Today’s adventure in franchise watching: Psycho!
The idea that there were sequels made at all of Psycho seems almost sacrilegious. It is such an iconic movie that even people who’ve never seen a horror movie in their lives could tell you what the music from the shower scene is from. While the sequels seem lesser-known, they exist. Not just one, not two, but THREE sequels stemmed from the original classics. The first one came in 1983, which is not all that surprising; the 80s were rife with slasher sequels. What is surprising to most is not just that these sequels exist, but that they all star the great Anthony Perkins as the soft-spoken, quiet, and let’s not forget completely psychotic Norman Bates. In addition, they include some amazing guest star talent, including Dennis Franz, Robert Loggia, Meg Tilley, CCH Pounder, and Henry Thomas. For the purposes of ranking, I will include all four films plus the 1998 remake of the original, but I won’t get into the TV series Bates Motel. I am considering Bates Motel for a binge and rate as well, but for this we’ll focus solely on the films.
The Good: Awesome, essential viewing. These are the ones that make you want to see any and all entries in the series.
Psycho (1960): It should be no surprise that the original film would be included here. I mentioned before that it is iconic, and for good reason. Psycho is the stuff of sleepovers; its the one black and white movie that 80s kids cheerfully watched at slumber parties, mostly because their parents had been scarred for life by it at one point or another and in a weird lapse in parental judgment were excited to do the same to their children. Psycho was one of the first of mainstream slasher movies. It was controversial in its day for the infamous shower scene, and genuinely shocked audiences by getting them to see the storyline from the heroine’s perspective and then axing her shortly after we get really invested in her story. The twist at the end is legendary, and set the stage for Norman Bates to become the greatest mama’s boy in cinematic history. Creepy and unsettling, Psycho is a must-see, still packing a punch even though the surprise of the ending has lost its edge as its become so well-known.
Psycho II (1983): I first came across Psycho II on a late night movie channel at 2am one night when I had a bad cold, expecting something to entertain me for about ten minutes while I made tea and had cough syrup. I ended up awake until 4am, sucked into the story and psychological mind game that is this criminally underseen sequel (still coughing and miserable, but highly entertained). 23 years after the events of the original, Norman Bates is up for parole. He heads back home to mixed reviews from the local population, and outrage from Lila Loomis, Marion’s sister from the original, who is convinced he will kill again. As Norman tries to settle in to a new life, finding a new job and kicking out a slime ball who has been renting out hotel rooms for “ahem….adult activities,” something is amiss. At first he is convinced that someone is trying to mess with him, and then that someone is pretending to be his mother, and then…well, it goes downhill from there. The interesting thing about this one is that you really do feel bad for Norman, and what you think is happening is never what it appears as his grip on reality yo-yos from one extreme to another. This is a great thriller with a lot of twists and turns, and Anthony Perkins with his little boy innocence and serene obedient look as he follows mother’s orders is perfection.
The (Not So) Bad: Your go-to fun horror movie. While not as effective as the original, fun to watch, and may contain a fair amount of awesome cheese. While there may be some issues with logic or execution, it maintains the spirit of the original.
Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990): This addition to the Psycho family is…well, it’s icky. Part of the reason I’ve avoided Bates Motel over the years is that I know that it delves into the relationship between Norman and his mom, and it’s icky. There’s really no other way to say it. I found the suggestion of incest more effective than the weird thing that they had going on between them in this movie. Still, it was an entertaining ride, with solid acting from Olivia Hussey as Mrs. Bates and Henry Thomas as Norman. This is basically a fill in the blank type of movie, and while it doesn’t add anything new to the story, I thought it was interesting in that it is told as a flashback as Norman calls into a talk radio station and describes what happened all those years ago. To me, the most effective parts were the ones that showed how cruel Mrs. Bates could be in little ways. For instance, I cringed when, during Norman’s father’s funeral, she tickled him until he couldn’t help but laugh, then slapped him for it. Not really a necessary watch, but the attention to detail of the established history makes this one fall into the not so bad category.
The Ugly: Enough said. Leaves you wondering why (WHY???!!!!!), and has the power to make you question any investment of time you have put into the franchise to date.
Psycho III (1986): Okay. Seriously. What happened here?! I found it hard to care about any of the characters, and knowing that Norman is completely crazy from the get go has the unfortunate effect of having the plot fall flat. There is no mystery here, just stabbing death after stabbing death (and one death by guitar). I felt really bad for the girl forced to die with her face stuck in a very unfortunate yellow turtleneck. One girl was even killed while peeing. Really. It is bizarre to me that they continually put the face in shadow when you knew that it was Norman dressed as Norma each time. I mean, come on! Norman was still wearing his regular shoes! From the opening scene in which a nun-in-training’s botched suicide attempt kills another nun, to watching Norman make out with a frozen corpse for no apparent reason, this movie is an hour and a half of one WTF moment after another. In addition, I think they were a little confused as to what to do with the women in this movie. Every single woman who wandered into that hotel was promiscuous, or at the very least a wild child. Except, of course, for the nun, who was a little unhinged and more than a little irritating. It was really strange in that they were pushing the party girl angle so hard it was almost like the director wanted you to feel like they had it coming. Anthony Perkins is still awesome, and his acting ability makes for a handful of great, memorable scenes. The first scene with Norman makes for wonderfully squeamish viewing as he spoons sawdust into the dead bird he is preserving and then uses the same spoon to put peanut butter onto a Ritz cracker. Or Norman dressed as Mrs. Bates casually stalking the next victim up the stairs and matter-of-factly straightening a painting on the way. However, these few moments do not an even adequate movie make. Skip it.
Psycho (1998): I really struggled with where to categorize this one. This is a solid remake, and it is well acted with Vince Vaughn as the titular psycho. I know that sounds really bizarre now, but don’t forget that in the 90s, Vince Vaughn was playing a lot of really great, dark roles, including the killer in one of my favourites, Clay Pigeons. My issue with it is that I didn’t see the point. They modernized the wardrobe, had Lila comment that she had to grab her Walkman instead of her purse, and added some sexual stuff that was only hinted at in the original, but otherwise WHY? It is a literal word-for-word remake. If you’re going to watch a remake, and it’s virtually identical, why not just watch the original? Especially in this case where the dialogie felt so disjointed; they were speaking as if it were 1960, but it was set in 1998. For me, remakes are best when they have something new to say, or an updated way of saying it that makes it relevant for a new audience. In some ways I think they wanted to be respectful of the original, but they really just duplicated it. The shots and timing are identical, and they even use the same music! Remakes are never as good, but an exact replica is pointless.
So there you have it – my ranking of the Psycho franchise! Next up will be Child’s Play. It probably won’t be anytime soon, but will most likely time it to line up with the release of lucky number 7 in October, Cult of Chucky.