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Psychotic Offsprings: A Look at “Psycho” and its Lasting Legacy

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In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock would bet it all on what many considered to be, at best, a long shot and, at worst, career suicide. Having already made what are largely (and still) considered to be his best films — Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Rear Window, to name a few — the British born director would find his next inspiration in a book by a, then, little-known pulp author Robert Bloch; a book by the title of Psycho. The story goes that Hitchcock was enthralled by the novel after his reader put it across his table and put in an anonymous bid to buy the rights. A rather ingenious plot, Hitch picked up the novel for song of just $9,000 (although this sounds insanely low, inflation would place it about 72,000 dollars today, a modest sum but certainly low given Hitch’s fame) and was then reported to have purchased as many copies as he could find, in order to keep the film’s reveal a surprise. This scheme would not be the last, however, as the production history is riddled with lavish stories, from Hitch putting up many of his own assets to finance the film to his humorous but masterful ability to generate publicity for the film in the weeks leading up to release. All of Hitch’s hard work surely paid off, because Psycho is probably the film that Hitchcock is best known for.

publicity-posetYet, in the same way that Psycho does not originate with Hitchcock, neither does it end with him. In the 56 years since its release, Norman Bates and his mother have inspired countless works, both directly and indirectly. The film has prompted the release of not only a series of sequels but also a remake, numerous rehashes, spin-offs, and, most recently, a prequel Television series on A&E Network. Today, Psycho is more than a film or a novel; it’s become a dynasty. Honoring that legacy, the Australian distribution company Via Vision Entertainment has, for the first time ever, collected 6 different renditions of Norman’s story in a single Blu-ray collection, reminding us over and over again that ‘a boy’s best friend is his mother.’

A Legacy is Born

There is not much that can be said about Hitchcock’s original film that hasn’t already been repeated ad nauseam. What does remain striking to this day is the film’s stripped down look. Known for his vibrant and often expressionist-leaning stylings, Psycho is a slight detour for the filmmaker, one that sees a far more minimalist design. Working on a slight budget and a short production time, Hitchcock sought the help of director of photographer John L. Russell to shoot the film. Mostly a television DP, Russell met Hitchcock through his work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where Russell shot 75 of the series’ 268 episodes. Based on his work with AHP, Hitch knew that Russell could work both efficiently and hastily. In addition, his television experience made sure that Russell was already well acquainted with B+W photography, a necessity for the production’s budget.

Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) [click to enlarge]

Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) [click to enlarge]

While certainly less lavish than Hitch’s work both before and after, Psycho is not any less striking. Hitchcock and Russell fill the screen with a sense of foreboding dread, and what the film may lack in cinematographic excess, it makes up for in narrative experimentation. Hitchcock’s choice to cast star Janet Leigh as Marion Crane remains a gamble, which thanks to Hitch’s loving hand pays off in spades. No matter how many times one watches the film, it is likely that a strong visceral response to seeing her tragic demise only 40 minutes into the movie remains constant. Killing your film’s star is a risk in 2016, so it goes without saying that Hitchcock took a big chance with this move. It is this bullishness that defines the film and makes it one of the director’s most daring and engrossing works.

Bracketing a predilection towards viewing the film in a purely auteuristic manner, Hitchcock’s imagination is not the sole guiding factor for the film. Leigh is charming and powerful during her short run in the film. She is easily able to embody the duplicitous nature that her character calls for, and, despite her selfish actions, she remains sympathetic. In addition, playing Leigh’s on-screen sister, Vera Miles does a good job at commanding screen presence but neither Miles, nor John Gavin (playing Sam Loomis, Marion’s lover) are catapulted as the film’s star. No, once Leigh is taken out of the equation, she can only be replaced by what has become Psycho’s most lasting impression, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.

Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) [click to enlarge]

Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) [click to enlarge]

A Boy and His Mother

By the time that Perkins landed the role of Norman Bates he had already appeared in a handful of films and had even earned himself an Oscar nomination for his portrayal in William Wyler’s 1956 Friendly Persuasion. Perkins boyish good looks makes him a perfect fit for the role of Norman Bates, while the actor’s prior interest in psychoanalysis surely primed him for what was, then, quite a daring portrayal. While many aspects of Bates’s character feel out of date today, the core of Bates’s existence is as effective and haunting as ever. Psycho is a testament of Perkins’s talents, because the film’s success rests in audiences being able to both sympathize and fear Norman.

While much has been said of Perkins’s first portrayal of Norman, Psycho would not be the last time that Perkins would take on the tragic role. 23 years after Hitchcock’s film (and three years after Hitch’s death), Norman Bates would return to Bates Motel; older, and wiser, but no less conflicted. Psycho II has often been written off as many sequels to classics are. Yet, while the film is certainly half of its predecessor, it is far from a bad film. It’s actually quite a good film. We must remove Psycho II from the prestige in order to better view it and, once this is done, the film’s many positive attributes come to life.

Anthony Perkins in Richard Franklin's Psycho II (1983) [click to enlarge]

Anthony Perkins in Richard Franklin’s Psycho II (1983) [click to enlarge]

Written by Tom Holland (Fright Night) and directed by Richard Franklin, Psycho II is also set 23 years following the film’s original events and depicts Norman’s attempts to return to normal life following his release from a sanitarium. By the time that he was to write the film, Holland had already proven himself a competent genre cinema scribe, penning the scripts for both The Beast Within and Class of 1984. Likewise, director Franklin was beginning to create a name for himself with films like Patrick and the Hitchcockian thriller Road Games. All of the actions of Hitch’s film remain part of the cannon, with Holland and Franklin developing the fruit of what would become a new book in Norman’s life.

Psycho II may take inspiration from Hitchcock’s original film but beyond a few stylistic homages, it is a completely different beast. Holland takes the comedic undertones of the original and ramps them up. Holland’s script, however, is quite clever, never falling into farce and remaining lively enough to delineate itself from its monumental predecessor. It goes without saying that Franklin is no Hitchcock but he doesn’t need to be. Psycho II is an aptly directed film, filled with creative camera movements and brisk pacing. Historically speaking, Psycho II comes at an interesting time in American cinema. Just a few years after a major Slasher cycle begins, Psycho II is able to capitalize on the movement’s popularity, in addition to the legacy of the original film. Franklin effectively depicts the murder scenes, allowing them to update to the times without falling too in line with the overtly explicit slashers of the day. Because of this, Psycho II oscillates between a slasher and psychological thriller but one that is always pivoted on its star.

Reprising his role as Norman, Perkins steals the show. Some may expect to see the actor hamming it up, but Perkins’s portrayal is quite earnest and only as campy as the script calls for. Like the original film, Perkins delivers a genuine sense of empathy. Franklin keeps a greater distance between audiences and Perkins, so while it would appear as if Norman is returning to his old ways, there is room for doubt. This is achieved rather effectively with a palpable sense of psychological tension, only solidified by Franklin’s capable direction and Perkins commanding presence.

Anthony Perkins and Robert Loggia in Richard Franklin's Psycho II (1983) [click to enlarge]

Anthony Perkins and Robert Loggia in Richard Franklin’s Psycho II (1983) [click to enlarge]

In the end, Psycho II transcends its script. The mystery never quite lives up to the original film’s, but you get the sense that this was intentional. Holland doesn’t try to pull any tricks and there is not an ounce of pretension to it. The goal wasn’t to outdo the original, which allows the film to be an entertaining romp. Both Psycho II and III get criticized far too heavily because of their connection to such a beloved film, but when you remove this superficial form of criticism, the film’s emerge in good form. Psycho II is a confident film, one that is as stylish as it is fun.

If Psycho II can be said to operate on a slightly more self-aware, satirical level, the third entry in the series goes in farther in that direction. While a few members of the cast of the second film return for the third — most important being Perkins — the creative crew does not return for this outing. As writer, Charles Edward Pogue, who would also pen the largely more effective screenplay for David Cronenberg’s The Fly in the same year, replaces Holland. Prior to 1986, Pogue had only penned two scripts, both of which were for made for TV Ian Richardson-Sherlock Holmes films. While Pogue’s background didn’t exactly prime him as the perfect candidate for the series, his script does hold up quite nicely.

Eager to expand his boundaries (and perhaps prove himself) Perkins takes over directorial responsibilities, marking the first of only two times that Perkins would direct a film (the second being the cannibal themed horror comedy released two year later, Lucky Stiff). While Perkins would later profess that he was not technically suited to direct the film, it is not so evident on screen. Psycho III is quite stylish, perhaps more so than the preceding title. Effective camera movements as well as titillating death scenes keep the film engaging. It is possible that Director of Photographer Bruce Surtees can be thanked for the visual look of the film. Surtees was a seasoned vet, having worked with great directors like Sam Fuller, Don Siegel, Arthur Penn, John Milius, and Clint Eastwood before embarking on this project. Surtees is far from a hyper-stylized director of photography. His best work is defined by a subtle yet effective use of light, but he must certainly have been an asset for Perkins on set.

Anthony Perkins's (1988) [click to enlarge]

Anthony Perkins’s (1986) [click to enlarge]

Like the prior two films, Perkins again hands in a great performance, not seeming to be too distracted by his dual roles. There isn’t a great deal to be said about his performance here that couldn’t be said early, with the exception that the script for III allows Perkins to be less erratic than before. This, in turn, gives him a strange sort of confidence that makes his character all the more intriguing. He has come to terms with his mother and accepts her as a fact of his life that is not going away. So rather than dwell in the psychological trauma of Norman working to fight off his mother’s impulses, Psycho III is able to revel in it.

An interesting aspect of the film was the choice to sort of mimic the original, an aspect that is made explicit in the film. The movie opens in a dark manner, with the attempted suicide of a nun (Diana Scarwid), only moments after boldly professing: “there is no god.” Prompted by depression and a waning faith, the Nun, whose name is Maureen, makes her way out of the covenant and embarks in order to find peace. Her journey eventually crosses paths with a crude but charismatic drifter and wannabe rocker Duane (Jeff Fahey), who picks her up along the way. When a torrential downpour sidetracks their trip, Maureen’s temporary sanctity is challenged when Duane tries to force himself on her in the middle of the night. She makes her way out of the car and Duane proceeds forward but the two will cross paths once again in seedy confines of the Bates Motel.

While Maureen is intentionally modeled after Janet Leigh’s look in the original film, an aspect that attracts Norman, Scarwid is nowhere near the actor that Leigh was. Scarwid turns in a serviceable performance but does emerge as one of the weaker aspects of the story and struggles through some of the lines. Likewise, Roberta Maxwell is rather poorly casted as Tracy, a reporter set on proving that Bates has not recovered. Maxwell is not a poor actor but she doesn’t really have the gusto that is really needed for the character to make a strong impact. However, both female actors’ downsides are more than made up for with Perkins’s and Fahey’s performances. Fahey brilliantly captures the charming but smug, egotistical rocker. He manages to give the character a sense of depth, making an otherwise detestable schlub a rather (and unfortunately) appealing presence. Fahey and Perkins have a great chemistry as well and the scenes that feature both are among the best in the film.

Jeff Fahey in Anthony Perkins's Psycho III (1986) [click to enlarge]

Jeff Fahey in Anthony Perkins’s Psycho III (1986) [click to enlarge]

Without spoiling the plot, the film works to undermine a rather needless plot point that creeps up in the second entry. Pogue’s script builds off of Holland’s idea and creates a far better narrative justification. The film is not without its faults but does come off as a nice quasi-Slasher that proves just how talented Anthony Perkins was as an artist. While the film is a bit more tongue-in-cheek, it doesn’t delve into outright parody, and is ultimately held together by its two central performances. Further, Pogue really develops the contrast between sympathy towards the mentally ill and fear of potential danger. Pogue’s script is not subtle, but it manages to capture the feelings that the original film elicits in viewers within the narrative thrust of the story.

The End of an Era

Upon release, Psycho III was far from a hit but it performed modestly and managed to garner quite a few impressive critical reactions. Perhaps best of all, Roger Ebert gave the film a glowing three-star review, stating that the film had a strong emotional impact on him. Two years passed before Norman would return but when he did, he was set to, once again, turn the series on its head. It is said that Pogue and Perkins attempted to develop a subsequent sequel but their efforts did not pan out. Instead, the fourth installment in the series saw the return of another very vital member of the original film, screenwriter Joseph Stefano.

Anthony Perkins in Mick Garris's Psycho IV (1988) [click to enlarge]

Anthony Perkins in Mick Garris’s Psycho IV (1988) [click to enlarge]

Despite Psycho’s immense success, Stefano’s career never fully catapulted like one may suspect. Stefano mostly worked in television after Psycho‘s release, both for series as well as made for TV films. So it is rather fitting that Psycho’s first non-theatrical film would be in his hands. Don’t let the fact that the film was produced for television as opposed to theatrical release fool you, however, because Psycho IV is, in many ways, the best of all the sequels. A hybrid sequel/prequel, Stefano sees the film riffing on Talk Radio — released two years earlier —, where the narrative of the film occurs over the course of a conversation between Norman and a talk radio DJ named Fran Ambrose (played effortlessly by CCH Pounder). When Fran decides to focus her show on men who kill their mothers, Norman calls with the confession that he has to kill again. In an attempt to talk Norman down, Fran keeps Norman occupied by regaling listeners with his torrid history.

Psycho IV is the first to take Norman away from his manor and motel. Norman has relocated, has found work as a baker, and is even happily married. Psycho IV gives audiences the most complete look into Norman’s relationship with his mother, and while there are moments of dramatic excess, Stefano’s script weaves a disturbing and emotional tale. Again, viewers are placed in a position of aligning with Norman’s tale, and learning about his backstory works to understand what causing Norman to kill. Stefano mostly does away with the events of the II and III film, crafting a moving and effective script.

Psycho IV sees what is Perkins worst performance in the series. Sadly, the film was made only two years before his death, so perhaps his performance is hindered by health complications. The other possibility is that Perkins was growing tired of the role that earned him so much fame. In the 30 years since the original film’s release, Perkins made the biggest hits when reprising his famed character, so its certainly possible that he was frustrated with having to continually return to Norman to be noticed. Whatever way you look at it, Psycho IV sees Perkins far more wooden than in any of the other films. It should be said that Perkins does not have the luxury of working off any other actors for the majority of the film but still his general presence seems all but absent here.

CCH Pounder in Mick Garris's Psycho IV (1988) [click to enlarge]

CCH Pounder in Mick Garris’s Psycho IV (1988) [click to enlarge]

With Perkins returning only as an actor, the film picked up Mick Garris as its director. Garris competently directs the film but he is far more of a workhorse than a craftsman. The film lacks the stylish flair of the former entries but can’t be said to be visually unappealing. Garris seems best at adapting Stefano’s script, and keeping the boundaries between the scenes that are played for laughs and those that are meant to impact audiences. There are plenty of aspects that blur the lines, but Garris handles the material respectfully.

Despite all of the films alluding to a strange sexual dynamic between Norman and his late mother, Psycho IV is the first film that explicitly develops this relationship. Norma Bates appears for the first time in any film (alive that is) and is played brilliantly by Olivia Hussey (Black Christmas). Hussey is able to present Norma as a stuffy and stern yet somewhat alluring woman. There is a strong undercurrent of sexuality that feels repressed below the surface. In the film’s strongest scenes, the sexual tension between Norma and Norman is brought to a seriously uncomfortable level.

Mick Garris's Psycho IV (1988) [click to enlarge]

Mick Garris’s Psycho IV (1988) [click to enlarge]

Psycho IV is far from a perfect work and is, in many ways, inferior to all of its former entries. Yet, the film seems far more aggressively interested in analyzing the aspects that both created Norman’s psyche as well as shape his murderous rage, and this is what elevates it so much. The film ends in a fit of poetic justice, a beautiful sort of closing chapter on a three-decade long run. So while Psycho IV is aptly subtitled The Beginning, it is also the end for Norman; the end of his suffering, the end of his pain, and perhaps the beginning of a happy future.

“She wouldn’t even harm a fly”…Reimagining a Psycho

By now, Gus Van Sant’s near shot-for-shot remake of Psycho is not only yesterday’s news, for most people its yesterday’s garbage. For as much of a sin as it was for most people to continue the story of Norman in sequels, it was sacrilege to think that any director could bother to remake Hitchcock’s original. However, in the rush to pan the film — some critiques not entirely unfair —, Van Sant’s work has not really been given a fair shake. The film has been judged almost solely on the merits of its relation to the original. This is certainly a result of Van Sant’s own choice to shoot the film shot-for-shot, but I would argue that a great deal of what Van Sant is doing with the remake is too interesting to just completely write off.

Julianne Moore in Gus Van Sant's Psycho (1998) [click to enlarge]

Julianne Moore in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) [click to enlarge]

To begin, let’s just get this out there: 1998’s Psycho is, at best, a flawed experiment. I’ve always been of the notion that if you are going to even both remaking a film, you better bring something entirely new to the table. A shot-for-shot remake is, in part, a exercise of futility. Further, there are some interesting choices made by Van Sant. The most obvious of all is the casting of Anne Heche in Janet Leigh’s role. Heche is far from a bad actor, something that she proved time again in the 90s, and yet there is something about her performance that just doesn’t work well here. At best, Heche is uneven. She very clearly struggles in certain scenes (many of the solitary ones) but then comes out great in others (especially those between her and Norman). Its hard to tell where the line between Van Sant’s intentionality and Heche’s shortcomings are. When Heche was cast in the role she was sort of the hot actor of the time, coming off numerous successful films, so perhaps Van Sant (or the studio) was trying to capitalize on her success.

Similarly, Van Sant’s awkwardly cast Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. Now, at this point that casting would seem inexplicable, but, in 1998, Vaughn had not yet become known strictly for comedy but was more known for his turn in independent films like Swingers. It takes a little bit to get used to Vaughn’s interpretation of the role but by the end of the film there is something striking about what he brings to the table. Much of the underlying vulnerability and sexual frustration in Perkins performance is played more deliberately in the remake. These are the aspects that seem to most interest Van Sant, and Vaughn handles this characterization in a very effective manner. His screen presence (Vaughn is 6’ 5,” 4 inches taller than Perkins and a bit heavier too) also adds to the film, making his depiction of Perkins far more imposing than Perkins ever could (or want) to be.

Anne Heche in Gus Van Sant's Psycho (1998) [click to enlarge]

Anne Heche in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) [click to enlarge]

There are additionally other fantastic performances in the film, in fact, opposite to the original, many of the supporting characters turn in the best performances. Julianne Moore is stunning as Lila Crane, offering a strong willed and independent female character plucked straight from the late 90s. Playing against Moore, Viggo Mortensen also deserves some accolades for his turn as Sam Loomis. The star of the show, at least for this reviewer, is William H. Macy as private detective Milton Arbogast. Macy is one of the best working actors and, no matter what the film, the actor always handles the material with ease. Macy’s work here is outstanding and really gives the film a sense of tension it needs, as he attempts to locate Marion and the runaway cash. Additional strong, albeit small, roles are handled by actors like Robert Forster, Philip Baker Hall, and Chad Everett, among others.

If Gus Van Sant only offers one truly original idea in the film, it is also one of the most important. There are a few aspects that Van Sant decided to change for the worse, the most obnoxious being the choice to change the architecture of the iconic Bates home, but one thing that Van Sant ingeniously handles is the relationship between Norman and his mother. The final scene says it all and Van Sant’s choice to have Norman’s identity fully succumb to his mother’s — fit with the final voice-over given from Norma-by-the-way-of-Norman — gives the film a far greater psychological depth than the original. In this writer’s humble opinion, the film is worth existing if only for this fact alone.

Vince Vaughn in Gus Van Sant's Psycho (1998) [click to enlarge]

Vince Vaughn in Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) [click to enlarge]

Concluding Thoughts

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 12.21.28 PMOne of the nice things, at least for those who have not already invested in any of the included titles, is that Via Vision Entertainment have struck their discs from pre-existing releases. Therefore the company is able to capitalize on the already stellar releases of Psycho II and III from Scream Factory (including the sizeable amount of extra features) as well as the Universal of the 50th Anniversary Blu-ray of Psycho (replete with hours of special features), as well as releasing Psycho IV and Psycho (1998) for the first time ever on Blu-ray, and two extra discs of special features. The collection also features a standard definition release of Bates Motel, which while noticeably of inferior quality, still gets the job done. All in all, this is an excellent collection for fans of the entire series but one that will perhaps be of lesser interest to those who more than likely already own at least three of the six included films. In many ways, the inclusion of Bates Motel is more of a special feature. The film (really a collection of two would-be episodes) is fine but one can see why it was not picked up for a full season. It would be interesting to see where the premise would be taken — each episode focusing on a new set of guests staying at the motel who are accosted by some sort of supernatural element — but the strange mix of humor and Scooby Doo type antics makes the pilot a less than enthralling experience. Happy to have it but it probably won’t warrant multiple revisits.

Norman Bates remains one of the most intriguing characters in not only horror’s history but in cinema itself. A complex and fractured figure, Bates could be described as a complicated monster. Like many of the genre’s best, however, Bates is sympathetic. We may not justify his killings but there is a part of us that understands them, and the strength of all of these films — Bates Motel excluded — is that we fear for Norman’s safety. By the haunting final monologue in the original film, audiences are both literally and figuratively inside the mind of Norman Bates and yet no matter how close we remain, there is always something about him that challenges and confuses us. All of these film deal with this in a slightly different manner, but the constant remains: who is Norman, what makes him tick, and no matter what his actions are, why do we root for him? A good film can make us hate a killer but a great film can make us love one, and that is just what Psycho does.

Psycho: The Complete Collection is available now on Blu-ray from Via Vision Entertainment, learn more here: https://www.viavision.com.au/

About Joe Yanick

Joe Yanick is a writer, videographer, and film/music critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the former Managing Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Noisey.vice.com, and Stagebuddy.com. In addition, he has worked with the Cleveland International Film Festival as a Feature reviewer. He is currently a Cinema Studies MA Candidate at New York University.

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