Sunday, October 27, 2019

Census Bloodbath: Norm!


PSYCHO III

The SWITCHEROOOOO!  It's October, and that means it's time for Brennan Klein, of Popcorn Culture and Alternate Ending and Scream 101 and, above all, our hearts, to take on my usual and oft-shirked task of reviewing the Cardboard Science sci-fi schlock of a bygone era, while I get to luxuriate in the blood and guts of 80s slashers with his Census Bloodbath series, which he has been pursuing with diligent and perhaps disturbing obsession, lo these many years.

1986
Directed by Anthony Perkins
Written by Charles Edward Pogue

Spoiler alert: moderate


Of all the innumerable riders upon the post-Halloween slasher wave, the revival of the Psycho "franchise" by 1983's Psycho II and our subject for today, 1986's Psycho III, must count among the most curious.  For starters, the mere fact they really are direct sequels to Alfred Hitchcock's monumental ur-slasher Psycho is already mildly astonishing, considering that it was rarely beyond the imaginations of the producers of such films to slap a brand name onto an unrelated product and call it a continuation.  Maybe it was the very reputation they sought to exploit that gave them pause.  Whatever it was, the pair of Psychos that Universal produced were clearly conceived of as classier affairs than your average dead teenager film.  This was, of course, mostly theoretical.

And yes: it would be easy to dismiss Psycho's sequels as crass cash-ins, because, of course, they are.  But the idea that they cheapen Psycho by associating a masterpiece with trash assumes that Hitchcock's Psycho wasn't pretty damned trashy already, and I don't believe anybody who's ever seen and enjoyed the film could honestly deny that.  Even so, time and fame and prestige—and the elevation of Hitchcock from competent thrillmaker to cinematic god—demanded a certain amount of caution, which is why Psycho II was carefully constructed to live up to the legacy left behind by the Master of Suspense, with no-joke department heads like cinematographer Dean Cundey and composer Jerry Goldsmith, and a director chosen in part for his personal connection to Hitchcock, USC alumnus Richard Franklin, whose superfandom for Hitch had evolved into a legitimate friendship.

A for effort, and it didn't work: Psycho II can at least point in the general direction of the kind of ideas that most slashers never think about, but Tom Holland's cumbersome script is deficient in all sorts of ways, while Franklin can't ever escape his adulation for Hitchcock, and that adulation becomes a cage.  Psycho II, then, which ambitiously attempted a reversal of its predecessor, winds up clogged with so much bullshit and mindless homage that it's difficult to determine exactly when it devolves into joyless pastiche, in part because its visual and narrative echoes get even emptier as it goes along, and in part because it becomes hard to keep track of things generally when a 1980s slasher movie runs 113 minutes, or, for the sticklers, still four minutes longer than Psycho itself.  There's only two things about Psycho II that really work.  (Well, three; but I'm loathe to count "Meg Tilly's so pretty it hurts" as the film's triumph.)  The first is the spot-on recreation of the 1960 film's production design, and even that only gets Psycho II partial credit, given that the Bates house was, against the odds, still standing on the Universal backlot.  The other, of course, is Anthony Perkins himself.

Certainly, that these two things and little else return for Psycho III redounds in its favor.  But that Psycho III is, truly, an Anthony Perkins filmthat gives us something that feels entirely different, even if, in strict honesty, it's really 80-90% exactly the same thing.  Depending on which story you hear, Perkins either bargained his participation in Psycho II for the chance to make his directorial debut at the age of 54 with III, or he merely wanted to keep his Perkinaissance rolling, and valiantly took over the reins when Franklin bowed out.  Either way, what we got was a superior second sequel that does two very important things that Psycho's first sequel didn't: by leaning into that aforementioned trashiness, it makes trashiness a genuine strength, bringing the concept fully into the 80s while also making a movie that's actually in conversation with Psycho, rather than merely in awe of it; and it does what Psycho II arguably wanted to do, but, due to its crappy mystery mechanics, could not, which is to finally offer us a peephole of our own into Norman Bates' head.  In both these respects, it becomes clear that Perkins has a handle on Bates (as both director and performer) that nobody else could have had; and, more surprisingly, that he had a handle on Hitchcock, that didn't come from blind worship but from a deeper understanding of at least some of the reasons why Psycho worked in the first place.

For starters, Psycho III comprehends play, and it begins with an inversion of another Hitchcock film altogether, as we happen upon a young novitiate nun named Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid), who is presently threatening to fling herself off the bell tower of a rather familiar-looking abbey.  She doesn't succeed, but one of her rescuers dies in the process, and Maureen is naturally invited to make her exit, leaving her on the side of the road and easy prey for Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey), a "musician" on his way to Los Angeles.  She manages to extricate herself from Duane's rapey clutches, but they wind up at the same place anyway: the Bates Motel.


Here, we find Norman more-or-less where we left him last time: thanks to Psycho II's eye-rolling final twist, he's just made a new mother for himself and started to slide back into his old ways, despite very much wanting to live up to the state's certification of his sanity.  The appearance of a short-haired blonde "M.C." isn't making this particularly easy (even if one rather wishes Perkins had managed to cast someone with any resemblance to Janet Leigh), but when Norman arrives at Maureen's room in the persona of his violent, slut-punishing mother, he discovers Maureen's already just about finished the job for him, with two enormous gashes of her own in her wrists.  It must snap him out of it, since the next thing Maureen knows, she's waking up in the hospital.  Soon, she falls in love with the monster who looks like a sweet, quiet, sad-but-kind older man.  Norman, of course, would like to give normal life a try; but Norman's mother, as usual, has other plans.  So do Duane and Tracy (Roberta Maxwell), the reporter snooping around the place.  Meanwhile, the onrush of a busy couple of nights for the Bates Motel as all the hard-partiers come out to the sticks isn't likely to help Norman keep his composure...

Unavoidably, Psycho III remains littered with the carried-forward plot threads from Psycho II, particularly a sheriff (Hugh Gillin) who's so committed to the idea that a multiple-murderer can reform that it came across as borderline parody in that film; Psycho III's innovation here is to just drop the "borderline" part.  And in every part of the story that it's obliged to continue, Charles Edward Pogue's script for Psycho III manages it better, from the will-he-won't-he conflict in Norman's head down to just the basic mechanics of how it pairs Norman with a young woman this time (in fact, I'm not sure there's ever been a more conceptually brilliant re-do of Psycho's shower scene than the one here).  However, it's especially in the way that it drops the pretense that Norman isn't actively killing again, which means that Norman gets to function as a character this time, instead of a cardboard standee upon which labyrinthine schemes can be enacted.  Psycho II had to play so cagey with Norman's fragmented personality that he was barely capable of holding a conversation; Psycho III's Norman, naturally indulged by Perkins, comes off a vastly better-rounded figure, capable of real humanity as well as over-the-top, rather-campy horror, though the most note-perfect little thing in the whole film may be the most note-perfect little thing in any Psycho movie, when a victim scrapes past a painting in the Bates house and Norman, as "mother," puts the frame back in place without missing a step.

Beyond that, by abandoning the plottiness of II, III can just be a damn slasher, and while nothing here is top-flight in terms of slasher craft, it's well-accomplished brutality anyway, and it never offers a bad kill, especially as it develops the bleak comic edge that II was missing and that Hitchcock's Psycho had in spades: while Psycho III knows we can never really be in Norman's corner again, it uses the same kind of subjective tricks to align our perspective with Norman's own, always keeping us wondering just how he'll get away with it this time as his vicious alter-ego keeps leaving him the worst messes to clean up and his hapless pursuers keep almost catching him—sometimes practically by accident—despite his most desperate efforts.

In the process, and recognizing that he (unlike Hitchcock or Franklin) has no need to misdirect the audience, Perkins happens across a far dreamier directorial style, one that treats Norman's madness as organic to the story being told, finally letting us into his crazy brain.  And so Carter Burwell's lovely, sometimes-intense but oddly-floaty electronic score, and, especially, Bruce Surtee's cinematography; if Psycho II was in color because it was made in 1983, Psycho III is in color because somebody actually found that interesting, Perkins electing to go wild with the Bates' garish decor, which Surtee renders more garish still within an array of barely-motivated lighting choices, till eventually Norman winds up in Room Twelve, a nightmarescape of sliced-apart pornography, curtains of reddish-purple light, and extremely tasteless wallpaper.  All along, Psycho III is never above referencing its progenitor, and referencing it hard, but does it in such fun and fascinating ways, starting with Maureen's go at self-slashing and continuing from there until we find Norman down beneath the water in the same swamp he put Marion in years ago.  (The cheekiest bit, I suppose, is when a victim takes a piss and we watch—presumably in a nod to how the original Psycho, in one of its less-discussed claims to fame, was one of the first films to acknowledge the existence of toilets at all.)


There's even something modestly interesting about how Duke's run-of-the-mill callousness toward women somehow comes off nastier than Norman's baroque sex murders, even if Norman is by any objective metric far worse.  It calls into question the ways movies can aestheticize violence; but it also underlines how Norman, whether or not he wants to be, isn't really human—which we grasp rather suddenly when we realize we don't tend to judge him as one—and the only way he could possibly prevail is to finally stop pretending he might be, which is genuinely tragic.

Now, it's by no means flawless, and not really all that close.  For example, the final fifteen seconds retrench into horror nihilism in a stupid way that wouldn't harm most slasher movies, but comes off rather snide in this one.  Then there's the matter of Maureen: befitting a movie about a nun, but maybe not so much a movie about Norman Bates that simply happens to have a nun in it, there's a bit of a religious thing snaking through the story that comes from nowhere (literally; the film begins in darkness with Maureen screaming "THERE IS NO GOD"), and it goes back to nowhere, after doing nothing.  Scarwid herself is rigid and unemotive, which is a slight problem, since she's nominally the female lead.  Finally, if foregoing plot was the right move, its absence is still sometimes felt; Psycho III is organized around its kill scenes, and there aren't that many kill scenes.

But perhaps the worst parts of it are bound up in the best parts: at some point, it does become clear that Perkins is learning on the job.  So while he clearly had tremendous instincts, he may not have yet had a plan—like when he accomplishes a beautiful one-take transition from one set to another and then abandons that trick because, perhaps, he didn't necessarily know what he'd used it for in the first place.  So the biggest disappointment of Psycho III is that we never got to see Perkins get better.

Still, what he accomplished was fairly extraordinary anyway: a 26-year-removed sequel to Psycho, burdened even further with a bad sequel to Psycho preceding it, that nevertheless managed to continue Psycho's story in a complete and satisfying way.  It may have only been one movie long, but as far as directorial careers go, you could do worse.

Killer: ...Norman Bates.  Were you not paying attention?
Final Girl: realistically speaking? also Norman Bates.
Sign of the Times: In the 1980s, police departments were organized almost exclusively around helping the mentally ill get back on their feet.
Best Kill:  Less a "kill" than an "animalistic contest for survival," the coolest violence in the movie revolves around Norman's repeated attempts to finally kill Duane.
Scariest Moment: When Norman finds his "mother" "watching" Woody Woodpecker cartoons, and starts screaming at her for laughing at him.
Weirdest Moment: When Perkins, Surtees, and Burwell all decide to spend half a reel on a softcore porno that feels more like experimental cinema:
Champion Dialogue: "Don't tell me you're one of those guys who farts, rolls over, and then goes to sleep."
Body Count: 5
1. A nun is reverse-Vertigoed (she falls down a belltower on the inside)
2. Red, stabbed in a phone booth
3. Patsy takes her last pee
4. Duane is strangled, then bludgeoned, then asphyxiated, then strangled and drowned simultaneously, and frankly Norman may have to consider that this guy might not need air to live.
5. [Maureen], but [by accident], because those Bates house stairs still haven't been brought up to modern safety standards after all these years.
5a. [Norman's mother], psychosexually speaking, anyway.
TL; DR: To the extent Psycho ever needed any follow-up, I'm happy that Psycho III managed to do it justice, and it's probably not a coincidence that Norman Bates himself directed it.
Score: 7/10

4 comments:

  1. I'm glad you also agree that Psycho II is far more underwhelming than its reputation. And I love Richard Franklin and his film Road Games, which was the reason he got the gig in the first place.

    Anthony Perkins definitely went wild on this one. You KNOW unmotivated colorful lighting is my JAM. And that experimental sex scene where Jeff Fahey is just sweating with those lamps... If I'd been 13 when I first saw this movie, my sexuality would be VERY different.

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    1. I'm saying it's hot by the way. It wouldn't make me straight. Just probably very into light bulbs.

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  2. Psycho II is shitty Gaslight. So it's Suspicion. Take that, Alfred Hitchcock!

    There is something about light shooting out of a guy's crotch that I'm surprised has not been replicated. In fact, while it's no key text or anything, I'm surprised that Psycho III isn't studied more as queer cinema. I don't think I'd be the right person to approach it that way, but besides its sexualization of Jeff Fahey, which is unique enough in slasher cinema, it's got a gay (or *very*-latently-bisexual) director-star, returning to one of the great evil queer archetypes, who's defined by cross-dressing/pseudo-transness in a TERFy way, by sexual repression, and by his split personality's hatred of female flesh. Like, there's something there, right?

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    1. There's a LOT there. I'm gonna have to force my podcast co-hosts to do this at some point

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