Psycho II…The Slasher Dodges a Bullet

October 1, 2015

Written by Capt McNeely

Georgia Division ZADF Twitter: @ZADF_ORG

Norman Bates Is Coming Home…

Summer, 1983.

No Internet. No DVD extras. No “sneak peaks.” There were a handful of magazines to get your entertainment and especially your horror news and Fangoria was mine. I got my first subscription in 1980 and kept it through most of high school. At one point my mother asked me, “Are you sure you don’t want Playboy or something?” Unlike Norman Bates, I had plenty of girlfriends. Boobs I could see any time, but horror? That was serious shit and it came in the mail addressed to me.

What’s better than porn? Magazines with monster, mutant bears on their covers.

The slasher film dominated 80s horror. Carpenter’s Halloween hit in 1978 and the original Friday the 13th was ripping off at its heels, and both birthed franchises that spanned an entire decade and beyond. Psychopaths with knives and a variety of tools populated movie houses and late night cable. Most horror scholars will acknowledge the sub genre was peaking around 1983. Friday the 13th was winding down as its 3D installment was to be followed by the misnamed The Final Chapter.

Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis were dead by 1982 and a wrongly titled third Halloween film almost killed the franchise (See my take on Halloween III here).

Norman Bates was late to the table, but perhaps that was for the best.

Sequelitis

Rumors of a sequel to Hitchcock’s  Psycho were circulating since 1981 (as far as I remembered). I saw Psycho in 1979 while in seventh grade and was knocked on my ass by the shower scene and the big reveal with Mother. Christmas brought books on film and horror history and I read everything (there wasn’t much) I could on Hitchcock and the making of the film. I saw Anthony Perkins later that year in Disney’s Star Wars wannabe misfire, The Black Hole and felt the casting was odd to put Norman Bates in space. The public felt the same, and it wasn’t much later that I started reading blurbs in Newsweek, Time and eventually Fangoria, that Perkins was returning to the Bates Motel.

The point of this piece is to find if Psycho II is a true successor to a venerated and important film, or a cynical cash grab in the weakening stream of slasher films that caught Hollywood’s attention.

Roger Ebert nicknamed the slasher “The Dead Teenager Movie.” They were simple to write and produce. The late Wes Craven’s 90s classic, Scream would parody this concept a decade later: “Teenagers have sex and die.”  They were cheap to make, usually needed no major stars and you could crank them out quickly. The Saw franchise would hit almost a film a year once it got up and running. These films were fueled by soft core sex, often inventive makeup effects and would be later seen as launching a few A list careers.

I remember reading a Time interview in late 1982 or early 1983. Anthony Perkins gave us some scraps from Mother’s tray on the new film. He described the upcoming Psycho II as Norman returning to motel to find it a flophouse and one night stand haven. “Mother doesn’t like that,” Perkins was quoted at the end.

The “uh oh” feeling crept up The Suck Factor.

I had this figured out: Norman comes home, teens are screwing in the rooms and the film basically turns into Friday the 13th in a motel. Fangoria reported some cool behind the scenes stuff: Jamie Lee Curtis was approached, Christopher Walken was considered for Norman if Perkins didn’t reprise the role. In the end, I would have to see it.

By spring, 1983 my mind was made up: Psycho II was gonna suck. I was fifteen and in tenth grade and  jaded. The film was on my list along with Return of the Jedi. My summer date roster was set.

Me circa 1982

Up Hills Both Ways

I bicycled 5 miles to the mall with a group of friends and to meet my girl. Psycho II was in our mall multiplex’s biggest house (I would be ushering there by the end of summer). I walked in ready to hate this film. I even killed the romantic mojo by saying  that I expected this movie to be bad. “It’ll be a Friday the 13th ripoff.”  I fucking knew everything.

The lights went down, the coming attractions barreled over the screen and then it was time for our feature presentation. They did it…they opened with the shower scene and my prediction was confirmed.

Why the shower scene? Was it necessary? Starting the film with it just reminded us of how much better the first film was. I had not coined the phrase at this time, but Psycho II was pure Cynema. We were in for a screw job over the next two hours.

Then something happened.

The screen went black, the opening titles came up with a striking blast of Jerry Goldsmith score, surprising me and jolting me in my seat. Then the ominous tone took a maudlin, almost sympathetic turn, and from there on out I fell in love with Psycho II.

Psycho II is one of the best film sequels. It ranks up there with The Bride of Frankenstein in quality follow ups to a classic horror motion picture. The film is almost a stand alone story and in some ways not dependent on the first film. A good sequel builds on the characters and events of the previous film and takes us somewhere new. Psycho II does exactly that.

The best part is, it didn’t have to.

Quality

The bar was set low in 1983. Gather up some hot bodies, wrangle a few gore effects and basically the thing would write and direct itself. Audiences were becoming desensitized. Hell, the original Psycho was showing on regular television and the shower scene part of Halloween-themed network clip shows. Slasher films were getting applause and laughs in theaters. These were not the fainting, terrified audiences of 1960.

Things had changed since Norman went to the asylum 22 years earlier.

The problem is you want blood and guts and nudity. Story means nothing to you. To call Psycho II a great sequel just shows how ignorant you and so many of your generation are to real cinema! It’s worse than an insult to everything Hitchcock did! Psycho II is garbage and nothing more than a pale imitation of a superior film.

That was my film professor’s verbal assault on me after I expressed my respect for Psycho II in 1985 at Penn State. While I did not say it was SUPERIOR to the first film, I clearly said it was a successful sequel and a damned good film.

I flunked out three months later.

Almost two decades later Psycho II would be the biggest influence on my directing debut, Camp Dread in tone and execution.

Cynema says a film has to aim low even though it has the means to shoot high. This is not the case with Psycho II, and it starts with Tom Holland’s screenplay.

Tom Holland

Holland doesn’t just give us a continuation of Norman’s story, he shades Bates into a flesh and blood human being. He creates a whole new world that goes beyond the motel.

We are introduced to the crew of Statler’s Diner. There’s grizzled but kind owner, Ralph Statler, sweet and Christian-forgiving old Mrs. Spool, Myrna the waitress who gives Norman some of her piss and vinegar; and well-meaning, concerned Dr. Raymond who reluctantly lets Norman return home. Vera Miles returns as a poisonous older Lila Loomis and Sheriff Hunt provides a folksy pragmatism and is on the fence about Norman, but willing to give him a chance.

At the center of it all is the doe-eyed, beautiful Mary Samuels who clearly has a past.

Holland puts all of his characters in orbit around a remorseful, if not rehabilitated Norman Bates.

Hitchcock and Joseph Stefano’s Norman was a hermit and socially awkward cuckold. Holland turns the tables on the slasher genre. He presents a killer who in many ways is a victim. Not since Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster or Chaney’s Larry Talbot have we experienced a killer we end up rooting for and feeling sympathy.

By the end of the film, Holland has clearly delivered a wounded Norman and someone who just might have been fine if not fucked with. The ultimate is that for the first half of the movie, we don’t even know if Norman is seeing the world around him accurately. Is he slipping back into insanity or did he never really leave?

Norman is a victim in this film. There is a conspiracy here, and what could have been a straight up slasher, instead turns into an Agatha Christie pot boiler. Sharp dialogue references the first film while also clearly reminding us that what Norman did decades earlier was bad; worse things have since taken place. Mother and Norman are on the JV Murder Squad.

Another example of Holland’s dialogue:

MARY: “That Toomy guy, what an asshole. I wanted to kill him and you were so cool.”

NORMAN: “Oh, I don’t kill people anymore, remember?”

The Script Is The Thing

Every good horror film has a sense of humor and Holland’s script delivers just the right balance. It never tips over into self parody or a meta film. It takes Norman very seriously, and so do we.

The High Noon diner standoff between Norman and Dennis Franz’s Warren Toomy is a defining moment in the film and nothing in the original Psycho comes close to it in writing and execution.

This is the result of a writer that decided to take the high road and deliver an actual story and not a “to kill list.”

The film slips into some unnecessary gore to give the audience what they’d come to expect since the start of the slasher craze. While the kills work, there are two that stand out; and director Richard Franklin ends the film with its best. The last minute of the film is one of the greatest endings to a horror film put to paper and screen. I paid homage to this scene in the conclusion of my own Camp Dread with Danielle Harris and Eric Roberts.

 

Shot for around five million, Psycho II was not considered a giant film at the time. However, it was treated with respect. Richard Franklin, a Hitchcock scholar and gifted filmmaker was attached as director while the legendary cinematographer Dean Cundey gave the film a bright, almost hopeful crisp look. Universal secured quality with their budget.

By the close of 1983, Psycho II was second only to Return of the Jedi in boxoffice power. Putting a little extra effort into making the film paid off rather than a cynical hit and run.

Franklin is often mistaken as working with Hitchcock. As a director, Franklin embraced Holland’s script. There is no way to step in and try to imitate Hitchcock. Franklin goes his own way, not afraid to show wide horizons and fuller views of the Bates home. We get a feel for the house as he takes us on a tour. Franklin’s direction is a journey of exploration. He takes us outside the house, beyond the motel and into some darker areas.

With a heavy plot, the film is deftly handled. It moves without rushing us along and by the time we get to the end, everyone has changed.

Psycho II could have been a terrible film or worse yet, it could have been the mediocre, forgettable mess that was the fourth installment. What should have been a two dimensional slasher like 1981’s Halloween II (a film that ran on its name alone), instead turned out to be a cleverly mastered piece of work.

By Hollywood standards this should have been a slap job, a paint by numbers slasher to cash in on the success of its legendary predecessor.

God knows that’s what I was expecting when my ass plopped down in that seat.

When the ending credits finished and the lights came up, I walked out of that theater and to the bank of payphones in the mall lobby. I called my folks to let them know I wasn’t coming right home. I bought a ticket to the next show and sat through it again, this time looking for more things I didn’t catch the first time around.

And you know what? I am still doing that thirty years later.

THAT is filmmaking. That is art.

Listen to my Cynema podcast found on iTunes, YouTube, Stitcher, Spotify and iHeart Radio.

 

You May Also Like…