***½/**** Image B Sound B Extras B
starring Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Robert Loggia, Meg Tilly
screenplay by Tom Holland
directed by Richard Franklin
**/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras B+
starring Anthony Perkins, Diana Scarwid, Jeff Fahey, Roberta Maxwell
screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue
directed by Anthony Perkins
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. For a fool's errand, Psycho II--a decades-belated, colour follow-up to a seminal black-and-white horror by a filmmaker whose mythical stature had only grown since his death--is nothing short of a miracle. The story goes that in the early-Eighties, when sequels were the new Gold Rush, Universal--who'd seen healthy returns on Jaws 2 and Smokey and the Bandit II--realized it had a sequelizable property in Psycho but intended to hedge their bets with a telefilm for the burgeoning cable market. When Anthony Perkins got wind of the project, he expressed an unanticipated interest in reprising the role of Norman Bates, having done so one time before in a warmly-received sketch on the first season of "Saturday Night Live". Australian Richard Franklin, a USC graduate back in Hollywood to direct the picture, realized the studio could be shamed into releasing Psycho II theatrically were Perkins to star in it, and recruited The Beast Within screenwriter Tom Holland (who went on to give us Fright Night and Child's Play) to craft a script the actor couldn't resist. Once Perkins said "yes," Universal begrudgingly bumped it up to a feature but still expected it to be made quickly and cheaply like the original--probably to the perverse delight of Hitchcock scholar Franklin, who prided himself on doing things the Master's way all through production, going so far as to cameo in the film.
What he didn't do, with few exceptions, is treat Psycho like a museum piece à la Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake from 1998. Psycho II's violence is appallingly graphic, for instance, because Franklin understands that to be less explicit wouldn't honour Hitchcock so much as give credence to the parochial attitudes that governed the movie industry at the time of the first film's release. Neither does Franklin ask composer Jerry Goldsmith to incorporate any of Bernard Herrmann's themes from the original, perhaps in solidarity with Hitch's creative divorce from Herrmann but more likely, one suspects, because Herrmann's score either belongs to Psycho in some anachronistic way--not that it's not, like Saul Bass's titles, or the aural projections during Marion's long drive to the Bates Motel, timeless in context--or has been so thoroughly usurped by pop culture that it no longer belongs to Psycho at all. Psycho II may be an inexpensive film, but it's not a cheap one, and its artistic integrity retains the power to surprise.
Goldsmith's piano-driven score is hardly horror music at all. The composer's radar instead homed in on the sadness of the piece, which finds a fragile Norman Bates regurgitated into society following a 22-year1 stay in a mental hospital. (A throwaway line about cutbacks from Norman's avuncular shrink (Robert Loggia) serves as a catch-all for any incredulousness we may feel towards the state giving Norman his motel back and basically allowing him to roam free without any parolee-like obligations. Moreover, in fact, it resonates.) He gets a job working in the kitchen of a local diner, mainly to demonstrate the success of his rehabilitation to a vocal contingent of skeptics led by Lila Loomis née Crane (Vera Miles, the only other returning Psycho cast member besides Perkins and Virginia Gregg (the voice of Mother)), whose sister Marion was Norman's penultimate victim all those many years ago. To his ramshackle motel he invites a waitress named Mary (Meg Tilly), offering her a free room in what comes across to the audience as an impatient grasp at redemption: maybe a young, pretty woman surviving an overnight stay will prove something. But Norman's also, by his own admission, desperate for company (he fears solitude), and fortunately for him Mary feigns ignorance of his past and accepts the sanitized recap he gives her. Before we know it, she's taken up permanent residence with him in the old Bates house; she's lonely, too, although her relationship with Norman is more sisterly than romantic, if not, gulp, maternal.2
Unfortunately, the ghost of Mrs. Bates looms large and she will not be silenced. Someone's playing a practical joke on Norman, leaving him notes signed "Mother." The most obvious suspect is the only character crude enough to call him by the movie's title, disgruntled former desk clerk Toomey (Dennis Franz, in full Brian De Palma sleaze mode), but Mother's alleged transmissions continue long after Toomey is dispatched by a knife-wielding maniac: not just notes but also phone calls and even spectral visitations in the window of Mrs. Bates's old bedroom. Psycho II flirts more overtly with the possibility of a supernatural explanation than Hitchcock does (or ever did), yet as in the original film, the twist behind "Mother's" true identity is both diabolical and sad: It would appear that Mary is trying to gaslight Norman, at the behest of her own mother, who is none other than Lila Crane.
Psycho II is often characterized as a slasher movie, though within the horror genre it's actually more of a giallo: the killer's identity is kept hidden from the audience, and only one of the victims is a randy teen. What the picture really belongs to, however, is a small crop of films that dramatize, with great empathy, the very real phenomenon of recidivism. In pictures like this, such as Sling Blade or Straight Time, institutionalized individuals trying to make a go of it on the outside discover that "time served" is an insurmountable social stigma, leaving them no choice but to live down to their reputation. In terms of sequels, among its closest analogues is 2008's haunting Rambo, which similarly sought to reclaim an antihero from his debauched pop-culture avatar. The approach in both is the same: view him with compassion, and recognize prior narrative events as authentic personal baggage. Psycho II also, in its way, predicts Cronenberg's remake of The Fly3: Norman's pithy, chilling admission to Mary that his sanity is slipping away--"It's starting again"--is virtually the same hopeless sentiment as Seth Brundle's speculation that he was always an insect who merely dreamt he was a man.
But where Seth Brundle's deteriorating condition can stand for any number of things (terminal disease, aging, jealousy), there's no such metaphorical remove in Psycho II. Norman's downward spiral is depressingly plausible, and his prognosis gets so staggeringly bleak that the happy outcome--eventually realized by Psycho III--would be for Norman to wind up back in hospital, safe from enemies without and within. Alas, the ending, which Perkins fortunately plays with great humour (it would be unpalatable otherwise), takes a page out of the Planet of the Apes sequel playbook in doubling down on the hopelessness of the original's: Though Lila's plan ultimately succeeds, she and Mary, a true audience surrogate in that she comes to see Norman as a victim, pay for it with their lives; and Norman's heretofore-unmentioned real mother Mrs. Spool (Claudia Bryer) unveils herself to her son, only to immediately die by his hand and become the new hectoring voice of his id. It leaves one feeling a bit hoisted on his own petard when Norman goes the full Bates--after all, what did we want out of this film, going in?--but it does nothing to compromise the picture's tragic dimension. Any doubts that the Orwellian influence of the Motion Picture Code had gone the way of the dodo by this point are bluntly laid to rest with the thwack of a shovel. No windy Simon Oakland speeches to pardon the merciful treatment of Norman here. The iconic closing shot of Norman standing on the steps to the Bates house, silhouetted against a tempestuous night sky, "VACANCY" sign glowing in the darkness, says nothing less than that he's fucked. We're all fucked.
Psycho II isn't beyond reproach. All but obliged to do so, Franklin quotes the shower scene, but with this re-enactment the picture's distinctions (colour photography, Tilly and her body double4) become temporary stylistic deficiencies--and why is there a peephole into the Bateses' own bathroom? Also, the murders, even though Psycho itself was a proto-slasher, are more consistent with trend than with the franchise, the equivalent of what adding a zombie or a sexy vampire would be today. And while they goose the tension well enough, the introduction of characters for the express purpose of padding the kill count--as Psycho II does in the centrepiece stabbing of a basement intruder5--only compounds that cynicism. Still, the picture rebounds elegantly from these missteps, overcoming them by maintaining the courage of its convictions.
From the sublime to the fairly ridiculous, Psycho III marked the directorial debut of Perkins, who may have seemed a logical choice in the 'Leonard Nimoy grabbing the reins of Star Trek' sense, as there was no one around who had more first-hand experience with the series or could conceivably be called a greater authority on the character of Norman Bates. That being said, Perkins's creative personality was nurtured in collaborations with genius songwriter Stephen Sondheim that leaned towards the satirical, and by Perkins's own late-life admission he lacked the technical finesse a Psycho movie needs as much as anything else.
The picture makes a striking first impression by introducing a different type of subversion into the stew, with a woman screaming "There is no God!" over a black screen. What follows is a sequence that could be said to reference another Hitchcock, Vertigo, but is more immediately allusive of Black Narcissus as a nun falls to her death in a bell tower while trying to talk Sister Maureen (Diana Scarwid) out of killing herself. Maureen flees the convent and hitches a ride with Duane (Jeff Fahey), an opportunistic drifter who will soon inherit Toomey's old position as the Bates Motel's desk clerk. Norman, meanwhile, is busy appeasing his mother: The events of Psycho II are still fresh (the continuity is impeccable despite the three-year hiatus, I should add, although this is clearly 1986 to the other film's 1983), and the town is buzzing about the disappearance of Mrs. Spool, piquing the curiosity of a Lois Lane named Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell, terrible) who, like Lila Crane before her, believes that Norman is a lost cause. Unlike the late Lila Crane, her vendetta isn't personal, just tabloid muckraking.
Psycho III is mostly the story of Norman's problems getting it up. Donning the Mrs. Bates drag, he goes to murder Marion Crane doppelgänger Maureen where she bathes, but she's already slit her wrists. In a hammy contrivance, she hallucinates him standing there with a butcher knife as the Virgin Mary clutching a silver crucifix, and he spares her. Later, Maureen offers herself to him sexually (a coming-together of pariahs that works better on paper), and his whole body goes flaccid beneath her in one of those visual metaphors that's not really a metaphor. Out of frustration, Norman, who's already murdered Duane's cute one-night-stand Red (Juliette Cummins) out of jealousy, dispatches coed Patsy (the lovely Katt Shea, who'd stay with genre but leave acting to helm Poison Ivy and The Rage: Carrie 2) on the john, but the reckless disposal of her body in an icebox speaks to an unsatisfied ritualism in the act. When Duane discovers Mrs. Spool's stuffed carcass and threatens Norman with blackmail, Norman proves incapable of seeing his death through to completion--Duane shambles back to life while Norman's driving his body to its swampy destination. In her subsequent plays for Norman, doomed Maureen is cockblocked by not just "Mother" but also the sanctimonious Tracy Venable, who fells Norman at the climax by out-henpecking his subconscious. And Norman concludes the trilogy by sneaking a memento mori into the police car with him: Mrs. Spool's hand. While it's easy to read the grin on his face as he privileges us with a glimpse of this souvenir as sinister, I'm inclined to see the hand as a visual representation of a kind of castration having taken place through the law's intervention, bringing Norman a profound contentment. "I'm free... I'm finally free," he says.
The problem with Psycho III is that it's at once inconsequential and peculiarly sour grapes about the success, if not the existence, of Psycho II, as its main goal is to reset the status quo by restoring Norman/Mother to the role of killer and undoing the Mrs. Spool stuff via reams of arcane backstory. Indeed, in light of Psycho II's sophisticated anthropology and emotional heft, I might uncharitably call any return to the territory of Psycho a devolution. That Perkins burlesques everything--including his own performance, a stammering self-parody disarmingly free of pathos--lends the picture a measure of vitality, but it also tacitly endorses the idea that Psycho II needed a corrective by providing the comic relief on a triple bill.6 Nods to Hitch abound, like the Frenzy-esque treatment of Patsy's corpse and the echoes of Marion Crane's tea-and-sandwiches with Norman in Duane's job interview, yet I'm willing to bet the moment labouring hardest to channel Hitchcock's expressionism is an angle looking up from under the floor that he never would have done on account of his disdain for the "impossible camera," planting the movie's tongue that much farther in its cheek. If anything, the way Perkins bathes the motel rooms in garish pools of colour suggests a greater artistic sympathy with the likes of Mario Bava--and that's not necessarily a bad thing, but alas, these tonal detours lessen the impact of the trilogy7 coming full circle.
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Scream Factory releases Collector's Editions of Psychos II and III on Blu-ray in 1.85:1, 1080p transfers. Psycho II suffers from subtle, patchy flare-ups in brightness of the image, indicating a warping or staining of the print source, but the viewer learns to tune them out. Fine detail is nice and glassy, and although there's a hint of crush at either end of the spectrum, dynamic range impresses. Skin tones tilt towards pink, the way I've always remembered; it's arguably a trademark of DP Dean Cundey. Psycho III's less diffuse cinematography (courtesy of the late Bruce Surtees) and splashier palette aid in a HiDef conversion with a bit more pop than Psycho II's, but some of the darkest scenes exhibit weaker latitude, which seems to be a component of the original film stock. This fidelity is preferable to contrast-boosting, as there remains a great deal of detail in the shadows. Both movies are subjected to needless edge-enhancement--possibly not as much as they would have been in-house at Universal, but enough to give the ample film grain a mildly-electronic harshness that intensifies with the harder-edged Psycho III.
Both films come with 5.1 remixes in DTS-HD MA (misidentified as 4.0 on Psycho II's packaging), and in the case of Psycho II, the results are maddening: Dialogue is mixed in gimmicky early-CinemaScope fashion, so that it's highly directional and moves with the speaker. What motivated this? Boredom? Why didn't the powers-that-be stop it? Luckily, what I believe is the theatrical mix is also on board in 2.0 DTS-HD MA and doesn't have the same problem. In Pro-Logic, the track delivers a relatively immersive rear channel for the movie's age. Psycho III is identically configured, but its 5.1 option firmly centralizes voices, and the discrete LFE channel adds some kick to a film that was plainly mixed in a more modern, surround-savvy era of sound design.
The Psycho Legacy helmer Rob Galluzzo and Psycho II screenwriter Tom Holland record a feature-length yakker that's compulsively listenable, albeit infuriating when the pair is mutually stuck for a factoid or a movie title and you're sitting there screaming the answer at the screen. ("The Last of Sheila, dummies!") Yet while Galluzzo is no human IMDb, he definitely knows his Psycho, embroidering Holland's first-hand anecdotes with his own extensive research. Casting is a big topic of discussion, and Galluzzo offers a laundry list of name actresses who were up for Tilly's part, including Carrie Fisher, who vaporized during pre-production. Galluzzo wonders whether it ever occurred to the filmmakers to cast Janet Leigh's real-life daughter Jamie Lee Curtis--obviously a scream queen in her own right--as her onscreen niece, but Holland doesn't think so. They talk about Perkins, his sweetness as well as his insistence on shooting a non sequitur shot of Norman gazing at his reflection, which Galluzzo sees as a harbinger of Perkins's lack of storytelling discipline on Psycho III. They're a dynamic duo.
Another track lasts all of eleven minutes and contains vintage soundbites from Perkins, et al before transitioning into the full audio of Psycho's famous Hitchcock-hosted trailer (decidedly less effective without visuals). The only featurette is an electronic press kit--er, "the" electronic press kit--from 1983 that lasts 35 minutes and, by virtue of that gargantuan running time, is more substantial than today's equivalent. Vera Miles, Hitch's famously jilted ingénue, practically cackles with glee at the prospect of a Psycho sequel having Hitchcock spin in his grave, but reassurances are made that the film upholds the legacy of the original--this being a glorified infomercial and all. I loved seeing Perkins lounge on the front porch of the Bates house (in a very un-Norman-like polo shirt and Dockers) and hearing Franklin geek out over his idol. Pointlessly upconverted to 1080i, the video piece is hampered by audio dropouts but worth skimming. Rounding out the disc are tape-sourced, upres'd compilations of Psycho II's fabulous, Percy Rodriguez-narrated trailers (4 mins.) and TV spots (2 mins.), plus a 7-minute slideshow of handsome production stills and promotional art presented in crisp HD.
Psycho III's supplementary section is more bountiful. Again we have a commentary with the screenwriter, Charles Edward Pogue, this time moderated by longtime genre-DVD producer Michael Felsher, who clearly has a broader knowledge of the cinema than Galluzzo. I remember when Rob Cohen had a falling-out with Pogue on Dragonheart and said the writer fancies himself Shakespeare. Now, I don't put any stock in what the director of Alex Cross has to say, but Pogue does transmit a certain haughtiness, most notably whenever the subject of Psycho II comes up. He appears to regard this movie as the true sequel to Psycho, the one that best captures the spirit of the first film and Hitchcock proper. He does not, however, give the impression that he considers the written word sacrosanct, crediting Perkins with the "not wrong" idea of shuffling Psycho III's opening sequences around and bearing David Cronenberg no ill will for kicking him off The Fly. Felsher lights up at the prospect of Pogue's original pitch of having Janet Leigh return to play Norman's new psychiatrist, with whom he would've fallen in love. According to Pogue, the studio found it more acceptable to pair the 54-year-old Perkins with the 31-year-old Scarwid than with the 59-year-old Leigh.
Video-based extras begin with "Watch the Guitar: An Interview with Jeff Fahey" (17 mins., HD). The actor looks--and sounds--far more youthful than he has in recent roles (the pilot on "Lost", for example), but gone are the apple cheeks of his heyday, and those Paul Newman baby blues have dimmed a little. He invokes a familiar refrain of this disc--that Perkins was the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being the world ever knew--while also recapping an incident in which Perkins hit him with the non-padded side of a guitar, splitting Fahey's head open. He looks back on this period wistfully (I would, too, if I'd had his physique) and projects such charm it scarcely matters that he doesn't have a lot to say. "Patsy's Last Night: An Interview with Katt Shea" (9 mins., HD) finds a raven-haired Shea reflecting on a harrowing-sounding shoot with a "that's showbiz!" attitude. Those ice cubes? Real, Shea claims. Perkins obviously had a sadistic side. In "Mother's Maker: An Interview with Michael Westmore" (11 mins., HD), the third-generation makeup man and guru of Syfy's "Face Off" condenses a good six years of his life in recalling that he got the call to do 1986's Psycho III right after finishing 1980's Raging Bull. Presumably he spent years in therapy suppressing The Clan of the Cave Bear like the rest of us. Westmore was part of an initiative to assemble a supergroup of Universal veterans for the studio's highest-profile foray into their ostensible specialty, horror; now, sadly, he's one of the last ones standing. A funny anecdote has him installing tiny sprinklers in Diana Scarwid's wrists to burble with blood during her character's suicide attempt.
"Body Double: An Interview with Brinke Stevens" (5 mins., HD) is an openhearted reminiscence from the woman whose ass played Scarwid's ass in Psycho III. Stevens touches on the VHS boom, a blessing and a curse in that struggling actors suddenly worked steadily but in jobs that could be demoralizing. She remembers Perkins telling her to move less gracefully because her dancer's background conflicted with Maureen's discomfort in her own skin, and she figures she must have resembled Scarwid pretty closely, since someone on set called her "Diana." I enjoy hearing from these ultra-fringe players and it's extremely generous of Scream parent Shout! Factory to give them a platform, even if Stevens's presence indicates that they couldn't get bigger names like Scarwid or composer Carter Burwell, scoring his first studio film. Rounding out the platter: a trailer block featuring Psycho III's theatrical trailer--which begs for a narrator of Rodriguez's calibre--and scarier TV spot, both upconverted to 1080i but sourced from inferior video elements; and a "Still Gallery" slideshow (HD) of behind-the-scenes photos and press-kit 8"x10"s that runs 8 minutes unabridged. I'd be remiss if I didn't single out the menu screen, an animated loop of Norman waving that somehow grows more unsettling the longer it plays.
1. Psycho and Psycho II held the record for the longest gap between theatrical features until a sequel to The Hustler, The Color of Money, came along three years later. return
2. By the end of the Psycho saga, Norman is nothing if not lousy with mother figures. return
3. Incidentally, The Fly screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue would co-write the same year's Psycho III. return
4. Former ballerina Tilly was apparently willing to do nudity for prestige films (The Girl in a Swing, Valmont) but not for genre fare (Psycho II, Body Snatchers). If she thought this would make her less likely to become masturbation fodder, she underestimated the enterprising nature of teenage boys in those pre-Internet days. return
5. It took the Blu-ray audio commentary to make me realize that the composition of the Hitchockian crane shot leading into this sequence, which starts on Norman through the porthole of the Bates's attic and swoops down to the basement window, is more or less physically impossible and required some pre-digital compositing that is seamlessly executed. Hitch would be proud. return
6. It also assumes that Psycho II was insufficiently witty, which is not the case. return
7. Yes, I know there's a Psycho IV: The Beginning. What's your point? return