Mark Ramsey knows that it’s sometimes best to hide the star of the show until the moment is absolutely right. It’s why, in the first episode of “Inside Psycho,” a new six-part series about the birth, production and aftermath of the 1960 horror classic, you won’t hear the words “shower” or “Leigh” or “Hitchcock” or “Universal.”
It’s a particularly striking debut, not just because of the delayed introduction of the expected cast of characters. In opening this “Psycho” origin story with a 25-minute overview of the life and crimes of Plainfield, Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, Ramsey makes an early case that the best path to understanding the film is via a circuitous route, one with an ever-changing narrative perspective. And plenty of “Mother.”
This trail, particularly in its opening salvo, is unapologetically soaked in goo and gore. (“The following contains mature content,” Ramsey explains at the top of the premiere. “You’ve…been…warned…”) Gein’s fixations, which would eventually form the psychological template for “Psycho” antagonist Norman Bates, are presented in horrific detail with Jeff Schmidt’s squishy sound design to match. As an audio experience, it’s immersive enough to unsettle and overbearing enough at times to tap into the same B-movie spirit that Alfred Hitchcock himself was chasing.
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That Ramsey only glancingly references these “Psycho” touchpoints makes it an opening episode that, if not for the show’s title, would be ideal fodder for a “Rest of the Story”-style reveal. But in keeping the title and preserving its spirit in gradually converging tales, the show’s first two episodes are closer to a podcast version of what Noah Hawley’s done with “Fargo.”
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“Inside Psycho” is a mini-anthology unto itself. By virtue of its medium, the series has the liberty to weave in and out of anecdotes, devote entire episodes to landmark moments in the “Psycho” saga and adjust the societal lens of different eras to fit its needs. Ramsey is able to span decades over six episodes not merely because the story demands it, but because the series’ best episodes are unmoored from a standard biographical timeline. And it makes sense: when you’re floating from hypothetical lunch-hour production meetings to the inner workings of author Robert Bloch’s psyche, chronological order is hardly the most satisfying approach.
Eventually, though, you can’t have a “Psycho” show without turning the spotlight on the man behind the camera. By foregrounding other “Psycho” players, Ramsey takes a bit of the air out of the Hitchcock legend. Though the show continuously makes the case for the film as a seminal cinematic work, Hitch is a man presented with his own misgivings, nightmares and casual misogyny. The film carries an enormous cultural sway today, but Ramsey shows how part of its magic comes from the idea that hardly anyone involved knew quite what they were unleashing.
It’s a testament to both the film’s impact and Ramsey’s instincts as a storyteller that there’s very little of the actual film in “Inside Psycho.” Instead of archival footage or excerpted dialogue, Ramsey gets far more mileage out of recreations and merely evoking fragments from our shared cultural understanding of what the movie represents. As a result, there’s more focus on the other instrumental figures in the “Psycho” lore, notably Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator Alma Reville.
Aside from its premiere, the signature “Inside Psycho” episode (unsurprisingly) comes in its fourth installment, as the series arrives at its most inevitable checkpoint. Film fans have seen, heard and read breakdowns of the shower scene for so long that a bit of trivia overlap comes with the territory. (To wit: Alexandre Philippe’s documentary “78/52,” which debuted at Sundance in January, features Marli Renfro, the Janet Leigh body-double also name-checked here.) With something that’s been scrutinized and documented in textbooks and feature films alike, you need to dig deep to find anecdotes that aren’t already familiar to Hitch novices. Even if none of Ramsey’s tidbits are new ones, he patches together snapshots of the iconic sequence, both in their conception and realization. From there, it’s yet another opportunity to disappear down a side avenue that may involve a crew member’s lingering trauma, the marketing image of a chocolate syrup manufacturer, or both.
Much as the show outlines how “Psycho” was Hitchcock’s gamble on his own filmmaking ability, Ramsey doubles down on his own his narration. With rare exceptions, all six episodes are told entirely by him. It’s a risk that pays off, particularly in the moments when his contributions feel like a performance of a short story rather than a predetermined script. These moments elevate “Inside Psycho” from the standard biography and into a psychological evaluation worthy of the liberties of the form. Ramsey’s choice to spread himself over multiple characters gives the whole series a focused, singular point of view, even as he bounces around between thoughts and conversations both real and imagined.
There will always be a place for the carefully curated Hollywood histories in the vein of Karina Longworth’s ever-informative “You Must Remember This,” the entertaining reportage delivered with earned authority. Ramsey hews closer to this style as the show reaches its conclusion, a development that keeps the story unfolding even as some of the inventiveness subsides. “Inside Psycho” still darts from subject to subject, but the show’s later-episode looks at the film’s release and reception carry a more conventional look at sensation and defeat. Ramsey does save a farewell touch for the series’ close, a chilling synthesis of all the elements that make it one of the more exciting steps in the evolution of audio storytelling.
The further that “Inside Psycho” extends from the elements of the film that are most well-known, the more it makes its case for its own existence. Even the casual inclusion of small stories of pre-teen 60s TV stars and the unwitting subjects of a certain actor’s prank calls become essential text. When those ripples in later episodes come to envelop one of the other biggest filmmakers in film history, it’s a reminder that “Psycho” doesn’t need to be announced in hushed tones or with dramatic music backing its arrival. It’s a gnarled, mangled family tree of influences stretching both forward and backward in time that speaks for itself. Lucky for us, people are still figuring out new ways to get the word out.
“Inside Psycho” is a production of Mark Ramsey Media and distributed by Wondery. Episodes 1 and 2 are now available to listen across podcast players. New episodes will be released on Thursdays.