Decades before David Gordon Green returned to Haddonfield, Australian filmmaker Richard Franklin, hot off Patrick and Road Games (which starred Jamie Lee Curtis), and screenwriter Tom Holland (Fright Night) joined forces to craft a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock's iconic Psycho (1960).
22 years after he was caught, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has been rehabilitated and released back into society. Retuning home, he is anxious to make a new start and live a boring life like everybody else.
But someone out there does not want Norman to have these things. And they are willing to do almost anything to push him over the brink...
I really like this movie. I am not the biggest Psycho fan, but I was not expecting to like this as much as I did (by the way, if you have not watched the movie, stop reading because there will be spoilers).
Director Richard Franklin was a student of Hitchcock's, and was a friend of the director until his death. His films are rife with Hitchcock's style of visual story-telling (Roadgames is basically a remake of Rear Window, set in a moving truck), and he was a great choice to step into the director's chair.
What I really appreciated was the seriousness with which the filmmakers treat the story. When you think about a sequel to Psycho in the middle of the slasher boom, it sounds bad. Not that I have anything against slasher movies, but while it is based around a killer with a knife, Psycho feels a little 'subtle' compared with the likes of Friday the 13th.
The first thing that stands out about this movie is the way it re-casts Norman Bates. While he is a major part of the original, in this movie he is the central character. What is distinctive about Perkins here is that he is not masking anything. Whereas Psycho's Norman was a facade, here there is no facade. Norman is an old man who has been hollowed out by his past life. Perkins is terrific.
For the most part I like what Psycho II does with the mythology of Psycho. By focusing on Norman and his attempts to conquer his demons, the movie feels more like a drama about addiction, or - in genre terms - a werewolf story. And by re-orienting the story around Norman, it re-casts everyone with a (justified) animosity toward him as antagonists.
Lila Crane (Vera Miles), Marion's (Janet Leigh) sister from the first movie, spends the movie trying to get Norman locked up. About halfway through the movie, it is revealed that she is the one responsible for tormenting Norman, and intentionally trying to push him back over the edge. This is pretty heinous, but it never feels like a cheap twist. Considering what Bates did, and what Lila experienced, it makes sense that she will do anything to put him away.
Screenwriter Tom Holland keeps most of the action restricted to the Bates house, and the movie ends up feeling like a haunted house thriller, or one of the post-Gaslight thrillers about women who are being driven mad by their evil spouses. The effect here is similar, except for the first half of the movie, it is ambiguous as to who is responsible for all the odd goings-on at the property.
The key focus of the movie is the relationship between Norman and a young woman he meets at work, Mary (Meg Tilly). Mary turns out to be in a part of the plot to tip Norman over the edge, but by that point she has become sympathetic to Norman's plight and tries to undo what she has wrought.
At first, I found Tilly's performance a little flat. it might have been the difference in acting styles, but she ends up being a good balance for Perkins' intensity. When her plans start to fall apart, and their roles switch, her initial acting choice makes sense. Her performance does not read because the character is (badly) playing a role. It is a little confusing (especially once the plot really gets cranking), but Tilly is great.
The big trump card of this movie is the reveal that Mrs Bates was not Norman's mother - it was in fact Ms Spool (Claudia Bryer), the old woman who helped Norman get his job at the diner. It turns out she was Norma Bates' sister and had a child out of wedlock. When she went to prison, Mrs Bates raised Norman as her own. She is also the person who has been doing all the killing.
My only problem with the movie is not the final twist, but the presentation. Like the original movie, everything is wrapped up in a monologue. It also comes really late in the picture. I’m not that bothered by the twist - the complications do add to the fun of unraveling the mystery - but it feels like the 10-15 minutes leading up to it are a bottle-neck of plotting.
The reveal that the kindly Ms Spool is Norman’s real mother (and the culprit behind all the murders) feels abrupt and slightly unnecessary, but it does fall in line with the movie’s theme of people thinking they know what is best for Norman, and those intentions pushing him back into ‘Mother’s’ grasp.
It is interesting and messed up, but I wonder if there is a version of the movie where it was just a battle of wills between Lila and Norman, with Mary in the middle.
It is actually a testament to how good the movie is that the one thing that feels out of place are the murders. This movie was released after the first wave of slashers and the gore feels out of place with the movie - Lila’s murder in particular feels like something out of a different movie. There is even a set piece that feels like a direct response to contemporary taste: a pair of teens break into Norman’s basement, smoke weed, make out and then are attacked by ‘Mother’.
The movie feels like an inversion of slashers, in that the best scenes do not involve violence. Psycho II is ultimately far closer to a traditional suspense movie than a rock 'em sock 'em slasher. Most of the tension comes from Norman - for a majority of the runtime the audience has no idea whether Norman has fallen back into his old habits or not. One of the tensest scenes in the movie just involves a note from Mother on an order wheel at the diner where Norman works. We are shown the note early on, and the whole scene is built around it slowly getting closer to Norman's line of vision. It's so simple, yet really effective.
While it feels related to Hitchcock’s movie, Psycho II punches its own weight. Jerry Goldsmith references Bernard Herrmann’s famous strings motif, but is built on its foundations. Dean Cundey’s photography feels like it’s descended from the aesthetic of the original, yet the colours and lighting make this familiar world feel old and worn-out.