Home Video Hovel: Psycho II, by Aaron Pinkston
Psycho II begins with the most infamous and famous scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece — a scene on the shortlist of cinema’s greatest moments. This is a ballsy move that seems like a big mistake. Sure, most people who stumble into seeing Psycho II already aren’t going to expect anything nearing the level of film mastery as the original film, but why remind them just how good Psycho was? If anything, maybe the film should start with the mostly exposition dump that concludes Psycho. The idea of Hollywood making an unneeded sequel to a cinematic classic is so familiar today (well, maybe the first instinct would be a remake), but here is a similar example from 1983. Psycho II is far from the great movie that preceded it, that goes without saying. It is also far from the train wreck of a movie one might expect.
Twenty years after the horrific crimes at the Bates Motel, Norman Bates has spent his time in a psychiatric facility and has been deemed fit for release. Despite pressure from the public, including victims of the murders (Vera Miles returns in a pivotal role), there just ain’t enough resources to keep psychopaths off the streets — and Norman certainly seems well-adjusted and ready to start anew. Returning home immediately proves difficult to Norman, however, and he now must block out the demons of his past to hang on to his sanity. Psycho II works pretty decently as a psychological thriller on this level. Overall, what the film lacks in shocks and scares, it covers enough ground in connecting with and examining Norman’s fluid situation.
One of the film’s strengths is the idea of how the cultural perception of killers like Norman has changed since the time of his crimes. In the early 1960’s the events of Psycho were obviously pretty shocking, but, by 1983, horror films (and, more importantly horror fanatics) had drastically changed. It’s not a stretch to think that Norman Bates could be some sort of cultural hero to the young people hearing the stories of his crimes second-hand over camp fires or at slumber parties. Tourists visiting the Bates Motel for a few hours to “party” or teenagers breaking into the Bates’ home for sexual thrills seem like “logical” steps for a society becoming more aware with serial killers and cheering on psychopaths on the big screen. Much of the film’s narrative involves Norman’s newfound friendship with a young woman he meets through a diner job he takes. When Mary falls into bad luck, Norman is there to offer her a place to stay; having someone else around the house helps him stay in control. Mary’s involvement with Norman can be seen through this light — though it is crazy that she would stick around him when things so obviously go off, but the film appropriately shows how one of her generation could become fascinated, even infatuated, with Norman. Of course, the narrative offers a stronger defense as to why she stays, but there is evidence enough through this reading.
For the most part, Psycho II builds its thrills with a mystery that someone else may be working hard to make sure Norman goes mad again. Is this a character looking for simple revenge or something more sinister? Or, is it Norman all along, fully slipped back into madness and truly committing the new batch of murders happening at the Bates estate? At first, the mystery seems pretty obvious; through the editing it seems pretty clear that Norman is not main monster here. Still, our perspective in the mystery changes by the end, and then changes again, as the narrative seeps information to what is really going on. By the end, though, all of the pieces don’t quite fit together in a satisfying way in terms of solving this mystery — nothing is really left unexplained, but events become confusing, maybe purposefully to make the film scarier in some parts. If you are looking at this film as a man’s struggle with insanity you will probably be more satisfied than someone focused on it as a double-personality mystery thriller.
Anthony Perkins famously returns to the role of Norman Bates, the character that made him a cinema icon and basically ruined his career. Obviously a very talented actor, Perkins’ performance is showcased in the moments where Psycho II is at its best, and he really plays his disintegration to his best ability. The character is aided in that Perkins still has this baby-face and quietly likable aura. He doesn’t fully exude the innocent adolescence that partly made Norman so compelling — I don’t know if this is a character choice as Norman is a bit more world experienced or simply that Perkins has himself matured as a man in his 50s. The overall feel of the character also isn’t helped by his relationship with Mary coming off as a bit pervy — Bates’ encounters with Marion Crane were awkward and almost sweet, whereas he comes off a touch as a predator to Mary.
As I mentioned before, horror films became very different by the early 1980s and most horror fans were looking for something different than Psycho. This film falls somewhere in between 1960 and 1983, but is certainly on the most old-fashioned side of things. Purely as a horror film made in the 80s, Psycho II is incredibly slow and with a small body count — if you are counting, I recall five kills in the film, though not all are attributed to the film’s main killer. The kills are more graphic but less effective than the original — also probably not wholly gruesome enough to satisfy the newly established gore crowd. That’s not without trying, and there are some decent, but simple stab effects, though the film gets a bit silly with what it can do with just a knife.
More than halfway through the film, an idea is introduced that Mrs. Bates isn’t Norman’s real mother, and that his real mother is now guiding Norman to kill. This is the type of easy sequel fodder that could, possible does, do damage to the spirit of the original. Really, the twist mostly just complicates the film’s narrative (again, trying to make everything a little more mysterious) through the final act, though it does lead to a deliciously fun final scene. Like the film-in-whole, everything on paper wreaks of blasphemy, but it somehow escapes (mostly) unscathed.
As the new Blu-ray edition of the film has been released by Shout! Factory, I don’t have to tell you that they put a lot of care into the transfer and the extra features. This release includes “vintage” interviews, a 30-minute featurette full of behind-the-scenes footage. There are some interesting nuggets in the feature, but it has a heavy feel of studio promotion, with a narration that becomes quickly grating. The disc also includes audio-only interviews that can be heard over the film and a commentary track with screenwriter Tom Holland (who perhaps is best known as the writer-director of cult horror-comedy Fright Night and Child’s Play). The commentary is “hosted” by Robert Galluzzo, director of the documentary The Psycho Legacy. Galluzzo engages Holland on the work, asking quality questions to get a good picture of the film behind-the-scenes. At times it feels like an in-depth interview, but is always conversational, a good tone for a feature-length commentary track.