Norman Bates and the PSYCHO Sequels

The Original Cross-dressing Killer: Norman Bates and the Psycho Sequels

By Michael Varrati

It almost goes without saying that Alfred Hitchcock is a nearly impossible act to follow.

Considered by fans and critics alike to be an unequivocal master of suspense, ol’ Hitch’s legacy is such that even 30 years after his death, many up and coming filmmakers aspire to reach the very high standard he set with his work. To examine the storied and celebrated legacy he left behind on a film-by-film basis would be a monstrous undertaking, the kind of work left only to those writing a college dissertation or the certifiably insane.

Luckily for my typing fingers and your reading eyes, I’m not that ambitious. Instead, I choose today to focus on just one of Hitchcock’s seminal works, Psycho, and the legacy it left behind.

While quite possibly not the greatest film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, Psycho certainly remains one of the most celebrated. The tragic story of Norman Bates, the motel proprietor trapped in a cycle of murder by his forceful mother, has become the stuff of movie legend. The film’s final reveal (that Norman killed mother long ago and has assumed her identity) has been referenced and aped so many times by the world of pop culture at large, the idea that the movie could even be “spoiled” is pretty much a moot point.

In Psycho, Hitchcock not only created a taut and riveting thriller filled with gorgeously executed murder set pieces (see: the infamous shower scene), but also laid the groundwork for an entire future generation that would eventually create the much more base world of slasher cinema. Because of this, Psycho is not only a work of near untouchable status, but is excessively important to the very foundations of modern horror. It’s truly rare to say that a filmmaker has crafted a perfect piece of cinema, but for its contribution to the genre and brilliantly executed style, Hitchcock’s Psycho stands as a pretty prime exception to that rule.

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Which leads me back to my original statement: It’s pretty hard to follow Hitchcock.

You’d have to be crazy to try, right?

No.

…you’d just have to be Psycho.

Twenty-three years after Hitchcock’s tale of Oedipal terror hit the big screen, forces in Hollywood came together to conspire to spring Norman Bates from the asylum and let him loose to run his motel once again. Problematically, Hitch was already 3 years dead at this point and the idea of revisiting such a hallowed property seemed very much like a crapshoot.

Lending credence to the whole project was the return of Norman Bates himself, Anthony Perkins, who would eventually reprise his famous role two more times over the next decade. However, in the beginning days of Psycho II, did anyone ever truly suspect it would become an enduring franchise that would stand to shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the very slasher icons the original helped create?

Not likely.

In fact, I imagine there were many that thought creating a sequel to such a masterpiece was something akin to movie sacrilege.

I, however, am not one of those people.

As I mentioned earlier, the purpose of this piece was to discuss the legacy Psycho left behind…not the original film itself. After all, for a film that is such part of the cinema canon, what more can really be said about Hitchcock’s masterpiece? On the other hand, the sequels sit in the precarious position of being the bastard children of an icon. Disregarded and oft unexplored by those who embrace the majesty of the original, the sequels have the curious situation of being both directly connected to their source material and being a fiercely independent string of late night cinema trash.

Surging forth to create their own legacy, the sequels answer our original question with shocking clarity: How do you follow Hitchcock? You don’t.

What I think makes the three Psycho sequels particularly remarkable is that they play as both a celebratory homage to their predecessor, and yet also become something distinctly created for the decade in which they were made. These are movies that seemingly would be right at home on USA Up All Night or any other late night horror show, displaying the qualities that seem quintessential to the world of 80s horror. However, never do the films ever seem to stray too far from their heart, Anthony Perkins always serving as a wonderful anchor to the world Hitchcock initially created.

In short, I love the Psycho sequels because they are startlingly original and had the balls to be something new, instead of making the horrid mistake of even trying to be Hitchcock.

Now, with all that said, I submit that it is time that these uncelebrated slices of horror history finally get their day in the sun. Let’s take a moment and examine all three of the sequels to Psycho and isolate what makes them prime candidates for your next late night viewing party. After all, it’s always been a goal for us here at Peaches Christ headquarters to make sure you constantly have a new flick with which to satiate your bloodthirsty need for cinema…and if we can get a few of you to take a shower with Norman Bates in the process, then we’ve done our job.

So, without further adieu…let’s check into the Bates Motel and see what’s on the room service menu.

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Psycho II

Peaches Christ once shared with me that when she was a little cult leader, she was totally obsessed with Psycho II. Being a film enthusiast with a taste for the depraved, it was a sentiment that I completely understood.  The return of Norman Bates to the silver screen for horror fans was an event akin to the return of Darth Vader for Star Wars geeks. He was the forefather of the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees, his legacy something instilled in all of us who craved a little blood with our popcorn.

True to the original, however, this was no mere splatter movie…but rather an edgy suspense thriller. The film opens with Bates returning to the scene of the original film, his home above the family’s motel. Having spent the better part of the previous two decades in a mental institution dealing with mommy issues, Norman considers himself reformed and is ready to rejoin society. However, also back in town is Lila Loomis (played by Vera Miles, who also returns from the original), who is not so keen on letting the man who murdered her sister assimilate back into everyday life.  While dodging harassment from Loomis, Bates befriends a young girl (played by the saucy Meg Tilly) who instills in him the confidence to reopen his motel for business. But even as the Bates Motel’s vacancy sign begins to glow anew, fresh corpses are being discovered. Is Bates back to his old tricks? Just how far will Lila Loomis go to avenge her sister’s death? Just how dead is mother?

A brilliantly constructed whodunit, Psycho II is the most subtle of the three sequels, sticking as close in spirit to the original as any of the subsequent films allow. Directed by Australian director Richard Franklin (who was also behind the gruesome Patrick), Psycho II has the audacity to play mystery in a series wherein the killer has already been established. However, the true genius of the film is that if you think Norman Bates is the cut-and-dried man behind the knife from frame one, then you’ll sadly be mistaken. Preying on the audience’s expectations, Franklin delivers a startling series of twists with a killshot in the film’s finale that rivals the infamous shower scene of the original.

Psycho II firmly brings Norman Bates into the 1980s, establishing that the fey and reserved world he once inhabited is no longer in existence. No more is the sexuality of the females Bates stalks hidden in the shadows, but put uncomfortably on display, giving further depth to the horrifying world of voyeurism Bates has created within the confines of the motel. Meg Tilly’s presence as the ingénue who attempts to believe in Norman’s recovery is essential to the film, delivering a raw sexuality that would become paramount to series from this point forward.

Perhaps most important to this first sequel, however, is the continued strength of Perkin’s performance. Bringing a wounded presence to Bates, Perkins makes the audience love him and believe him from the very beginning. Even as the wounds give way to a murderous darkness before the final reel…it is almost impossible to dislike the character. Because of Anthony Perkins, Norman Bates becomes the best kind of killer…one we are willing to forgive.

…and aren’t those the most dangerous?

Perhaps my least favorite of the three sequels, Psycho II is still extremely effective…and most importantly serves as an announcement of the return of one of cinema’s greatest villains. If only for its essential heralding of the things to come, Psycho II is a wonderful cult classic.

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Psycho III

For me, Psycho III will always be defined by its opening scenes. A nun (played by Diana Scarwid of Mommie Dearest fame) stands atop a bell tower, poised to commit suicide as a gaggle of Sisters rush to stop her. In an accidental stumble, the young nun pushes another nun from the tower, watching helplessly as the bride of Christ plummets to her death to the stones below.

Shot in slow motion and framed by extremely grandiose orchestration, the whole scene can only be described as epically ridiculous.

…and of course, I say that with love.

Directed by Anthony Perkins himself, the film takes place a short amount of time after the events of the second, seeing our now returned to madness Norman taking in the nun (who was sadly excommunicated for chucking her associate from the belfry) and attempting to stabilize himself before he kills again.

In the meantime, things at the motel are jumpin’ and Norman needs to hire on some extra help. Unfortunately, that help comes in the form of Duane (played by Jeff Fahey…who’s looking particularly delish in this flick), a misogynistic, part-time rapist who figures the best way to earn a few extra bucks is to blackmail his murderous new boss.

Obviously, from here…the potential for shenanigans is endless.

Where Psycho II attempted to remain slightly subtle, the third installment disregards all need for the calm approach and explodes onto the screen with a crimson splat. Over-the-top and brilliantly realized, if Psycho II introduced Norman Bates to the 80s, then Psycho III showed him truly reveling in the decade of excess.

This is the film, of all of them in the franchise, that I feel could be most wholly embraced by the Midnight Mass crowd. With campy antics and laugh out loud violence, Psycho III is truly the film that establishes the sequel franchise as their own unique entity. If you can check your expectations at the door, you’ll find that this film is a better than average slice of 80s horror.

At the very least, one cannot deny that nuns, cross-dressers, and rapist hillbillies make for a pretty solid combination.

I’ve certainly stayed up to watch movies that offered less.

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Psycho IV: The Beginning

Where Peaches was obsessed with Psycho II, I couldn’t get enough of Psycho IV: The Beginning.

Set primarily in a radio station, the story concerns a talk show DJ (CCH Pounder) who is hosting a show on matricide. Things take a turn for the bizarre when the show gets a real killer of a call-in guest: Norman Bates. As Bates tells the DJ tales of his life, the audience is treated to flashbacks of young Norman…and finally gets a glimpse of his legendary mother.

Directed by horror icon Mick Garris (whom I adore), the film breaches the always perceived incestuous relationship between Norman and his mother and offers it up for the world to plainly see.  With young Norman being portrayed by Henry Thomas (of E.T. fame) and his mother being devilishly brought to life by Olivia Hussey, the pair’s incendiary connection is given a palatable and horrific existence, leaving the audience feeling shocked and unclean.

For years I considered this film to be one of the most unnerving I had ever seen, and though my immersion into cult cinema would eventually prove this to be far from the case, I still hold a special place in my heart for the filthy darkness of Norman’s past and Garris’s willingness to make an already disturbing character more disturbed.

Delivered to audiences exactly 30 years after the release of the original film, Psycho IV has the audacity to return to the story that made Norman the killer he was all those years ago, and in doing so, provided a nice cap to the entire saga of the mentally plagued motel proprietor.

Dark and stark, I’ve always felt it fitting that the last film in the original Psycho franchise was helmed by master of horror Mick Garris. Though Garris is not Hitchcock, his place in horror is such that it could only be left to a luminary such as he to close the saga that Alfred himself had opened all those years ago.

Ultimately, Psycho IV: The Beginning is a depraved epilogue of madness that follows a long legacy of insanity. Perfect in every way, it will always remain one of my favorite late night excursions into the world of terror…and comes highly recommend from me to you.

But really, in case you haven’t been paying attention, Psycho IV isn’t the only film in this series that I urge you, my dear children of the popcorn, to go out of your way to see. Brilliantly realized and strangely separatist from their progenitor, the Psycho sequels had the audacity to be their own independent children when they could easily have become nothing more than carbon-copies of an already superior model. By having the guts to step away and become their own entities, these films are a unique slice of genre history, and more importantly, a hell of a lot of fun to watch. If you’ve avoided them all of these years out of some strange deference to Hitchcock’s original, I can understand that. However, in doing so, I believe you are depriving yourself of some truly wondrous filmic experiences and that some of the greatest unsung midnight movies are remaining perpetually overlooked.

So, get over your prejudices, and like Norman Bates, dare to peer through the wall of what you think you know.  Check out the Psycho sequels…you’ll be glad you did.

Of course, don’t take my word for it…I could be a little mad.

But, really…we all go a little mad sometimes.

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