Valiant Month

We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes: 53 Years at the Bates Motel

Posted on April 20, 2013 at 11:09 am by Nathan Tolle

bates motelAs Geek Legacy’s Television Editor, Jess Hicks, has noted, there is a long list of things to admire about A&E’s Bates Motel. Whether this is your first stay at the Bates Motel, or you’ve seen the entire Psycho series multiple times, this show has been offering fascinating characters, engrossing storylines, high levels of suspense and unpredictability, a palpable layer of tragedy (since we know what will eventually happen between Norma and her equally sympathetic son), and a gorgeous Pacific Northwest town so mysterious that it’s no wonder the Twin Peaks references have been so ubiquitous in reviews.

Considering how much I adore the Psycho series, I had mixed feelings when I heard about this new television series, but it hooked me in immediately; and after only the first episode, I couldn’t imagine any actors doing a better job than Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga. It looks like the show is on the right track to give us one hell of a twisted and captivating journey (one that would hopefully make Sir Alfred Hitchcock proud). Assuming that neither the ratings nor the writing take a drastic downfall, I think it will be sticking around for awhile, especially considering that A&E announced on April 8th that it would be renewing the show for a second season. The current Bates Motel has already lasted longer than the 1987 show with the same name, which failed to produce anything beyond a 100-minute television pilot starring Bud Cort from Harold & Maude.

I know there are a lot of you out there who haven’t been acquainted with the three sequels to Psycho, and the early success of Bates Motel gives me the urgency to geek out about them all. I strongly believe that Psycho is the greatest horror series of all time because all three sequels were quite special in their own way. Each film veered off in interesting directions and never settled for the play-it-safe formula like so many horror sequels do. A few years ago, I watched the three sequels in a horror movie group, and I wasn’t the least bit surprised when each movie had passionate defenders claiming it was the best one. Of course, I won’t be spending any time talking about the pointless Gus Van Sant remake because I am still trying to convince myself that it was just some horrible dream back in 1998.

Psycho (1960)

psycho 1960

Director: Alfred Hitchcock / Cast: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, Martin Balsam, John Gavin

With the possible exceptions of Jaws and the original Fright Night (whose remake was equally blasphemous), I consider Psycho to be my absolute favorite film of all time. However, after doing a shot-by-shot analysis of it for a film school project, I’m a little exhausted about talking about it. Besides, I’m assuming you have all seen it and have read more than enough essays of Psycho worship, so I will instead focus on the three criminally underrated sequels.

Best scenes

  • Marion and Norman’s parlor dinner
  • Clumsy Marion spills Hershey syrup all over the shower
  • Arbogast’s interrogation
  • Norman watches the car sink while nervously munching on candy corn
  • The Sheriff tells Sam and Lila all about Mrs. Bates
  • Arbogast’s downfall
  • Lila meets the mother.

 

Psycho II (1983)

psycho 2

Director: Richard Franklin / Cast: Anthony Perkins, Meg Tilly, Vera Miles, Robert Loggia, Dennis Franz

Synopsis: After serving over twenty years in a mental institution, Norman Bates returns home to Fairvale, California where he tries his best to live a normal life. However, his demons awaken thanks to Lila Loomis, the vengeful sister of everyone’s favorite blonde buxom shower victim.

For starters, Psycho II is an unconventional sequel because it is separated from the first film by 23 years. Originally planned as a micro-budgeted made-for-television movie, it wasn’t until Anthony Perkins joined the cast and word spread of the incredibly strong script that it received major support from Universal Pictures. To write a sequel to such an iconic film would be a daunting task for even the most veteran of writers, so it’s hard to imagine what Tom Holland—who had only Class of 1984 and The Beast Within under his belt—must have been feeling when he was given this project. He obviously works well under pressure because he managed to give Psycho II so many layers that it works as a murder mystery, a slasher, a tragic love story, and a psychological study about characters haunted by ghosts from their past.

The movie wastes no time in casting a powerful spell on us as we’re graced with a melancholy and achingly beautiful Jerry Goldsmith score while we watch the sun peak through the mesmerizing Bates abode. The cast is pitch-perfect, playing characters so multi-dimensional that our sympathy shifts throughout the story. Psycho II certainly isn’t the first movie to make us root for a serial killer, but never has the concept felt so visceral, personal, and heartbreaking; and that’s mostly due to yet another spellbinding performance from Anthony Perkins. This movie deserves to stand alongside of Bride of Frankenstein, Evil Dead 2, and Dawn of the Dead as the greatest horror sequels of all time.

Best scenes

  • Norman returns home
  • Diner chaos with note and Dennis Franz
  • Toasted cheese sandwiches
  • Mary confronts Lila in the hotel lobby
  • Mrs. Bates kills a teen’s buzz
  • Norman returns home alone from the police station
  • Shovel meets cranium
  • Norman puts Mother to bed and stands outside under angry-looking sky
  • Every single time that lovely score plays

 

Psycho III (1986)

psycho 3

Director: Anthony Perkins / Cast: Anthony Perkins, Diana Scarwid, Jeff Fahey, Roberta Maxwell

Synopsis: A suicidal nun checks in at the Bates Motel and woos Norman, who is back to his crazy ways now that his domineering, controlling mummy is back in his life and back in the chair by the upstairs window.

Fortunately, we only had to wait three years for the next installment instead of another 23. Anthony Perkins agreed to reprise his famous role again, but only if he was given the reins to direct, and he demonstrates just as much confidence and skill behind the camera as he does in front. Psycho III has a completely different tone from the first two films and doesn’t shy away from the gore, dark humor, and nudity that was prevalent in the mid 80’s. It starts off at a convent where a distraught woman screams, “There is no God!” and it takes a while until she finds herself in the familiar town of Fairvale.

Like Part 2, this installment is filled with colorful side characters and interesting subplots, so it can afford to take its sweet time. This is the most bizarre entry, but it’s also the most atmospheric, offering torrential downpours, powerful winds guiding tumbleweed and dust, and eerie underwater scenes. Once again, the soundtrack is first rate and gives the film healthy doses of chills and pathos. The main score sounds a little like Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” if you listen carefully.

Best scenes

  • Maureen meets Duke
  • Sherriff battles summer heat with bloody ice cubes
  • Every moment with the hilarious loudmouth football fan
  • Mother interrupts gorgeous redhead’s phone call
  • A frustrated Norman smashes bag of candy corn
  • Norman walks to Duke’s room
  • Norman takes Duke for a ride
  • Mother frightens a trespassing journalist

 

Psycho IV (1990)

psycho 4

Director: Mick Garris / Cast: Anthony Perkins, Henry Thomas, Olivia Hussey, C.C.H. Pounder

Synopsis: A radio talk show host is in the middle of a show about matricide when she receives a phone call from a long-time listener who claims that he murdered his mother and that he’ll soon be forced to kill again.

The underrated and misunderstood Psycho III failed at both the box office and with most critics (even though Roger Ebert gave it a favorable review). The pilot for the 1987 Bates Motel show didn’t get picked up by a single network, so it’s no wonder why this fourth entry was relegated to made-for-television status. However, it still has wonderful cinematography, a stellar cast, beautiful music, and a story so strong that it lets us know exactly why Norman ended up the way he did, and also why it’s so difficult for him to hold onto his sanity even while so many people are eager to forgive him.

The bulk of the running time consists of flashbacks of Norman’s teenage years, as Henry Thomas plays young Norman and Olivia Hussey plays his beautiful and damaged mother. They are so convincing that I wasn’t sure at first if I’d be able to accept Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel. Much like Psycho II, this one takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions because there’s a good balance of saccharine sweetness and genuinely frightening moments filled with animalistic rage. There are some lighter moments at the radio station (be sure to look out for Twin Peaks’ Warren Frost and filmmaker John Landis!), but for the most part, it’s pretty heavy material because Norman Bates is a character who’s already earned our affection and sympathy with three previous installments. Here he is shown being mistreated over and over again until he finally snaps. Wrapping up the series nicely, Psycho IV ends on a graceful note and awards Norman one final chance at redemption as all of his demons burn down in front of him.

Best scenes

  • Fireworks and stabbings
  • Little Boys Can Be Giants flashback
  • Norman reveals who he plans to murder next and why
  • Fran and the Doctor argue about how they can help Norman
  • Norman is forced to wear lipstick and a dress
  • Norma and her lover drink the poisoned iced tea
  • Norman returns home and finds a familiar sharp friend

 

Psycho Legacy

psycho legacy

Your Psycho saga isn’t complete until you watch one more very special film. The three sequels were unforgivably released to DVD without a single special feature, but fans were finally rewarded for their patience in the form of a documentary from 2010 called The Psycho Legacy, directed by Robert Galluzzo, wherein all four films are discussed in great detail as cast and crew members share their memories and reflect on just how influential and exciting these movies were. This 2-Disc DVD offers reunion panels, a tour of the Bates Motel, an interview with a memorabilia collector who knows the whereabouts of Mother’s corpse, and much more. One of the most compelling extras is old footage from a Q&A with Anthony Perkins—a truly extraordinary actor whose life was cut short as a result of AIDS, and whose wife would perish almost a decade later in one of the two planes that crashed into the World Trade Center.
 

Hitchcock (2012)

hitchcock

Also recommended is the 2012 film Hitchcock, where Anthony Hopkins plays the brilliant and temperamental filmmaker who is suffering over his latest labor of love, Psycho. It’s a stressful time for him because he is being forced to finance the film on his own, his marriage is falling apart, and he’s being haunted by visions of Ed Gein, the Plainfield, Wisconsin serial killer whom Norman (as well as Buffalo Bill and Leatherface) was loosely based on in Robert Bloch’s novel.

    • John

      Very nice retrospective. I'm a huge fan of the franchise and I even find done enjoyment in the sequels. Glad to see it making a comeback with a prequel show. Fun look back.

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