VHS Revival checks in at the Bates Motel more than thirty years after the original massacre — some people never learn
The Bates Motel.
We see a woman named Marion, clad in a dressing gown, in one of the rooms. She walks into the bathroom, undresses, leaves the gown on the toilet, and steps in the shower, turning it on. There’s a moment of happiness for her as she basks in the water, but that doesn’t last long. Look closely at the background. The door has opened. A figure walks through. Looks like a woman. Suddenly the shower curtain has been drawn and the figure is brandishing a knife. Marion screams, but nothing can save her. The kill begins. The knife relentlessly plunges and stabs, drawing blood which mixes with the shower water and goes down the plughole. The music we hear is a horrific, piercing assault of strings that mirror the killer’s attack. As quickly as it started, the savagery ends, with the killer fleeing the bathroom and Marion with her back against the tiled wall, her body sliding downwards.
In her last moments Marion reaches out and clutches the shower curtain, and it falls down alongside her. She’s gone. The shower water continues to run, and we move from Marion’s dead body to the window where we can see the Bates residence, which is where the young, shy, friendly but unusual Norman Bates and his mother live. We can hear Norman enter the bathroom, his voice full of horror and shock. He recoils from the blood and calls out for his mother. Thinking about it, who was that woman with the knife? That wasn’t Norman’s mother, was it?
Wow! What an opening. Masterfully executed, terrifying, edited so well that you don’t even see the killer’s knife enter Marion’s flesh and backed by that astonishing music that once heard is never forgotten….it’s the kind of scene that you could, oh I don’t know… base a whole documentary around, maybe? It’s a scene that introduced modern horror, changed cinema forever… I mean, how can it not be The Greatest Opening Scene In All Of Cinema?
Norman Bates: I don’t kill people anymore.
Well, it isn’t, because everybody had already seen it twenty-three years earlier, halfway through Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Psycho II.
Hitchcock’s landmark original had, in the decades since its release, become a cultural phenomenon, from its immediate and enormous commercial success to its status as an endlessly analysed example of cinematic technique. Its influence was and is immeasurable, its place in cinema history and popular culture impossible to understate. Hitchcock’s death in 1980 would set his entire filmography in stone, an incomparable, fully-formed, monolithic legacy. He truly was one of The Greats, and his absence was immediately felt.
The 1980s would be the first decade in cinema without a Hitchcock film since before the Twenties. His brand of filmmaking cast a formidable shadow, but simultaneously times were changing. Horror in particular had moved on from the relative suggestion of Hitchcock’s era, while the slackening of censorship had allowed the genre to get away with showing much more: more violence, more sex, more profanity – the kind of which Hitchcock had only come close to with his 1972 film Frenzy, which was shockingly nasty for its time and is still an ’18’ here in the UK. It was in this new era of cinematic licentiousness, where the likes of Halloween II, Friday the 13th Part 3, Dressed to Kill, and all manner of super-violent entertainment reigned, that Psycho II arrived.
The notion of making a sequel to Psycho would have been as acceptable as, say, the idea of remaking Jaws today. Old-school critics were already grumpy with seeing their favourite films being remade (The Wages of Fear as Sorcerer, The Thing from Another World as The Thing) but this was true sacrilege. Making a sequel to Psycho was one cheap move too many. Until Mad Max: Fury Road, Psycho II would represent the longest gap between films in a series, and yet like that film, Psycho II surprised many by actually turning out to be pretty damn good. You’d think that Brian De Palma, whose audacious, controversial and occasionally blatant steals from Hitchcock, as well as his risque lack of constraint, would have made him a perfect director for the new 1980s era of Psycho, but instead the job was given to Hitchcock disciple Richard Franklin, who had already made a brilliant suspense thriller with Roadgames (starring Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet ‘Marion Crane’ Leigh) and who with this film would eschew the extreme style of the era (barring one or two shocking gore scenes) and opt for the kind of classical, suspense-driven set-pieces that showcased a reverence and understanding of what made the old classics work. It would be written by Tom Holland, who would work again with Franklin on the delightful ‘Hitchcock for Kids’ thrills of Cloak and Dagger, as well as delivering a couple of Eighties gems in the form of Fright Night and Child’s Play.
Upon its release, critics who were at least prepared to give the sequel a chance were surprised by just how well made it was. There were, however, some who regarded it as a desecration of the original, akin to making Citizen Kane 2: Rosebud Strikes Back or something like that. Their loss. It’s a damn fine film. Cleverly, it addresses the elephant in the room – the original film – by replaying its most famous scene right from the off, after which we fade from old monochrome to modern-day colour. With that out of the way, the sequel was free to forge its own path, one that was admittedly strewn with neat references to its predecessor, but not to the extent that you felt like you were watching some pale fan service. Indeed, Psycho II stands tall and proud, and is one of the most fun, deliciously clever horror films of the decade. I watched it recently on the big screen as part of a double-bill with the original and I tell you, it really held its own against that formidable classic. In fact, I secretly harbour a genuine preference for the sequel, even know I know it’s not really the thing to do.
Norman Bates: Mary, I’m becoming confused again, aren’t I?
Mary: Of course not.
Norman Bates: [holding the knife] Don’t lie to me! Not you!
Mary: Yes, Norman… you are becoming confused again.
So, where are we now, all these years after the events of the first film? Well we have Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) being declared legally sane and released from the mental institution he’s resided in for years. This doesn’t go down well at all with Lila Crane (Vera Miles), who’s very unhappy that the man who killed her sister Marion is now a free citizen. With help from his psychiatrist (Robert Loggia), Norman attempts to settle down in the outside world, and what better place to get comfy than at the old Bates house? Right? Okay, this might not be the best idea in the world, but confrontation therapy is in vogue, so Norman moves back. Almost immediately he’s seeing Mother in the window, and we’re already expecting the worst. Norman’s puritan sensibilities have also been given an unpleasant 1980s wake-up call when he discovers that the sleaze bag (Dennis Franz, obviously) who’s been running the motel in his absence has turned this once-respectable establishment (murders notwithstanding) into a dive for prostitution and drug abuse. Meanwhile, Norman also gets a job at the local diner, where he meets friendly waitress Mary (Meg Tilly), who desperately needs a place to stay.… soon enough, people are getting murdered all over again…
Of all the hype surrounding Psycho II, the real selling point was Anthony Perkins returning as Norman. And didn’t he turn out well? There are many great, great things about this film, and Perkins is the greatest of the lot. Despite Norman proving to be something of an albatross in Perkins’ career, the actor returned to the role with irresistible gusto, charm and unsettling creepiness. In the years since the original’s release, Norman had become the grandaddy of modern-day horror villains, and much like when Arnold Schwarzenegger returned to the villainous role that had made his name in Terminator 2, love for this character, despite his homicidal tendencies, had grown to the extent that Norman is now the hero of Psycho II, albeit a hero we’re not quite sure about. Perkins gets the balance just right – endearingly awkward, warm and friendly, yet simmering with unpredictability, he’s someone to root for, yet be in fear of too. He does seem genuinely rehabilitated, and just as much as we want the killings to get going, we also want him to be happy and to find peace. This tension makes for delightfully uncomfortable viewing.
Unlike the ostentatious technique of fellow De Palma, Franklin opts for subtler tricks that are less spectacular but nonetheless wonderfully mischievous and mightily effective. He and Holland knew the impact of a carefully unfurled storyline, where tension builds and builds to a mighty peak. Unlike many a slasher/exploitation movie of the period, Psycho II actually has a plot. Dean Cundey’s cinematography is deliciously crafty and full of terrific flourishes. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is at once full of neat references to the original and its own thing entirely, with many beautiful, scary and dramatic new themes. Supporting performances range from solid to very memorable – Tilly has a beguiling, unique presence and great chemistry with Perkins, Miles is splendidly brusque, the always dependable Loggia a little underused but still good value, and Franz hilariously unpleasant.
Also, compared to De Palma’s showers of sex and gore, Psycho II opts for a relatively restrained approach for the most part. The film was even regarded suitable enough to be passed as an uncut ’15’ on theatrical release, though it was upgraded to an ’18’ for video – this may or may not have to do with the video nasty controversy of the time, and that anything remotely horror or slasher related had to be given the highest rating where potential underage audiences were concerned. Nevertheless, it was one of the first horror films I felt brave enough to stay up late for, when I saw it on BBC1 one late Friday night and it turned out to be a great entry point into the genre for me.
Dr. Raymond: What’s the matter?
Norman Bates: Uh, I saw someone!
Dr. Raymond: Where?
Norman Bates: Up there! In that window!
Dr. Raymond: I haven’t had a tenant in the house for years.
However, for all its reverence towards the original, the fact remained that this was a horror film released in 1983, and certain genre expectations had to be fulfilled. The presence of a couple of canoodling teens in a basement, one of whom is swiftly murdered, is a clear nod to the sex = death equation so beloved at the time. There’s also brief nudity in the film’s own shower scene, which the original couldn’t have got away with. Also, some kills are more graphic than anything Hitchcock could have gotten away with. True, nothing censor-baiting like many other horror films of the time, but still memorably vicious – the early scene of Franz getting his face sliced was a neat nod to Martin Balsam’s fate in the original, but that was nothing compared to what was maybe intended as the sequel’s equivalent of the original’s most famous death (right down to the jump cuts of the victim’s screaming mouth). I’m talking about that gruesome knife-through-the-mouth-and-out-through-the-back-of-the-neck kill that’s still genuinely scary and horrible (despite, or maybe because of those creakily weird stop-motion effects). There’s also some icky hand injuries, a spectacular fall on to a conveniently upturned knife, and of course, the very memorable use of a shovel in the final scene.
Ah yes, the ending! Without giving anything away, Psycho II boasts a wickedly surprising final encounter that culminates in one of the all-time great concluding shots, a poster-worthy (indeed, it was used) view of the Bates house from the bottom of the winding stairs, with an eerily ghost-like Norman observing his surroundings, and ‘Mother’ seen looking down from her bedroom window. Chillingly complemented by Goldsmith’s frightening score, it was a coda that haunted me badly as a child doing his best to get to sleep in the dark.
Psycho II does such a good job of subverting expectation and delivering classy, shocking thrills that its a shame that the series carried on longer, with predictably diminishing returns. Although Perkins would prove to be a director of some style with Psycho III, the film overall feels awfully slight and doesn’t really offer anything interesting to the series, despite a few good, icky scares. There was a made-for-TV fourth instalment, subtitled The Beginning, which took us back to Norman’s years as an adolescent (played by E.T’s Henry Thomas) and concentrating on his unhealthy relationship with his mother. Not a bad film, but the whole ‘how it all began’ concept would be far better utilised with the Bates Motel series decades later. By the end of the eighties, Psycho had become just another franchise, with a bizarre post-script in 1998 in the form of Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of the original, but that’s another story.
So yeah, one of the best sequels, a delightfully clever ride and only unacceptable to those who regard Hitchcock as being untouchable to the point of being sacred, Psycho II’s reputation gets stronger every day. Watch it with some toasted cheese sandwiches, post-haste.