Psycho II (1983)
Psycho II should never have been made. The original, crafted by a master, cut deeply into our collective pop-psyche, being all things to all people - and thus unique. Scholars loved its Freudian take on sexual paranoia (where a knife was no longer just a knife) and its narrative insurgency. Meanwhile mainstream cinema-goers had never before seen a film so delightfully lurid - focusing as it did on black negligee, flushing toilets and blood spiraling down the plughole. With Psycho, the modern horror film was born. A sequel then, especially one coming so many years later, shouldn't work. Yet somehow, director Richard Franklin defies expectations. Uniqueness is replaced by nostalgia, but this remembrance is used to open new doors, creating a twisting story that is at once evocative and seditious.
It's twenty-two years since the murder of Marion Crane and a cured Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is released from an institution and sent back home. Marion's sister Lila (Verna Miles) is convinced Norman will return to his old tricks, but he is keen to make a fresh start. He takes a job in a local diner, befriends a young waitress named Mary (Meg Tilly) and runs out the sleazy new manager of the Bates Motel (a booze sodden Dennis Franz). When Mary is made homeless, she seeks refuge with Norman despite knowing exactly what he used to do with his mother. An initial mistrust soon becomes a strong bond, but it isn't long before the "old kind" of trouble resurfaces and bodies start cropping up around Fair Vale. Mary suspects other forces at work, but Norman isn't so sure and starts receiving notes from his dead mother. But then maybe that old axiom is true - just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.
Already acknowledged as an Alfred Hitchcock devotee, Franklin had come of age cannibalizing the Master's back catalog (his Road Games being a kinetic homage to Rear Window). Here though referentialism is fair game and Psycho II first appears like a nostalgic ride through a favorite old spook house. The motel, the fruit cellar, the swamp are all as we remember them. Not only does the infamous shower sequence open the film but it is later recreated verbatim with Tilly replacing Leigh. While this may seem 'fanboyish', Franklin uses this familiarity to subvert expectations. With Tilly in the shower, her outcome should be a foregone conclusion but Franklin instead drags us in a different direction (the scene ends with Mary watching Norman and not the other way around). Later a Mrs. Bates proxy also returns from Hitchcock's original, but again with a surprise or two in store. By infusing this reminiscence with repeated sharp deviations, the film keeps us off balance.
The sensationalism of part one is also carried over, only now updated for 1980s mores. The lingerie is removed and here blood doesn't run down the drain, it squirts out of supple flesh. While Hitchcock was content (although 'allowed' is probably more succinct) to show a snooping private eye meeting his demise by toppling over the banister, here an uninvited guest is stabbed, then goes over the banister, then lands on the protruding knife in a big close up. Occasionally this feels like Franklin is competing with the various bloody slashers that sprung up in the wake of Psycho. He's even hired Halloween DOP Dean Cundey to add a mad Steadicam vibrancy, while Tom Holland's knowing script introduces two sex-crazed, pot smoking teenagers who look like refugees from Camp Crystal Lake. This concession to the times notwithstanding, Franklin's film transcends its rivals and, dare we say, its source with a strong focus on character.
Despite his middle age, Norman Bates is still boyish (continuing to enjoy his milk and sandwiches) and, when cured of mother fixation, easy to like. His relationship with Mary also covers new ground and she shares both his Bambi-like disposition, and an overbearing mother. Both are damaged by matriarchal figures and, as a result, form a nurturing bond absent from their own childhoods. First Norman is the protector but as he 'becomes confused again', it is Mary that assumes the role of 'mother'. The film's highlight sees Mary put aside her fears and invite a frightened Norman into her bedroom. Here she strokes his hair and nurses him like a sick child - terror and tenderness all in one. The insertion of compassion into Hitchcock's urban Gothicism is another surprise we didn't see coming and is perhaps what makes Psycho II such a triumph.
The film keeps and emphasizes all that was best about the original (Hitchcock's deranged wit is also present, best seen in a beautifully played final dénouement as Norman prepares tea for mother and things are left, weirdly, back to 'normal'). It toys with our expectations in the best way and allows us, unlike many horror films inspired by Psycho, to care about its characters. Indeed Psycho II is as stylistic as its predecessor, as bloody as its rivals, but has a heart at its center. This was something that Hitchcock, for all his brilliance, perhaps never did.