In the wake of the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, filmmakers everywhere wanted to cash in on the lunatic movie craze. Releases with the word “Psycho” in the title peppered the next decade, with movies like Russ Meyer’s Motorpsycho!, Al Adamson’s Psycho a Go-Go, and Freddie Francis’ The Psychopath all racing their way into theaters. But one film beat them all there, following Psycho by just one year in 1961: Anatomy of a Psycho.
Anatomy of a Psycho is about a teenage boy named Chet Marco (Darrell Howe from Teenage Idol) who lives with his younger sister, Patty (Pamela Lincoln from The Tingler). Their brother Duke is a convicted murderer who is about to be executed, and during Chet’s last visit, Duke convinced his brother of his innocence. Chet vows to avenge his brother’s execution, swearing that he will “smash” the witnesses, prosecutors, and judge from his brother’s trial. Chet and his gang of hoodlums start methodically working their way through the people on their list, donning burlap masks and terrorizing their victims. A wrench is thrown into the plans when Patty starts dating Mickey Craig (Ronnie Burns, who was a regular on his adoptive parents’ show, “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show”), who happens to be the son of the prosecution’s star witness. Chet is faced with a decision – does he carry out his psychotic revenge plan, or does he respect the feelings of his sister, the only family he has left?
The direction for Anatomy of a Psycho is credited to Brooke L. Peters, which is a pseudonym for Boris Petroff, the low-budget Russian filmmaker who also did Shotgun Wedding and Red Snow. The screenplay was mostly written by Jane Mann (The Unearthly) and Don Devlin (Thunder Island), but there was also a bit of contribution to the script from Larry Lee, better known to the public as the inimitable Ed Wood. Wood’s involvement explains the campy exploitation factor of the storyline, as well as some of the flaws in the narrative. Still, Anatomy of a Psycho embraces its weaknesses and wears them like a badge; it’s proud of its corniness.
Even though its title is the most threatening aspect of the film, Anatomy of a Psycho was marketed as a horror movie upon its first release. Truth be told, it’s really more of a juvenile delinquency revenge movie, a dangerous hoods flick along the lines of Blackboard Jungle and High School Confidential, or, later on, Class of 1984 and Savage Streets. Although Chet has pledged to get even with those who convicted his brother, he actually takes out his revenge on their children, most notably the sons of the offending parties, committing crimes that range from simple assault to felony arson as he works his way through his list. Although he involves his gang in his misdeeds, Chet has a paper-thin loyalty to them, becoming a Rebel Without a Cause type of a loner. Chet himself is the “Psycho” in Anatomy of a Psycho, and by the end of the film, he cares about nothing but his own bloody agenda.
Photographically, cinematographer Joel Colman (Big Time) makes the most out of what he’s got with Anatomy of a Psycho. Colman uses the film’s low budget to his advantage by shooting cheaply on black & white film stock, a decision which gives the picture a dramatic, noir-like shadowy look. Colman also combines inventive camera angles with the creative overlays and slick fades of editor Ed Spiegel (Salt of the Earth) to illustrate the slow decline of Chet’s mental state. For such a cheap and quick little B-movie, Anatomy of a Psycho has plenty of imaginative imagery.
Written by Michael Terr under the name Manuel Francisco (who also did The Devil’s Hand and The Animal as Mischa Terr – seriously, why did no one want to use their real name on this movie?), the musical score for Anatomy of a Psycho consists of awesomely familiar orchestral arrangements that scream and shout with honking horns, singing strings, and pounding percussion. There may be a reason for the stock-sounding music; the score was rumored to be made up of unused music that Terr had originally written for Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space. Whether that’s true or not, Terr’s soundtrack gives Anatomy of a Psycho energy and tension, even creating suspense in places where there is none. Terr’s score adds another layer of depth to the picture.
Despite all of the imitators, there will only ever be one Psycho (I don’t even want to talk about that Gus Van Sant travesty). Most of the movies that tried to ride the coattails in the years immediately following its release have been swept away by the sands of time. However, some of them, including Anatomy of a Psycho, are worth unearthing again.