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Psycho III (1986)

Review

Author
Date
05-28-2009
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Psycho III poster
Runtime
93 minutes
MPAA Rating
R
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After a surprisingly good sequel, Psycho II (1983), the opportunity for an additional follow up to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho was clearly present.  Why, Norman Bates himself, Anthony Perkins, took up the director's chair for the third installment of Norman’s sad and fearsome saga!  Having been Norman for nearly thirty years (and also having worked with such legendary directors as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kramer, and Orson Welles), there was probably no one better qualified to helm this installment.  While Perkins does not rise to the cinematic heights of these screen giants, he and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue (who later penned the screenplay to David Cronenberg’s The Fly), fashion a horror experience that, while far from perfect, inspires more than its share of jumps and chills.

It is only a short time after the grisly events of Psycho II.  In a nunnery not far from the Bates Motel, novice Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid) accidentally kills her Mother Superior.  She leaves the nunnery in disgrace, and hitches a ride with broke musician Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey) who unsuccessfully tries to rape her.  She gets away and finds her way to the Bates Motel where Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has hired Duke as an assistant.  Once there, she and Norman begin a romance, but the specter of Mother continues to hound Norman and threatens anyone who could capture Norman’s love.

The most remarkable aspect of Psycho III is the surprisingly adept direction of Anthony Perkins.  He shows confident and forceful skill behind the camera, doing much more than just following the actors.  Perkins delivers a film that not only acknowledges the influence and mastery of Hitchcock, but he also fashions some entertainingly Hitchcockian scenes of his own.  In a pre-credits sequence where we are introduced to Maureen, we open in darkness and hear Maureen scream “There is no God!”  We then fade in to see Maureen sitting at the top of a bell tower, weeping and begging for forgiveness.  Soon her Mother Superior come up to her and starts screaming and grabbing at Maureen.  They struggle, and in an obvious homage to Vertigo (1958), the Mother Superior falls down the bell tower to her death.  It’s an audacious move for Perkins to quote from one of Hitchcock’s best known thrillers, and it is also a strong introduction to one of the film’s main characters.  It very graphically demonstrates that Maureen is a character in a great deal of pain, and it also provides a dark smile to the faces of admirers of Hitchcock.

While Perkins is obviously indebted to Hitchcock, he does not merely slavishly copy him.  He offers us, for example, a superb twist on Psycho’s infamous shower scene.  Norman has become infatuated with Maureen, but Mother decides that she must die.  We see Norman donning Mother’s clothes, while at the same time we witness Maureen getting ready to bathe.  As Mother slowly makes her way to Maureen’s cabin, Hopkins copies almost shot for shot the scenes of Janet Leigh getting ready for her deadly shower so many years before.  Mother finally arrives and pulls back the shower curtain.  However, instead of stabbing Maureen to death, she finds Maureen lying in the bathtub having just slashed her own wrists.  Maureen looks up at Mother, and in a delusional state, sees her as the Virgin Mary.  The magic of this scene is the way in which Perkins completely misleads us.  We fully expect to see Mother attack Maureen the same way he had attacked Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho.  When we see that Maureen has tried to kill herself, it catches us, and Mother, completely off guard.  This is an outstanding scene that not only shows us that rookie director Perkins has learned much from Hitchcock about misleading an audience, but also that he has adopted the Master’s own black humor.

This is further in evidence in a scene a bit later in the film.  Perkins shows us again a strong ability to mislead the audience coupled with even more dark humor.  Norman has killed a guest and hidden her body in an outdoor freezer.  Sheriff Hunt (Hugh Gillin) is on the scene to investigate her disappearance.  He has mistakenly decided that Norman isn’t responsible for the woman, and, while arguing with reporter Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell), he casually flips open the lid of the freezer and grabs some ice.  He doesn’t see the woman’s face in the ice, and even puts one or two pieces of bloody ice in his mouth.  We keep cutting back to Norman’s worried looks as the sheriff continues his sanctimonious lecture to the reporter.  He then slams the lid shut and walks away, never having realized that the very victim he was looking for was laying right next to him.  This scene uses Hitchcock’s famous bomb theory to a sickly funny result, and it is one of the most entertaining scenes in the film.  Throughout the film Hopkins avoids flashy or elaborate camera work in favor of simple set-ups and camera movement.  He does not wish to astonish us with the camera; he wishes instead to mislead and manipulate us. His direction in this film shows us a director who understands very well how to do this and also how to make us utter grim laughter.

It is fortunate that Perkins’ direction is superior, since the characters in the film, with the exception of Norman, are underdeveloped. Duane Duke is nothing much more than a half-baked Han Solo full of weak one-liners and nastiness for nastiness's sake.  As the story unfolds, Duke never rises to become much more than a plot device to motivate other characters.  We never learn much more about him other than that he is a wisecracking drifter who is very protective of his guitar. The performance of Jeff Fahey does not add much to the script’s characterization of Duke.  Fahey is competent, but ultimately disappointing.  He veers wildly from a vicious rapist to a helpful rogue by making his eyes look wild and trying to look “tough.”

Tracy Venable is also more of an outline than a real character.  Her function is to discover the truth about Norman and the murder he committed in Psycho II, and to try and protect Maureen from Norman.  Once again, we learn almost nothing more about her.  Roberta Maxwell delivers the weakest performance in the film as Tracy.  She unconvincingly smirks her way through poor wise cracks, and she seems overly concerned with Maureen before she really even knows her.  Like Duke unfortunately, she can’t rise above her plot functions; the weak one-liners with which screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue supplies her are a poor substitute for a real character.

Most disappointing is the character of Maureen Coyle.  The film, from the very first line, takes great pains to carefully detail Maureen’s spiritual crisis.  However, after her attempted suicide and admission to a priest that she thought that Mother was really the appearance of the Virgin Mary, this angle is almost completely dropped.  She then just becomes the woman with whom Norman must fall in love .  It is a sad waste of a very interesting character.  Diana Scarwid’s performance is difficult to analyze.  She very effectively portrays her character’s doubt and confusion, often crying and screaming pathetically.  She also seems very helpless when confronted by Duke.  However, after a night out with Norman, Scarwid plays Maureen like a typical horror film victim; even after learning the truth about Norman’s past, she goes to see him with a bright smile, showing no hint of apprehension.  Rather than offering us compelling or mysterious individuals, Pogue instead hands us thinly drawn sketches of stereotyped characters.  The film can not push its way into the territory of Psycho (or even Psycho II for that matter) with the weak characters with which it presents us.

The film’s climax is disappointingly handled, a complex resolution that builds on an already complicated plot.  However, throughout his script, Pogue does not supply the audience with adequate clues to figure out what is at the bottom of the mystery. Instead, he has Tracy, in tears, just scream out the explanation as Norman is moving in for the kill. She is almost inaudible and the film has to be viewed more than once to really understand what has happened.  All in all, much of the script seems more like a first draft that needs to be thought out more clearly.  The screenplay wants to be clever, but it is too sketchy and the solution too arbitrary to make it so.

The one note that Pogue does strike right is in his conception of Norman Bates.  He sees Norman as an incredibly pathetic character who doesn’t want to be the monster that he is, but is almost incapable of helping himself.  His romance with Maureen is sweetly written, and we feel for him when it takes a tragic turn.  Pogue also has Norman “murder” Mother by chopping off the head of her corpse, then later declaring that he is free (however Perkins betrays Mother’s “death” in the very last scene as we see Norman pull out Mother’s arm and pet it before looking manically into the camera).  If Pogue had taken the same care into breathing real life into the other characters and writing a more substantial plot, perhaps this film could have been a classic of the 1980s, rather than just an enjoyable entry in a famous franchise.

Anthony Perkins's marvelous performance breathes life into Pogue’s conception of Norman.  Playing this character for the third time, Perkins already knows how to use his soft voice and his skills at twitchy behavior to illustrate the inner war in which Norman is enmeshed.  He always appears as a pathetic, rather than scary, character that is driven by forces out of his control.  We can see his face briefly light up when a woman that is spending the night with Duke invites him to party with them, and then almost immediately afterword his look of horror and shame at the very thought.  We also see how starved for any attention Norman is when he kisses a dead body just before he disposes of it.  He does go a bit too over the top near the end when we see him speaking in Mother’s voice, but he almost immediately redeems himself by showing us honest anguish and rage when he “kills” Mother by decapitating her stuffed body.  Perkins gives the best performance in the film and, coupled with his outstanding direction, makes Psycho III a very entertaining experience.

Overall, Psycho III is a good but not outstanding film.  Its characters aren’t much more than stereotypes, and its plot is too complex for its goals.  Nevertheless, Anthony Perkins offers dynamic direction and yet another outstanding performance as Norman Bates.  This film can hold its own in the Psycho series, and it is a worthy continuation of Norman Bates’ saga.

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