Making sequels to movies over twenty years old might be pretty commonplace today but back in the early 1980’s, when Universal decided to produce a follow up to Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal Psycho, it was practically unheard of. Originally conceived as a loose made-for-TV movie starring Christopher Walken as Norman Bates, Psycho II suddenly shifted gears into a major theatrical release when Anthony Perkins read Tom Holland’s screenplay and decided to reprise the role himself. Seeing the finished film, it’s not hard to see why. This is The Norman Bates Show.
Directed by Richard Franklin, who was regularly billed as the Australian Hitchcock (his own Road Games is one of the more ingenious riffs on Rear Window), Psycho II manages to overcome ridiculous expectations by making them a part of the text. So much of this film concerns “regular folk” either quietly willing or actively provoking the newly rehabilitated Norman Bates to get knife happy again. The film’s major coup is that, for all means and purposes, Bates is the victim this time around while Vera Miles’ Lyla Crane, also returning from the original, is the villain. But the filmmakers know damn well the audience are just as eager as Lyla to see him snap and there in lies the film’s tension: will he or won’t he?
Perkins turns in a great, sympathetic performance full of facial ticks and awkward posturing and you genuinely feel for Norman. Onceyou’ve seen the film and know the outcome, upon rewatch it becomes a tragic tale of a rehabilitated man driven crazy again. The film’s final scene is one of horror’s ultimate rug-pulls. In one swing of a shovel all the iconography of the Psycho universe is suddenly restored back to its status quo. The last shot of Bates stood in silhouette atop the stairs with Mother in the window and an incoming storm thundering on the soundtrack (remember the storm underway when we first meet him in Hitch’s original) gives me chills every time. It’s a victorious moment that gives its audience the sick thrills it has been pining for the entire film.
There are a bunch of winking callbacks to the original Psychobut they feel natural and earned. It is as much a celebration of that film’s legacy as it is a continuation of it. Franklin enjoys playing with his audience’s expectations with multiple fake-outs (Meg Tilly stepping into the shower probably had more audiences bracing themselves than any shower scene before or since). Some of the director’s dark Australian humour seeps in too, paired with much more graphic special effects work giving Psycho II a sticky sweet flavour taking it beyond what Hitchcock could achieve in his day. Jerry Goldsmith’s eerie, melancholic score also goes in its own direction avoiding, for the most part, the shards and strings of Herrmann’s themes. It gives the movie an overall sadder, mournful tone that deepens it into being more about Norman’s fate than a rollercoaster of shocks.
This probably sounds like blasphemy but in many ways I prefer Psycho II to the original. It isn’t a better film – certainly not the classic its predecessor is – but I think about it on a level I don’t with Psycho. How Holland and Franklin took the mythology of that movie and tried to adapt it into a horror franchise model (which wasn’t even a part of the landscape in Hitch’s day) without reverting to cheap shocks or diluting the brand is pretty incredible. There are hundreds of easy, lazy ways to make a Psycho II but the director and screenwriter constantly try harder to make something that really counts and resonates while also deepening and developing its characters. This is a character study in a way the original Psycho never was. Hitchcock’s film is a crucial technical accomplishment, a bravura masterclass in filmmaking technique but it has very little interest in the people once Marion is iced. Norman especially is reduced to a thinly drawn cackling maniac by the end. Psycho might have established Perkins’ Norman Bates as one of horror cinema’s most iconic murderers, but the reason we now have countless sequels, spinoffs, reboots and TV shows set within this universe is because Psycho II showed there was a lot more to be mined there. This is the film that made you care about Norman Bates.
Watched on Arrow blu-ray.