The Psycho franchise

Psycho (1960)

Rating: B

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Vera Miles, Janet Leigh

“Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”
— Alfred Hitchcock

Is it possible for a film to be too iconic? That may be the case for Psycho. Watching it now, it’s hard to understand why Marion Crane (Leigh) doesn’t make an excuse and leave, at high speed, the motel owned by the creepily charming Norman Bates (Perkins). For there are red flags all over the place. Norman’s hobby of taxidermy. Sudden fits of rage. His devotion to his mother, shown in lines like “A boy’s best friend is his mother.” All of which should set off alarm bells in any normal person these days. Except, you then realize, most of these weren’t red flags until Hitchcock made them so here. He is the reason why, whenever anyone in a film looks for a weapon in a kitchen, 99% of the time they will pick up “that” knife.

However, is it Psycho‘s fault the language it spoke at the beginning of the sixties, has become the stuff of cliche in the 21st century? Arguably not. Something for which it can’t escape blame though, is the way it becomes considerably less interesting when Norman – and, to a lesser extent, Marion – are not in the screen. Much of the second half is instead taken up with the Scooby-like efforts of her boyfriend Sam Loomis (Gavin) and sister Lila (Miles) to track down the missing Marion. The former is blandly macho, the latter about as useless as most women were in movies of the era – while the film was ahead of its time in some areas, gender equality clearly wasn’t one of them. Perhaps that is why Hitchcock felt the audience needed a lecture at the end on why Norman is “not exactly” a transvestite.

Yet it’s certainly not without brilliance. The shower scene has, rightly, taken its place, perhaps the single most iconic moment in horror history, though is another aspect which has been done to death over the six decades since. Yet worth noting almost as much, is what precedes and follows it: Norman spying on Marion, and then methodically cleaning up after “Mother” has done the dirty deed. For all told, it’s about sixteen and a half minutes without any meaningful dialogue (beyond Norman yelling, “Mother! Oh god, Mother! Blood!”), and remains remarkable, even today. Alfred Hitchcock cares not for your cinematic conventions. The fate of PI Milton Arbogast is also striking: check out the camera shots both as he climbs and descends the stairs.

It makes for a weird grab-bag of the painfully over-familiar and the still impressive, with Perkins’s performance certainly in the latter category. Worth noting, he wasn’t unknown at the time: he was already an Oscar-winner, having taken home the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his performance in 1957’s Civil War drama, Friendly Persuasion. But for good or bad, Norman Bates defined Anthony Perkins, and for almost the rest of his career, he was still playing the psycho, whether in Edge of Sanity or Crimes of Passion. I guess, if you’re really good at something, why stop doing it?

This article is part of 31 Days of Horror.

[August 201o] It’s fifty years since Psycho came out, and it is still regarded as one of the classics of the horror genre. If ever the phrase “no recap needed” was true, this is it, for I doubt anyone reading this site is unaware of the plot. It resonates to such an extent that whenever anyone in a horror film picks up a kitchen utensil, it will almost inevitably be “the Psycho knife.” However, from a modern point of view, it isn’t obviously a genre entry: and even at the time, there was almost as much fuss over a shot of a toilet being flushed, or the script using the word “transvestite”, as the killing of Marion Crane (Leigh) in the shower.

It’s almost a noir, not just in style but content, with Crane going on the lam with $40,000, and being followed by a private-eye and her sister, who think her boyfriend (Gavin, who was almost James Bond after George Lazenby) knows about her disappearance. Even the lengthy psychological explanation at the end is not exactly the sort of thing found in most slasher pics since. I wouldn’t describe it as a great horror film; one wonders why moviegoers in the 60’s were even startled by Leigh’s death, given the opening credits say “and Janet Leigh” – a position we know as reserved for the big-name star wheeled into horror flicks for a quick death e.g. Udo Kier in FeardotCom.

However, qualms about genre categories aside, it still works very well, with Perkins in a career-defining role, literally; it was hard to see him in any other kind of role after this, though he never seemed to mind being typecast. Even if it now possesses as much terror value as a pair of your favourite socks, and about the same shock content, there’s no denying the art and craft on view, and it’s easy to see why Hitchcock is a master, and this is one of his most well-regarded works. Even considered, on its most basic level, as a cinematic machine for generating suspense and tension, it hasn’t been matched very often in the five decades since its original release. B

Psycho II (1983)

Rating: C

Dir: Richard Franklin
Star: Anthony Perkins, Meg Tilly, Vera Miles, Robert Loggia

Coincidence that this went into production not long after Hitchcock exited this world? Or is that being too cynical of me? Either way, 22 years after the original, Universal decided to go ahead with a sequel – Perkins initially turned them down, but when it was clear they were going ahead anyway (Christopher Walken being one of the possible replacements mentioned), he signed on. The results are pretty mediocre, and act mostly to make you appreciate the strengths of the original, though remains stil eminently watchable. Bates is released from the asylum, over and above the protestations of Lila Loomis (Miles, reprising her role from the first film as Marion Crane’s sister).

He returns to the motel, and befriends Mary (Tilly), a waitress at the diner where he gets a job. However, it’s not long before Mother’s presence is once again being felt around the house above the motel. Is Bates sliding back to insanity – if he had ever been sane – or is someone trying to set him up? This is a good deal more sympathetic to Norman than the original, and there is considerable doubt, for the most part, as to which direction the film will eventually tilt. I can’t say it’s handled particularly-well, however: I just didn’t really care about the outcome, and the big twist in the final scene is presented in the expectation of a lot more shock than it actually generates.

Still, watching Bates struggle with his inner demons while making sandwiches isn’t a chore – the look on his face when Mary hands him that knife to cut them with, is priceless. While Tilly is solid enough in her role too, there isn’t much here that could be described as shocking or transgressive – the movie proceeds as if cinematically, time had stood still since Norman first switched on the sign. Probably the best thing you can say is that, while it may not have been the wisest idea on the world, it was at least a bit more justifiable than Gus Van Sant’s remake.

Psycho III (1986)

Rating: C+

Dir: Anthony Perkins
Star: Anthony Perkins, Diana Scarwid, Jeff Fahey, Roberta Maxwell

Perkins sat in the director’s chair for the third installment, which did at least up the ante somewhat, albeit by sliding more into the exploitation area than Hitchcock would ever have done. There’s also a strong anti-religious tone to this, with Maureen Coyle (Scarwid) playing a disgruntled and unstable nun, who hits the road and ends up at thge Bates Motel, where Norman is startled by her strong resemblance to a certain other “M.C.” “Mother” pays a visit to Maureen in the bath, only to find the nun has attempted to take her own life – she sees Mother as a vision of Mary, and vows to turn her life around, crediting Bates with saving her.

Meanwhile, Norman has hired Duke (Fahey) to help him out around the motel; however, the new employee discovers the secret in the house and tries to blackmail the owner. Three guesses how that works out. Additionally, a journalist (Maxwell) is sniffing around Bates, looking for a story, and wondering whether Bates is quite as rehabilitates as he seems. No shortage of plot threads here, in place of the stark simplicity of the original, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Any effort to mine deeper into Bates’ psyche would seem doomed to failure, and Perkins would seem better equipped to provide a new angle than a Hitchcock devotee like Franklin, director of the preceding entry – who knows Bates better than Perkins?

However, the fate of Coyle is so disappointingly pedestrian (despite an impressive tribute to the original that immediately precedes it), it smacks of an afterthought, and the film then moves on to far less interesting characters. For a while, I was convinced that Coyle had taken on the mantle of Mother, and was killing to protect the new-found love of her life – however, that proved not to be quite the case, and what does transpire is not as interesting. It’s somewhat of an improvement over the first sequel, if still falling significantly short of the original.

Original review [4] Norman Bates is back to normal, but Mother’s off her rocker again. The usual mix of kooks at the Bates Motel a suicidal nun who sees ‘Mother’ and thinks it’s the Virgin Mary, an investigative journalist and an insane C & W singer – help Norman out with the usual mix of murder, mayhem and mother- fixation. None the less enjoyable for it, with Perkins good value for money as ever and showing a few neat touches from the director’s chair too, even if the film doesn’t get into top gear until five minutes from the end. 6/10