, repressing her death as a way to escape the guilt of murdering her” (Princeton.edu). This idea of a dual identity singlehandedly redefined what a horror film serial killer could be and thus, revolutionized the genre.
The success of Psycho and Hitchcock’s unorthodox serial killer paved the way for American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Marry Harron clearly crafts the character of Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale, in the Norman Bates mold. Although he does not suffer from multiple personality disorder like Bates, Bateman also experiences a major conflict of identity throughout the film. Just like Bates, Patrick’s conflict of identity causes him to become a serial killer and brutally murder people for no rational reason.
In order to better analyze Patrick Bateman’s identity crisis, one needs to understand his background. Patrick Bateman is a rich, young, handsome, and charismatic vice-president of a huge investment bank on Wall Street. His fiancé , Evelyn, a beautiful and smart woman in her own right, also holds a high level position at the company. Patrick’s life revolves around dining at fancy restaurants, buying expensive designer clothing, and living in his ritzy loft in downtown Manhattan. But despite seemingly living “The American Dream”, he develops an extreme disdain for the world and people in general. Patrick articulates these feelings in a monologue “I have all the characteristics of a human being. Flesh. Blood. Skin. Hair. But not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed, and disgust.” In this quote, Patrick realizes that his life is a hollow shell that revolves solely around image and money. He becomes callous, the only thing things that illicit an emotional response from him are attacks on his reputation and money. The only identifying factors in Patrick’s life are material. Film critic Nadine Klemens further supports this claim “Bateman is an idea and an image, but empty and void of deep identity…He cannot differentiate between products and people , consumption and affect: he’s flat superficial, and ultimately unfathomable” (Klemens). In order to satiate his newfound nihilistic inclinations and compensate for his lack of identity outside of material things, Bateman begins gruesomely murdering people.
Albeit not nearly as blatant and “in-your-face” as the social commentary on the dangers of materialism in American Psycho, Hitchcock does provide a subtle message on the subject in Psycho. The film opens with a scene of Marion proclaiming to her boyfriend, Sam, “Let’s get married.” Sam expresses interest in tying the knot, but says he cannot afford to support both of them. So when Marion, who is a secretary in a real estate firm, is entrusted with a client’s $40,000 down payment for new house, she decides to take off and leave town, in hopes of eventually using that money to support her and Sam’s marriage. While on the run, she unknowingly goes to stay a motel managed by mentally ill serial killer, Norman Bates. By the time feels overcome with guilt and changes her mind and decides to return the money, it is already too late. Mere Moments after her revelation, Norman Bates, as “Mother”, stabs her to death. Had she decided not to take off with the money, she would of never encountered Norman Bates and would not have suffered her untimely death. Marion’s greed ultimately killed her.
In closing, Alfred Hitchcock and Mary Harron revolutionize the genre of horror through their films because of their eccentric and iconic serial killers. Both films also serve as social commentary that warns of the incredible dangers of materialism. Even more, these films not only advance the horror genre, but impact cinema as a whole by reinforcing the idea that a villain can be more than just an ugly, intimidating bad guy.
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