Psycho, the 1960 film by Alfred Hitchcock from the novel by Robert Bloch (which was in turn based on the life of Ed Gein, also the inspiration for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs), is such an accepted classic that it is difficult to approach it with a fresh eye. The shower scene, the much-imitated Bernard Herrmann score, the Master of Suspense’s little signature touches: all are familiar even to the moviegoer who has never seen it.
Luckily, it has such power that even the most jaded will find themselves surprised by the most familiar scenes. Although the shock value of many scenes is lost today, it is still a terrific film and a must-see for the burgeoning film buff.
The story, for the uninitiated, follows as such: Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), secretary in a real estate office, has just stolen $40,000 from an investor. She was supposed to deposit the money in the bank on her way home from work, but it would help so much toward her marriage to Sam (John Gavin) that she took it. She leaves town that night, and, caught in a thunderstorm, mistakenly veers off the highway, finally coming to a lit motel sign, a beacon in the night.
Now how can I possibly go on? Originally, the motel was just supposed to be a stop in this story of Marion Crane. Norman Bates was just supposed to be another quirky character she meets along the way, just like the car salesman and the policeman. But as soon as I say Bates Motel, you know what comes next. That’s what I mean by the difficulty in approaching this for review. It has become such an integral part of our culture that it is nearly impossible. Norman Bates, the prototypical crazy: killer of women, stuffer of “birds,” (a British joke most Americans don’t catch), and lover of mothers.
And it permanently typecast Anthony Perkins. After little success in such pictures as The Trial, Catch-22, and Murder on the Orient Express, he finally gave in to fate in 1982 and did the sequel no one wanted but everyone expected: Psycho II.
And darn it if it wasn’t pretty good! Psycho II continues the story twenty-two years later. Norman is released from the asylum due to budget cuts and sent back home. Trouble is, Norman is still kinda crazy. He gets a job at a nearby diner (the motel was always notoriously unoccupied) and meets a waitress (Meg Tilly), who just happens to be looking for a place to stay. Bates offers his services and she agrees.
Then the phone calls start. From Mother.
Of course, anyone expecting a second lightning strike would be greatly disappointed. But someone raised on slasher films – as I was – will be pleasantly surprised. Perkins still plays Norman as a sympathetic character and still makes a pitiable figure. Also on hand is Vera Miles (Lila from the original) to make Norman’s life hell by taunting him constantly. Unfortunately, such a good actress is not given much to do here and her performance descends into caricature.
But director Richard Franklin tries his best to give us a top-rate chiller. Only at the end do things sort of fall apart and get cheesy. But it’s a top-flight effort and he and screenwriter Tom Holland (a familiar name to horror fans as director of Fright Night and Child’s Play, two above average entries in the genre) should be commended for giving what could have been a rote entry a shot in the arm.
Giving the series instead a shot in the head is Psycho III. This time Perkins makes his directorial debut as well as stars in the film (as if anyone could replace him) and it seems that someone thought the time was ripe to mock Norman Bates and everything he stands for. Psycho III is played with tongue firmly in cheek, and perhaps that was the only card left to play, but it just feels wrong to expect a thriller and not only not get one, but to replace it with a Punch and Judy show.
Diana Scarwid (Christina in Mommie Dearest) plays an ex-nun (Maureen Coyle, whose initials send Norman into a tizzy) who ends up at the Bates Motel after hitching a ride from Jeff Fahey. Fahey gets hired on as a desk clerk and what follows is a nice homage to the original as Norman peeps at Maureen through the wall and she walks in to take a shower. But then there is a twist and things kind of go downhill from here.
Perkins could play this role in his sleep, but he doesn’t. He is the only good thing in this movie. His face is a map of emotions that most of us wouldn’t even want to dream about experiencing. But he never goes over the top, even in the scene where he receives a note from Mother. Wait a minute. A note? The woman’s been dead for twenty-three years and she’s handing out notes? Well, of course not, so why do it? So we can watch Norman freak out. And that’s always fun.
A couple of years after Psycho III, some network executive decided it would be a good idea to base a teen-related TV series around the Bates Motel. Bates Motel is what came of it. Bud Cort stars as a fellow inmate of Norman’s who inherited the motel from him after his death. Death? Oh, never mind. I consider this to be the Halloween III of Psycho films, and mention it only as minutiae. (Poor Bud, ye’ve come a long way since Harold and Maude.)
In this one Norman, apparently cured and now married, calls up a radio talk show about “men who kill their mothers” (wow, what luck!) and spills the beans about his life with his mother. It turns into an above-average flick. Perkins’ place is really just in a wraparound story as he narrates, but in his place we have a real find: Henry Thomas (Elliott in E.T.) plays young Norman and he is a wonder. He must have really studied Perkins because he has those mannerisms down! He even manages to give young Norman that deer-in-the-headlights look that would be on any boy put through these circumstances.
Adding to the pedigree is Olivia Hussey (Juliet in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet) as Norma Bates. She is scary as hell as the flipped out mama Norman eventually kills, but always comes just short of going over-the-top. The family history is thoroughly covered, giving Norman plenty of reasons to commit matricide. These scenes are very disturbing and, considering the time the events take place, very modern. Another welcome addition is being able to see the famed house as a relatively new one, with paint intact.
Perkins comes in again at the end with a secret. His wife is pregnant and he is concerned that the child will be like him. Maybe he’ll have to… But who knows what a crazy man is thinking?
Which, coincidentally, is the same question I asked myself about Gus van Sant when I heard he was going to remake Psycho. Although Vince Vaughn gives a credible performance as Norman – never imitating Perkins but still coming through – I just don’t see the point of it all.
I don’t mind remakes in general (although I generally avoid them), but if you’re going to remake a classic film, then remake it. Don’t just replicate it. Apparently, van Sant had a DVD of the original on the set and used it as the basis for his shots, even copying continuity errors. As bad as the new Planet of the Apes is, at least Tim Burton had something new to add. (The addition of more explicit material does not count. I’ve never looked at Vaughn the same way since his peeping scene.)
And all this copying. I don’t profess to know the law, but isn’t that blatant plagiarism? Taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. There was nothing from the mind of Gus van Sant included in this film, but there’s his “directed by” credit, big as life. (Appropriately, van Sant won that year’s Raspberry Award for Worst Director.)
Part of the reasoning behind a remake of Psycho was that people don’t watch old movies anymore, especially not in black and white (or “Glorious Black and White,” as video covers are trumpeting now). Well, then, how about spending this film’s budget ($20 million) on a national marketing campaign to promote the original? Get celebrities to show how “cool” it is. Get McDonald’s and Pepsi involved with “Wacko Meals” and “Psycho Soda” and have Todd McFarlane make collectible action figures. I don’t know, it just seems like so much of a waste.
Not that I minded seeing some of my favorite actors on screen. I’m always glad to see fine actors practicing their craft. Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall: I’ll watch these guys in anything, even a bad photocopying of a classic Hitchcock film.
I suppose it could be said that the Psycho family (and it is a family, replete with black sheep and that cousin that comes over just to eat the leaves) is a perfect example of the varying quality of sequels and remakes, having among its kin every level of these from good to garbage. It could be said that one could study these films and learn what makes a good sequel or remake. Or it could be said that these films are a good example of how to take a single idea (in this case the actions and motives of a serial killer from Wisconsin named Ed Gein) and make a cottage industry out of it.
Yes, all of these things could definitely be said.
But I don’t think I’ll say them.
(Universal TV, 1990)