Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary 1960 film adaptation of Robert Bloch’s Psycho is a seminal film for the horror genre’s development. That it ended up spawning a six-film franchise, and even a recent television series, is both puzzling and fascinating, but the franchise itself has provided a surprisingly varied approach to the depiction of killer Norman Bates. For their latest Devious Dialogues piece, A.M. (Anya) Stanley and Mike Thorn discuss the original film and all of its cinematic successors.
Mike: By now, the title Psycho is as bound up with Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation as The Shining is with Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of Stephen King’s book (if not more so). But, as with Kubrick’s Shining, Joseph Stefano’s script owes so much to Robert Bloch’s excellent novel, published the year before the film’s 1960 release. It’s probably impossible to write anything about this film that hasn’t already been written, but on this viewing, I noticed how effectively Hitchcock directs Norman Bates’ (Anthony Perkins) post-murder clean-up. This sequence effectively recalibrates the film’s P.O.V. and lays out all the routine details in such a painstakingly patient way. What struck you most on this recent viewing?
Anya: This time around, I ended up replaying the parlor scene a few times with a new appreciation for its bird imagery and sly suggestion of character intentions. Everything from the subtextual dialogue to the staging of the actors frames Norman and Marion (Janet Leigh) as predator and prey, respectively. As they sit among stuffed birds, Norman goes from stroking a tame, non-threatening bird at eye-level to leaning forward in a low-level frame along with intimidating, hawkish birds of prey as he becomes agitated about his mother. He notes aloud that Marion “eats like a bird.” At times, he is shot with both predatory and docile birds alongside him within the same frame, similar to his own conflicted psyche. From beginning to end, the mise-en-scene within the parlor exchange tells us everything we need to know about Norman, most notably his personality and relationship with his mother. We all talk about the shower scene and the final monologue of Psycho, but, as you’ve pointed out, there are plenty of brilliant moments worth absorbing.
Mike: Nicely said. That has always been one of my favorite scenes, and you’ve unpacked it so well! Moving on to Psycho II — this sequel abandons Bloch’s authorship, replacing his 1982 novel with a completely different vision for Norman Bates. Had it been adapted, Bloch’s Psycho II maybe could’ve been a fascinating proto-New Nightmare (1994) meta-statement. Still, I love what director Richard Franklin, screenwriter Tom Holland and cinematographer Dean Cundey bring to this interpretation. What starts out as a borderline cozy, psychological mystery descends into all-out identity horror in the final act. What did you think of Psycho II’s treatment of Norman Bates?
Anya: First of all, that anyone would even attempt to approach what is generally considered to be a founding father of the genre is noteworthy. But after watching Psycho II, I’m grateful that Tom Holland was the one to take on the challenge. I’ll even go so far as to say that the sequel is just as satisfying as the original, in my eyes. Holland’s exploration of Norman Bates’ damaged psyche, and his attempts to rehabilitate himself in the face of both internal and external antagonism (22 years of therapy means nothing when you move back into your trigger-filled house of horrors upon release), is both an ambitious and interesting layer of depth to one of horror’s most notorious villains. Without spoiling the ending, Norman undergoes quite the character arc!
Mike: I’m pleasantly surprised that we both enjoyed it so much. Honestly, I would also rank it close to the original with little hesitation. And, in my opinion, the series might even reach its peak with Psycho III (directed by Anthony Perkins), which showcases an actor’s unique exercise in character investigation. Having played Bates two times already, Perkins uses this sequel to re-examine the character from multiple points of view — the predecessors have already complicated any perception of Bates as a straightforward “villain,” and Perkins plays on the franchise’s ambivalent sympathies. I also think he does a superb job with the staging and visual style. What did you think about Perkins taking on the role of star and director? Could you see that double-role playing out in the film?
Anya: I found Psycho III to be competent in its direction, and bonkers in its writing (that opening scene with the nuns woke me up in the midst of this Psycho movie marathon). But what ultimately hurt the film was its blatant cash-grab atmosphere with little regard for creative integrity. Universal Studios was astute enough to figure that they could make a pretty penny off of the Bates name alone, and tried to milk that for every penny they could. The result was a hefty amount of intrusion into Perkins’ vision for the story, and a tainted commercialization geared toward the MTV generation (according to composer Carter Burwell, the studio wanted “more bankable” songs on the soundtrack). It should also be noted that Psycho III is the lowest-grossing entry in the entire franchise. That said, I agree that Perkins had an eye for blocking and composition; visual cues and subtextual symbolism permeate every scene, making for a satisfying viewing experience.
Mike: Mick Garris, who has now become an esteemed curator of the horror genre with Masters of Horror and Post Mortem, was presented with a difficult task in directing Psycho IV: The Beginning (penned by the original film’s screenwriter Joseph Stefano). I think the backstory is well-directed and well-acted, but it’s fundamentally unnecessary — we know everything we want or need to know about Norman’s past based on the previous entries. I also didn’t buy into the frame narrative, but couldn’t resist the pleasure of watching Perkins play this part again. Overall, I enjoyed watching the film despite those grievances. What did you think of the decision to flesh out Norman’s character history?
Anya: Agreed. The performances are superb — on par with their Psycho predecessors — but the writing feels hollow, of a lower caliber than we’ve seen up until this point in the series. It was at this juncture that Norman Bates became a sort of cinematic spirit animal like the Jigsaw killer; I love seeing them pop up in franchise sequels, but the characters are more of a pop culture novelty without any thematic muscle to back them up. As with so many origin stories, that of Bates in Psycho IV is wholly superfluous. For me, this is the least enjoyable film in the series.
Mike: When we were discussing which entries to cover for this dialogue, you told me that you enjoyed the 1987 telefilm Bates Motel (which was originally supposed to be a pitch for a longer series). I must say that I didn’t get a lot out of it, unfortunately. So, my question is this: what did you enjoy about it? I’m not trying to put you on the spot or anything; I’m genuinely curious!
Anya: The Bates Motel telefilm feels like an undiscovered gem! In this spinoff, writer-director Richard Rothstein completely discards everything after the original film and creates an entirely new, tonally off-the-wall narrative that barely mentions Norman and instead focuses on the bizarre atmosphere in and around the motel and the Bates residence. They rightfully discerned that there was nowhere else for Bates to go after the last two films flopped, and took the series in an entirely fresh direction. Not only did Rothstein leap from psychological horror to dark sci-fi-infused fiction (eerily similar to The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone), but they centered the plot around two fascinating characters (played with zeal by Bud Cort and Lori Petty) whose interaction with Bates is minimal, if at all. Its greatest strength is in ignoring the timelines of Psycho II and III (though, presumably, the events of the Psycho IV prequel could still be intact in this universe). It seems that I’m in the minority, though; the telefilm was made as a pilot, and failed to get picked up by the network.
Mike: Still, you’ll always have the telefilm. I’ve always read Gus Van Sant’s much-derided 1998 Psycho remake as a conceptual/theoretical experiment made within a studio framework. Directing what is essentially a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s film (in color), Van Sant’s version raises some fascinating questions about authorship. Although he hews so closely to his source, the result feels like a Van Sant film. What’s going on there? Is that some evidence of innate authorial “essence” or is it a symptom of audience interpretation? I’ve always loved this remake for its audacity, and for the questions that it poses. What do you make of Van Sant’s decision to remake Hitchcock’s film in this way?
Anya: I revisited Vant Sant’s Psycho remake with an open mind; I loathed it upon release and thought it pointless. In honor of this crosstalk, I sat down with it for the first time in over a decade, and I have come away from it with a new appreciation for Van Sant’s “experiment” on a conceptual level. He has effectively proven that even a shot-for-shot recreation of a film will still carry the signature (or essence, as you’ve put it) of whomever makes it. We’ve all seen remakes that breathe new life into old narratives (like John Carpenter’s The Thing), but to meticulously recreate something so iconic? It’s… well, it’s psycho. And considering Van Sant’s previous indie works like My Own Private Idaho and To Die For, giving him a blank check with which to fulfill his creative pipe dream seems even crazier (even after his Best Director nomination for Good Will Hunting). But regardless of the film’s execution, the audacity of the entire endeavor makes it a fascinating oddity, both in the franchise and in cinema entire.
Mike Thorn’s film criticism has appeared in numerous journals and publications, including MUBI Notebook, The Film Stage, Bright Lights Film Journal and The Seventh Row. His fiction has been published recently in DarkFuse #5, Turn to Ash Vol. 0 and Straylight Literary Arts Magazine. Darkest Hours, his debut short fiction collection, is available for purchase at Unnerving Magazine. For more information, visit his website mikethornwrites.com and follow him on Twitter @mikethornwrites.
A.M. Stanley (@BookishPlinko) is a Video Nasties columnist at Daily Grindhouse. When she’s not staunchly defending Halloween 6, she is a contributor to Birth.Movies.Death., F This Movie, Diabolique Magazine and wherever they’ll let her talk about horror movies. Read more of her work at anyawrites.com.