After attaining a certain level of ubiquity, the pop-culture monsters that capture our imagination cease to be the exclusive property of their creators and become a form of folklore, changing with each retelling. Such is the case with troubled motel proprietor Norman Bates. Bates once existed solely inside the mind of pulp novelist Robert Bloch, who brought him to life in the 1959 novel Psycho. That novel was adapted as the groundbreaking 1960 Alfred Hitchcock smash that essentially created the slasher film. Hitchcock’s Psycho occupies such prime real estate in our culture that even people who have never seen the movie and disparage the horror genre in general know Norman Bates, his mother complex, and his predilection for cross-dressing. Bates transcended his origins as a fictional character and became part of the fabric of Americana. He provided a face, a name, a bloody butcher’s knife, and a popular narrative for our widespread, eminently justifiable fear and suspicion of motels, those creepy havens of loneliness, alienation, and debauchery. Bates became a pre-eminent bogeyman of the 1960s, a tormented figure in violent, inherently doomed conflict with himself and his impulses.
Norman Bates simply wouldn’t go away. His legend grew with each passing year. The public had a greater appetite for Norman Bates than any single movie or book, no matter how classic or influential, could satiate. Psycho ends with Bates being unmasked as a murderous lunatic and sent away to a mental hospital for the criminally insane, yet the public couldn’t help but wonder, “Yeah, but what happened next?”
So Bloch wrote a novel to answer that question. In the audio commentary for the Shout! Factory Psycho II Blu-ray release, Tom Holland, who wrote the screenplay for the movie that became Psycho II, nervously asserts that Bloch had written the least commercial, or even filmable, sequel to Psycho imaginable, a book so nakedly audacious that it serves as a giant “fuck you” to the idea that anyone would make a cinematic sequel to Psycho.
Published in 1982, Bloch’s Psycho II opens with Bates cross-dressing as a nun and attempting to escape the hospital where he’s been confined for decades, biding his time as a librarian and amateur actor. (Most notably, in a scene-stealing role in a prison production of Charley’s Aunt.) Meanwhile, in Hollywood, production is about to begin on Crazy Lady, a big-budget studio shocker about the Norman Bates murders. It’s directed by an unhinged Italian splatter maestro named Vizzini who happens to look exactly like Norman Bates, whom everyone assumes died in the fire the night he attempted to escape his prison.
Bloch’s Psycho II was a stunning act of misdirection. Readers hoping to learn what happened next in the strange case of Norman Bates and his mother were left with a staggeringly odd provocation that apparently did away with its famous monster early in its first act so it could concentrate on fuzzy Hollywood satire and even fuzzier social commentary about the cultural obsession with bloodshed as entertainment. Bloch wrote a Psycho sequel about the legend of Norman Bates in which Bates barely appears, a Psycho largely missing a certain central psycho. His book was such a mind-fuck that, like Hannibal, Thomas Harris’ similarly insane follow-up to Silence Of The Lambs, it all but dared the movie world to reject it, despite all the money its predecessor made.
Unlike Hannibal, however, the movie world refused to take Bloch up on his implicit dare. Bloch published a sequel to Psycho, and Universal—the studio that made and released Psycho, and made its famous “house on the hill” a popular attraction on its studio tour—flat-out rejected it. Instead of excising some of the crazier or more questionable elements while maintaining the bulk of the action, as Ridley Scott did with Hannibal, Universal decided to make its own sequel to Psycho that had nothing to do with Bloch’s book. And it’s not as if one was bootleg and one was kosher: Bloch’s Psycho II is an official literary sequel, just as Universal’s Psycho II is an official cinematic sequel; they’re each on the up-and-up, they just have drastically different takes on the subject.
They aren’t the only ones. After Psycho II the film became a surprise hit in 1983, it put Norman Bates back into circulation, where he’s stayed ever since. The cinematic Psycho II was followed three years later by a poorly received, less-successful Anthony Perkins-directed sequel, and then in 1990 by a third sequel, this time a made-for-cable movie called Psycho IV: The Beginning that brought Joseph Stefano, the original film’s screenwriter, back into the fold. The mutations didn’t end there. It was as if all of these storytellers were sitting around the same campfire telling stories whose only common currency involved Norman Bates, a butcher’s knife, the Crane family, and some serious mother issues. In addition to the warring versions of Psycho II, there was also Gus Van Sant’s hypnotically pointless 1998 remake and a pair of television versions: a 1987 TV movie/pilot that wasn’t picked up, and a successful 2012 cable series, both called Bates Motel.
But before the television shows and TV movies came Psycho II, a low-budget, quickly filmed movie. Universal had so little faith in it that until Anthony Perkins signed on to reprise his career-making/career-ruining role as Norman Bates, it was still being thought of as a TV movie with an unusual pedigree. If Perkins hadn’t re-upped, Psycho II could have lived and died as a TV movie starring Christopher Walken. (Walken was rumored to be a top choice to replace Perkins if he’d opted out, a rumor Holland neither confirms nor denies on the film’s commentary track.)
“It may be Christian to forgive, but those who choose to forget that a coworker has murdered seven people do so at their own peril.”
Instead, Perkins signed on. Psycho II was made almost completely on the Universal backlot for about $4 million during a tight one-month shoot. The studio hired the promising young Holland (who went on to create franchises of his own with two early directorial efforts, Fright Night and Child’s Play) to write the script, and an Australian director and Alfred Hitchcock student named Richard Franklin to direct a scenario much more commercial and feasible than the metatextual motherfuckery of Bloch’s peculiar novel.
Psycho II wastes no times establishing its bona fides as Psycho’s official follow-up. The movie opens by recycling the famed shower sequence from the original, a scene whose brutal, vicious simplicity remains powerful despite its pop-culture ubiquity. It segues from the classical black and white of 1960 to the lurid color, unflattering perms, and wood paneling of the Reagan era. In the 1980s, Norman Bates is in a courthouse after being released from a mental hospital where he was imprisoned for killing seven people.
This development comes as a surprise even to Bates, who seems to be commenting obliquely on the absurdity of releasing a notorious serial killer. He incredulously asks his lawyer, “That’s all there is to it?” Psycho II needs to get Norman out of the mental hospital for there to be a movie—indeed, Bloch’s Psycho II was unfilmable specifically because it never gets Bates out of the mental hospital—but in order to do so, it needs to exist in a world where murderers who are clearly still suffering from violent forms of mental illness are let out of prison with next to no oversight.
Psycho II requires radical suspension of disbelief. It asks audiences to imagine a world where a famous serial killer like Norman Bates would be let out of prison as long as he promises not to murder any more people while dressed like an old woman. Even more preposterously, Bates is released from prison so he can resume his old life at the Bates Motel, the most famously haunted motel in all of filmdom, a place where evil veritably drips from the walls. Releasing Bates from prison to live inside his old home is like trying to keep a recovering alcoholic on the straight and narrow by getting him a job as chief taster at a whiskey refinery. They might as well give Bates a wig, a dress, and a butcher’s knife as he leaves prison.
To make matters even worse, there apparently isn’t enough money in the California state budget to provide even the faintest hint of after-care to Bates once he’s out on his own. In perhaps the most ridiculous line of dialogue in the film, Bates’ loving, concerned psychiatrist Dr. Bill Raymond (Robert Loggia) notes, “I just wish there hadn’t been all those cutbacks, or there’d be a trained social worker to look in on you from time to time.” Loggia is one of those wonderful character actors whose innate authenticity makes everything his characters do seem more plausible. Even if viewers don’t believe the lines or even the character, they can believe the actor. But even Loggia can’t get away with delivering that line without engendering an explosion of unintentional laughter. Psycho II suggests California is so hard up, it can’t spare a single part-time social worker to check in on Norman Bates every other week or so, just to make sure he isn’t decimating the local population with a knife. And that check-up would be pretty useful, since it doesn’t take long for the wild gleam in Bates’ eyes to return, and for him to start yammering madly about mother.
Bates is released on his own accord and gets a job at a greasy spoon, where Emma Spool (Claudia Bryar), the kindly old woman behind the counter, happily chirps of the new hire’s unfortunate history, “I think it’s very Christian to forgive and forget.” It may be Christian to forgive, but those who choose to forget that a coworker has murdered seven people do so at their own peril. Just about the only person who holds the whole “mass murdering” thing against Bates is Lila Loomis (Vera Miles), the sister of the woman killed in Psycho’s famous shower scene, and she’s angry enough to go to criminal extremes to ensure that he’s recommitted.
Psycho II falls victim to what I like to call the “Lemonade Hitler” rule, after the scene in the historical drama Max where a one-armed Jewish art dealer tells his angry young German friend Adolf, “Come on, Hitler, I’ll buy you a glass of lemonade.” If a figure is notorious enough, every time his name is referenced in any way outside what he’s notorious for, it becomes unintentionally humorous. Hitler leading the Nazis is tragic; Hitler sipping lemonade is silly. Accordingly, when Psycho II’s protagonist tells his new co-workers, “I’m Norman, Norman Bates, the new cook’s helper,” it’s funny in a way that “I’m Bob, Bob Erickson, the new cook’s helper” never could be. It’s similarly jarring to see Norman Bates stride past a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game and make french fries. But the filmmakers otherwise situate most of the action in the spooky house on the hill, a masterpiece of production design inherited from Hitchcock’s original, and a powerful visual representation of the haunted, cobweb-strewn madness of Norman Bates’ all-too-vivid imagination.
In his new job as a cook’s helper, Norman strikes up an unlikely friendship with waitress Mary (Meg Tilly), a Joan Jett lookalike with a thick shag of black hair, and a squirmy vulnerability that matches Norman’s. Tilly delivers a lot of her early lines in a wooden monotone, but she improves over the course of the film, and the unexpected tenderness of Mary’s friendship with Norman forms the film’s surprisingly resonant emotional spine.
In Psycho II, someone, or something, is gaslighting poor old Norman Bates. He gets notes signed “Mother” or “M,” warning of the dangers of associating with loose women. Someone begins crank-calling him, and lurks about in the house’s attic windows. And that’s before the people closest to Norman wind up dead. Norman isn’t too stable under the best of circumstances, and his thin façade of sanity begins to crumble under the weight of this harassment and intimidation.
Norman wants to stay sane, but the world is pushing him into madness. There comes a point where the subtle conflict between good and evil at play inside him gives way to an acceptance of evil as his existential destiny. Part of what makes Norman such a wonderful character is that viewers are less concerned for his victims than for him, since they know him so well. Like Mary, the audience is rooting for him to succeed, to conquer his demons and realize the enormous potential for good inside him.
That furious straining for goodness is what makes Perkins’ performance so devastating. It’s chilling when the war raging within Bates ends and he gives himself over to madness, murder, and mother. Psycho II is preposterous in many ways, but Perkins never hits a wrong note. He brings out the overwhelmed and traumatized child inside the man. In the film’s most touching (and most mocked) scene, Mary cradles Norman in her bosom as if he were an infant, while he weepingly tells her of the “toasted-cheese sandwiches” Mrs. Bates used to make for him, and how the memory of it moves him to tears. The phrase “toasted-cheese sandwich” has been widely mocked, including on a popular Rifftrax take on the movie. Who the hell would refer to a “toasted-cheese sandwich” instead of the more accepted “grilled cheese?” Then again, Norman Bates was raised in isolation and alienation, and physically and psychologically abused. Why wouldn’t his vocabulary be as weird and warped as everything else about him?
The twist this time around is that Norman isn’t committing the murders at all. The secondary twist is that the “Mother” of Norman Bates’ morbid imagination isn’t his mother at all. In a twist most of the films and television shows that followed threw out the same way the filmmakers threw out Bloch’s novel, it’s climactically revealed that Norma Bates was simply looking after Norman while his real mother was in a mental hospital. Psycho II climactically reveals that Emma Spool, the nice co-worker who was all about forgiving and forgetting, is actually Norman’s real mother, and has been murdering everyone who gets in his way all along.
Psycho II opens on an extended note of unintentional comedy and ends with a pair of twists as offputting in their own right as anything Bloch did in the Psycho II novel, but in between, the tardy sequel is far more affecting and effective than it really has any right to be. The cast is universally good, the cinematography by Dean Cundey (who also shot many of John Carpenter’s films, and later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) is fantastic, and the whole affair is distinguished by an old-fashioned, even Hitchcockian level of craft that carries the film through its intermittent stretches of high camp.
As a purposeful and mostly successful Hitchcock homage, Psycho II hearkens back to an earlier, more atmospheric era of horror, but its highly graphic violence and gore marks it as the product of a post-Friday The 13th era. A scene where a pair of teenagers sneak into the basement to smoke pot and canoodle before paying a terrible price for their teenaged debauchery wouldn’t feel out of place in any of the blood-soaked slasher cheapies Psycho unwittingly helped birth. The filmmakers wanted to do Hitch proud, but they also want to satisfy the Fangoria demographic. In that respect, Psycho II was influenced both by its predecessor and its predecessor’s myriad knock-offs. It’s old-school, but with enough grudging nods to 1983 to satiate kids with no sense of history.
Psycho II doesn’t live up to the original, but doesn’t dishonor it either, even though its allegiances are clearly with Hitchcock’s film rather than Robert Bloch’s words. In true Forgotbusters tradition, Psycho II isn’t perfect or brilliant. But it was good enough to successfully bring a beloved cinematic fixture back into action after an extended hibernation, and savvy and soulful enough to realize that what makes Norman Bates such an icon isn’t his monstrousness, but his trembling, eminently relatable humanity... which sometimes happens to express itself through a weepy longing for toasted-cheese sandwiches.
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