The structure has changed! Now, in the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th, 30th or 40th anniversary of initial release this year — five from 1983, four from 1993 and four from 2003. The self-imposed rules of the column remain the same: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock produced Psycho partially as a pivot to regain creative footing amid collapsed projects. But it was primarily to flaunt his clout as a preeminent provocateur in the face of a flailing Production Code. By then, Hitchcock had sashayed for years around the Code’s puritan strictures to “protect” American audiences from content deemed too prurient. He had also seen recent films like Cat on a Hot Roof, Some Like It Hot and Anatomy of a Murder plant hooks in the Code to carve out leaks.
All Hitchcock needed to break the dam were concepts of modern plumbing — a flushing toilet (then unseen in mainstream American TV series or films) and what became the most iconic shower in all of filmed fiction. It is stunning, even today, to watch Psycho and consider this film is barely part of the 1960s rather than something that arrived in the thick of the decade’s cultural tumult.
Psycho’s first-act inquisition of traditional masculinity makes you wonder whether Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) might murder mousy innkeeper Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) herself if it were necessary to protect the money she has stolen. Of course, Psycho gave birth to slasher films as audiences worldwide came to know them. The depiction of Norman’s existential and homicidal transition into his mother — whom he murdered years earlier, along with her lover — when experiencing any sexual attraction kicked down the door for mainstream explorations of psychological horror. And for all the fears Psycho stoked about madmen, murder, menace and motel showers, well, at least it made toilets safe for cinematic depiction.
With his mission accomplished (and his career at an arguable apex given the films to follow), Hitchcock moved on. Psycho said all it needed as proof that Hitchcock remained a showman of salacious spectacle, at least for a few years. If Psycho was the shock, its three official sequels represent the aftershock.
Each arrived in the 1980s or very early 1990s, when many adults (Moral Majority nonsense aside) were desensitized to depictions of violence in a way they were not in 1960. These filmmakers fought changing times, too, but it could be said their challenge constituted a greater degree of difficulty: Generating genuine dread as Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees mowed down townies and teenagers with more license for lasciviousness than Hitchcock typically enjoyed (outside of 1972’s Frenzy, at least). Wisely, none of the formal sequels positions Norman as keeping pace with his masked progeny; a knife in the mouth is as explicit as the violence gets and the nudity is moderate, at least by the skivvy-shirking standards of Haddonfield High School and Camp Crystal Lake.
Across their seven-year span, Psycho II, Psycho III and Psycho IV: The Beginning took on something more intangible about the uniquely American intersection of mental anguish and violent crime. Each film gets an A for effort but, unfortunately, mixed (and increasingly poor) grades for execution; the thread is there but frustratingly inconsistent and incrementally more invisible with each passing installment. As Roger Ebert said, Psycho endures because it connects directly with recognizable fears. The sequels flirt with that — particularly in whether Norman’s legacy will be forever preserved, with the precision embalming of his beloved stuffed birds, in his lowest moment and how they latently conflate that outcome with Perkins’ real-life conversion therapy experiences. However, they too often foist increasingly complicated, uninteresting narrative rug-pulls and reversals. What’s not lost in any incarnation of Psycho is the stutter, flutter and barely tamped-down rage Perkins brings to his performance as Norman.
(Before jumping into canonical continuation, indulge a brief spin through Bates Motel. No, not the critically acclaimed, Emmy-nominated A&E TV series. The July 1987 TV movie that aired on NBC. This Bates Motel was clearly intended as a pilot for an otherwise unrelated anthology series tangentially attached to popular IP, a la what Friday the 13th: The Series or Freddy’s Nightmares would become. It is instead the most misbegotten undertaking in Psycho history, centered around Alex West (Bud Cort), Norman’s ersatz son who inherits the Bates Motel after Norman’s death. Alex also murdered a family member when he was young and hopes the motel will allow him to start fresh upon his release from an institution. Cue a truly surprising number of renovation scenes, Lori Petty making her entrance in a chicken costume, a fraud plot by Gregg Henry’s scheming banker, and a special appearance by Jason Bateman as a teen-suicide ghost discouraging a middle-aged woman from ending her own life at the hotel. It’s stunningly bad before the genial introduction of this generic supernatural energy, and the Scooby-Doo ending played for serious suspense is truly something to behold. Perkins called it “just terrible” a year after its broadcast, and it’s notable only for a trivia tidbit: Kurt Paul, who plays Norman here, is the only actor to appear in all the film’s sequels — having doubled for Perkins on II and III and playing a voice on the phone in IV. OK. Let’s move along.)
Psycho II is simultaneously the best and most frustrating sequel in the franchise. Unlike the original, it has nothing to do with the novel of the same name. Against Universal Pictures’ preferences, author Robert Bloch published his follow-up to the original novel before writer Tom Holland’s planned screenplay was complete. If the film sequel reckons with what it takes to rattle people in a genre overrun by slashers, Bloch sends it up with recklessness through a convoluted plot that kills off Norman Bates and finds his psychological caretaker consumed by violent impulses on the set of a Hollywood film about Bates’ life.
At the same time, the cinematic Psycho II considers the infectious, and very American, obsession with violent crime and mental instability that also propelled David Gordon Green’s latter two installments of his Halloween cycle. It understands America’s allergy and aversion to productive, sustainable mental-health measures as an inexorable and inescapable indignity of our society. Holland’s screenplay comes the closest to a skillful indictment but ultimately exploits it in a way that eradicates a lot of goodwill (and also entangles Psycho III, in which he had no involvement).
Elegantly directed by Richard Franklin (an Australian-born Hitchcock acolyte who became a friend to the filmmaker), 1983’s Psycho II picks up at a real-time distance from the original film. Released from a mental institution, Norman returns to Fairvale, California, and attempts to create a normal life — working at the small-town diner and reclaiming his namesake motel from a meathead manager (Dennis Franz) who has turned it into more of a no-tell kind of place. (“Hey,” he yells at Norman, “at least my customers have a good time!”)
It’s part of the immersion-therapy process pushed by Norman’s doctor (Robert Loggia), and the kindness shown to Norman by a waitress coworker (Meg Tilly) suggests calm could be in the cards, especially as he welcomes her to visit him at the motel. But Norman has a quite vocal opponent in Lila Loomis (Vera Miles, reprising her role from Psycho). Lila remains livid over Norman murdering her sister, Marion, 23 years ago and insists he is still a dangerous menace to society. There is also the matter of resumed murders near the motel and Norman finding notes that read “DON’T LET THAT LITTLE WHORE INTO MY HOUSE AGAIN. LOVE – MOTHER.”
It’s the first of many rigorous reminders Norman receives about his turmoil, and it allows Perkins to easily slip back into the character’s timid tremulousness that can also shift on a hair trigger. Norman has no concept of how to conduct himself in conventional conversation, as hermetically preserved and rigidly posed as any of his stuffed birds. Visually, Franklin emphasizes the sort of desperation and hopelessness endemic to dusty places in the middle of nowhere like Fairvale. Performatively, Perkins conveys more emotional emaciation than emancipation in Norman’s concept of “freedom.” Narratively, Holland unveils a great turn at the hour mark that takes aim at America’s obsession with encouraging failure and recidivism among its mentally anguished. It would be more comfortable to confine Norman rather than consider his comfort or capacity to change.
Without overplaying it, Perkins accesses a real-world analog for Psycho II’s allegory. In an era where paparazzi took on a pointed, pernicious pursuit of outing actors, Perkins’ homosexuality was never really that much of a secret. He had an ongoing relationship with fellow actor Tab Hunter, which the top brass at Paramount Pictures (where Perkins had a five-year deal before Psycho) believed he flaunted too much. They insisted he break it off and enter conversion therapy.
At some point between the production of Psycho and Tall Story (Perkins’ innocuous romantic comedy co-starring Jane Fonda that also opened in 1960), Hunter and Perkins split, and Perkins paid a penalty to leave his Paramount contract early. Although Perkins worked steadily post-Psycho, it was in European productions away from Hollywood’s comparative visibility and payday, and biographers have suggested there was pressure, as Perkins hit his 40s, for Hollywood to “believe he was straight.” After completing conversion therapy, Perkins married photographer Berry Berenson and fathered two children (in 1974 and 1976, respectively).
Biographers cast no doubt on the happiness Perkins enjoyed with Berenson or their children, and his conversion process was not widely chronicled at the time of Psycho II’s release. However, viewed through that prism now, it’s difficult to imagine Perkins was not channeling personal experience as Norman remarks on all the things his treatment took from his memories and experiences. While Norman’s communicative confidence increases, there’s still an unquantifiable remove about him. Perkins’ actual experiences with how America regards aberrance also color his continued performance as Norman over the next two films.
The actor certainly throws the remainder of Psycho II on his shoulders. He does more to convey the idea that the cruel intolerance of those like Lila is the illness than Holland’s screenplay. Its final moments introduce a monumentally dumb development on the wrong side of the debate between the corrected and crazed.
Although Psycho II was a box-office success, its conclusion unfairly handcuffed 1986’s Psycho III, for which Perkins also found himself in the director’s chair for the first time. Like its predecessor, the threequel takes no beats from Bloch’s own third novel — this one titled Psycho House and concerning an influx of true-crime tourism in Fairvale. Instead, the screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue (who also co-wrote that year’s remake of The Fly) references another Hitchcock classic (Vertigo) with a tragedy at a nunnery before returning to Norman’s resumption of regular operations at the motel shortly after the events of Psycho II.
Instead of people, Norman has resurrected his hobby of killing birds — dosing his birdbath with poison. Tumbleweeds the size of boulders roll past the decaying motel rooms. And while it seems that HELP WANTED sign is hopelessly hung on the door, a rock ‘n’ roll drifter named Duane (whom Jeff Fahey plays like a sort of peckerwood Pierce Brosnan) hits the payroll. Shortly thereafter, a troubled novitiate named Maureen Coyle (her initials the same as Norman’s eternal albatross) comes to stay at the hotel. Meanwhile, a reporter (Roberta Maxwell) pursues an interview with Norman for a piece about the insanity defense that prompted his parole. In reality, she thinks Norman is murdering people again and seeks a career-defining scoop.
For someone who futilely pushed for a black-and-white picture, Perkins infuses Psycho III with a vibrant color scheme and rich visual palette to play up its gothic potboiler elements. Pogue’s script treats the vacancy sign as a lighthouse for vagrants and the motel as a waystation for emotional transience — large adult sons & daughters drunkenly clinging to high-school glory. Through Maureen (Diana Scarwid), the threequel only enhances a feeling of excommunication from entrenched systems, emphasizes that American badge of endured suffering, and expresses, with appropriate bleakness, that masochism might be the only path to mercy for an easily cast-aside misfit like Norman.
Again, the back half becomes the problem here — doubling down on whodunit elements while stacking up the sort of anonymized victims you’d find in any old slasher parade. In addition to cartoonish distance that keeps many of its best qualities at bay, Psycho III spends a lot of time trying to undo its predecessor’s problems. Albeit to a slightly less committed degree, it does as good a job as it can to go somewhere deeper while meeting the ante of lurid thrills.
Although Psycho III was not a hit, Perkins and Pogue still pitched Universal Pictures a fourth film that was, at least conceptually, aligned with what Bloch had done with Psycho House. (In it, Norman was hired to play himself at the Bates Motel, now transformed into sort of a true-crime museum.) Instead, Universal brought in director Mick Garris and screenwriter Joseph Stefano for a fourth installment. Garris was no stranger to inheriting franchises, having worked on The Fly II, Critters 2: The Main Course and Freddy’s Nightmares while Stefano had adapted the original Psycho for the screen three decades earlier.
Upset by a surplus of slashers — and concessions made by the two previous films — Stefano treated this like a direct sequel to the original. Now living in a palatial home, Norman (Perkins) calls into a talk-radio show where the guest is Dr. Richmond (Warren Frost), who committed Norman at the end of Psycho. No stranger to showboating callers, host Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder) doubts Norman’s defensive rhetoric until he says, “Oh, I’ve killed before and now … I’m gonna have to do it again.” Keeping Norman on the line as much for ratings as for clues on preventing a possible crime, Fran lets him spin a tale told in flashback of him as a young man (Henry Thomas) navigating a complicated relationship with his mother, Norma (Olivia Hussey).
As rebuttals rooted in rancor go, Psycho IV: The Beginning isn’t entirely without merit. After all, Norman Bates is the rare monstrous icon for whom a psychoanalytical retrospective seems right — given the frayed ends of sanity at which any of us might find ourselves under duress. Stefano also links that mental decay to that of American economic infrastructure, indicating the motel was passed over by the interstate and doomed to fail. He also specifically underscores and understands Norman’s sexual hangups, albeit presented by Garris with aesthetic similarities to Red Shoe Diaries — a softcore series that aired soon after on the Showtime network, where this film premiered in 1990.
While scuttling II and III clears up convolution (at least in IV‘s narrative if not in its title), it’s also a bit of a regression. As a direct sequel that, 30 years later, finds Norman in at least a very normal-looking home, IV loses a bit of the slings and arrows that befell him along the way. Norman’s struggle here means comparatively little without considering what happened in those interstitial chapters. We already know he killed his mother and her brutish lover. IV depicts it without much flourish, and the contemporary story in which Norman must directly confront his conflict of nature versus nurture, and its continuing cycle, is rushed. It’s like trying to shoehorn several seasons of Dexter into a single film. Ultimately, it’s just some dedicated window-dressing and a milquetoast conclusion to the saga.
Regardless, the broadcast was a hit, drawing 10 million viewers on a pay-cable platform and prompting the possibility of a fifth Psycho installment. However, Perkins learned during production that he was HIV-positive and began receiving medical treatment while filming. The actor completed several more TV productions — all in the horror or horror-adjacent realm — while privately receiving further treatment before his death of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992. Psycho has been resurrected only for Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake in 1998 (better in theory than practice) and the aforementioned A&E series, which ran for several seasons.
Hitchcock surely could not have foreseen how the legacy of Psycho would endure 23 years later (in a sequel released three years after his death), let alone 63 years later. And his successors were not entirely successful in shepherding those stories along. But for all of their inconsistencies, the subsequent Perkins-featuring installments of Psycho remain unique among other franchise brethren. They interrogate America’s barbarous viewpoints on mental wellness and one man’s struggle to wade through the ensuing morass to something resembling sanity.