No. 20: Psycho II

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

I came into my viewing of Psycho II with both a good bit of interest as well as very pessimistic expectations. On both counts, I’d say my instincts were right. Psycho II is a bit of a disgrace to its namesake, Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1960 classic that remains one of the most recognizable and influential horror films ever made. But despite coming nowhere near the original film in terms of quality and artistic achievement, Psycho II is admittedly a fairly entertaining and interesting film at times.

Apparently, I’m not the only person who thinks that on the surface, it sounds like a terrible idea. Anthony Perkins, who played Norman Bates (the title role) in the original film, was hesitant to take on the project as he felt it might dishonor the original but eventually gave in, lending the project all the credibility and legitimacy it would need to cash in on the enormous respect and popularity of Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Behind the scenes, the names involved were less than spectacular, with Tom Holland scripting (1988’s Child’s Play would likely be called his career highlight) while the directing job went to a longtime friend of Hitchcock, genre specialist Richard Franklin.

If for some reason you aren’t aware of Psycho, firstly go rent it immediately but you should know that the rest of this review will certainly spoil a major reveal in that film for you if you haven’t seen it.

The film begins with Norman being released from the mental institution where he’s been held since the end of the first film. His doctor (Robert Loggia!) assures everyone that Norman’s treatment has worked, he has acknowledged that his mother is in fact dead and since he was found not guilty by reason of insanity, he’s free to return to his home. Of course, some people aren’t quite pleased with this decision, particularly Lila Loomis (played by Vera Miles reprising her role from the original film). Lila is the sister of Marion, the original victim from the first film, and she’s none to pleased about Norman’s release and makes her voice heard in a show courtroom protest. Nonetheless, Norman is free to head home.

Speaking of that home, aside from the pre-credits replay of the famous “shower scene” from the first film in its entirety, the Bates mansion is the one clear connection this film has with the original. The film perfectly recreates the set from the first film, which was such a crucially important element of the film both from a practical standpoint, as Hitchcock used the cramped set to establish a clear geography for the action, but also from a psychological standpoint. As critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek has previously pointed out, the Bates mansion’s true brilliance is that its three stories parallel the three levels of the human mind as they exist in Norman (superego, ego and id), a perfect motif for a film that so heavily relies upon psychoanalysis for explaining its characters and their motivations to the audience.

The familiarity of that setting provides a few moments of nostalgic pleasure, and give us a base for the rest of the movie to work with when the suspense and action start to build with our new characters and plot. Aside from a much kinder and gentler Norman, our other main new character is Mary (Meg Tilly), a ridiculously tolerant and understanding young woman who works at the diner where Norman is given a job after his release. Not only is Mary not freaked out by Norman, she decides she’ll move in with him as she’s been looking for a place to stay anyway.

Of course, Mary’s motives along with the motives of nearly every other character in the film, do end up making sense in the end…kind of. Explaining it all would not only be too much of a spoiler but it would be nearly impossible to do in print anyway but suffice it to say the screenplay of Psycho II takes us in a number of different directions only to pull the rug out from under us with multiple major reveals near the end that completely contradicts everything we thought was happening. Though I haven’t had much time to think it over, I’m pretty sure there actually aren’t any holes in these plot twists and although it doesn’t all make perfect sense from a motivation standpoint, when you’re dealing with characters who are insane, I suppose you can get away with that.

Aside from the plot itself, there are a number of major tonal difference that make Psycho II completely different from the original. For one, Norman is truly a sympathetic character, almost without exception. There are times when we worry about the safety of Mary but this is definitely not the deranged psychopath from the first film, the man whose mixed up feelings about guilt and sexuality led him to murder. This Norman is a tortured soul, an almost Christ-like figure (there are literally crucifixion references later in the film) who is simply a victim of a terrible disease. It’s an approach that’s almost certainly influenced by the more politically correct views on mental illness in the ’80s but it completely changes the nature of the character. As you can see in the scene below, Norman basically spends the film getting picked on by people who “just don’t understand”, in this case by the creep motel manager hired in his absence played by Dennis Franz in a delightfully sleezy performance.

There’s also a big difference when it comes to handling violence and sex in this sequel. Hitchcock certainly pushed the envelope by making what was considered one of the most sexually explicit and violent movies of its day, though he did it without ever showing any simulated sex, any nudity or even any particularly graphic violence. It was all intimated and suggested, partly a result of the limitations of the day (both in standards and special effects technology) but also partly because Hitchcock knew that suggestion often had a stronger and more lasting effect than outright exposure. There is some very brief nudity in Psycho II but the real difference comes in the violence. Every death in the film is presented with escalating levels of graphic violence, including a climactic killing that involves a character being stabbed through the mouth.

“THE PRODUCERS WISH TO ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR DEBT TO SIR ALFRED HITCHCOCK.”

That line appears in the closing credits of Psycho II but frankly I think the producers are flattering themselves a bit to suggest that their film has enough in common with Hitchcock’s original that it could be said to owe any kind of debt to it. Vincent Canby of the New York Times said it best at the time when he declared Psycho II “as much of an homage as it is a rip-off”. It’s a film that clearly has a lot of love for the original but so little else in common with that film, it barely qualifies to be called a sequel.

Next Up: Meryl Streep and Kurt Russell star in Mike Nichols’ Oscar nominated drama Silkwood.