Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: Psycho III (1986)

Directed by Anthony Perkins, Psycho III (1986) is -- perhaps paradoxically -- both sleazier and more spiritual than its 1960 and 1983 predecessors were. 

The third film in the Psycho mythos explores a world of the fallen; a world of sex without love, and cynicism but no truth. Yet the film’s consistent use of religious symbolism suggests that Norman Bates can yet be redeemed, and yet navigate this mortal coil. He may, perhaps, even find forgiveness, and love.

Although Psycho III does not feature a tightly-structured mystery like the ones that dominated Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Franklin’s Psycho II (1982), the second sequel nonetheless thrives on its finely-developed sense of gallows humor, particularly in a scene involving a (bloody) ice machine. 

Also, Anthony Perkins’ unparalleled understanding of the Norman Bates character makes this film, perhaps, the most sentimental entry thus far, and Psycho III is the first film in the series that might genuinely be said to feature a happy ending, even if it is arrived at through tragedy. 

Although Psycho III’s loose narrative structure means that the story feels less urgent than it should, it also permits Perkins’ more breathing room, more freedom to excavate the character of Norman,  the “man boy.”  At least some critics would consider this a fair trade. I know I do, especially since Perkins still leans hard on crisp imagery and visual symbolism to express Norman’s tale.

On that point, the late Robert Ebert recounted in his review of Psycho III a scene in which Norman believes that he will come face-to-face with his (dead) mother. Ebert writes that though Perkins’ “facial expressions” -- in a long, unbroken shot of him walking the length of the motel front -- are not subtle, he isn’t over-acting, either.

Rather “he projects such turmoil that we almost sympathize with him.”  

This is Perkins’ modus operandi throughout Psycho III, making viewers see Norman as more than a murderous schizophrenic, and more than a pawn to be maneuvered on a chess board about like others of strong will (such as Mother, Emma Spool, or Lila Loomis). 

Although it was not a box office success in 1986, Psycho III gained (sometimes grudging) respect from many critics, in part because Perkins’ has charted such an intriguing path for Norman. In the past, Bates has seemed so confused, so directionless that redemption wasn’t necessarily even an option. In Psycho III, one can, for the first time, see his path towards that destination.

The result is a sequel that, in the words of horror film scholar Ken Hanke is “just short of being a little masterpiece.”

“You remind me of someone I knew once.”

A fallen nun named Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid) is responsible for the accidental death of a fellow nun at her convent following a suicide attempt.  Consumed with guilt and feeling faithless, Maureen leaves the church and her responsibilities.  She wanders the desert with only a suitcase of her belongings, until she is offered a ride by a sleazy guitar player, Duane (Jeff Fahey).

After Duane makes unwanted advances, Maureen ends up in the desert again, but she soon happens upon the town of Fairvale, home to Norman Bates and the Bates Motel.  Almost immediately, Norman is drawn to Maureen because she reminds him of Marion Crane (and even shares her initials and hair-cut). 

Growing closer to Maureen by the day, Norman hires Duane to manage his motel at the same time a nosy reporter, Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell) comes to town wishing to interview Bates regarding “the insanity defense.”

Norman saves Maureen when she attempts suicide again, slitting her wrists in bathtub, and Maureen resolves that she can save Norman too.

But Mother may have other ideas..

“The past is not really the past.”

From Psycho III’s opening blast -- Maureen’s sacrilegious shout that “There is no God!” -- the film treads deeply into a religious argument and symbolism. The film’s inaugural image is of the Virgin Mary, and not coincidentally, Mary looms as an important figure in the film when one thinks closely about Norman and his journey. 

For one thing, the Virgin Mary is a mother -- the mother of Jesus in particular, -- and we all know that a boy’s mother is his best friend, according to Bates own testimony.  For a franchise that obsesses on a Mother’s power over her family, it is appropriate that this Psycho sequel should choose the symbol of the Virgin Mary to explore.

More to the point, Norman boasts a long history of falling in love with women named Mary, women who can -- under the right circumstances -- “save” him from himself/Mother, if given the opportunity. Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane. Meg Tilly plays Mary Loomis. And Diana Scarwid, here, is Maureen.  All three are human versions of Mary, one could say, women who try to help Norman in some way.

The film’s first act also suggests, after a fashion, a story from Scripture: the expulsion from Paradise or the Garden of Eden.  We see Norman living a life alone at the motel, happily stuffing birds and never interfacing with people or the larger world.  This little tract of desert land is his paradise, away from the prying eyes of Fairvale, and it is a place where he gets to be…innocent. 

The events of the film soon compel Norman to leave that paradise, reckon with the real world, and finally, embrace a genuine human relationship

Early in the film, we see a plastic Jesus figure in Duane's car. Later in Psycho III we get a close-up of the Holy Bible, and finally, Maureen hallucinates that Norman in his Mother gear, brandishing a knife, is actually the Virgin Mary holding a crucifix, coming to save her from herself. 

Mother wears a dark blue dress, as always, and importantly, many art works from antiquity associate Mary with the color blue as well. 

One level, one could note that this is a wicked joke: a murdering, knife-wielding “Mother” as the Virgin Mary? 

On another level, however, Maureen’s hallucination of the Virgin Mary suggests the ultimate strength of her faith, and it is that faith which allows her to forgive Norman and help him seek his redemption.

Thus Psycho III suggests a weird symbiosis. By dressing as Mother and saving Maureen from death, Norman rekindles the nun’s belief that she deserves a second chance.  And by embracing that second chance, Maureen decides to spend it saving Norman, despite her full knowledge of his past wrong-doings.  They each help or complete the other.

Another figure known for love – Cupid – however, proves Norman’s undoing. Maureen falls on the staircase in the Bates house and her skull is speared by a Cupid sculpture, an act which precludes Norman and Maureen from finding happiness together. Yet, in a way, Maureen, by showing Norman love and acceptance, has already done her job.  By the end of the film, Norman turns his butcher knife on Mother and declares that he is finally “free” of her. 

Sure, he’s headed back to the looney bin, but Mother is no longer a monkey on his back. Norman has known love because of Maureen, and will no more be enslaved to his most peculiar form of Oedipal love.

Oddly enough, the sleazy aspects of Psycho III ultimately add to the film’s spiritual argument.

Duane puts the moves on Maureen and when she resists, quips that she could have been “coming” instead of “going.”  Nice.

Later, Duane is nasty and abusive to a woman he has bedded. He throws her out of his hotel room, leaving her stranded -- and topless -- in public.  

At another point, we see the drunk, horny revelers of Homecoming in the motel, and again there’s the feeling of a cynical, sleazy world. That Norman and Maureen find true love -- even for a brief, shining moment -- against this backdrop, is truly an accomplishment.  They not only forgive and accept one another, they love each other in a way that is not ugly or cynical, but sweet.

One of the best scenes in the film is a quiet one, wherein Norman, sitting in a diner, allows himself to be interviewed by the toxic, chain-smoking reporter, Tracy Venable. She asks him about the insanity defense, and Norman replies that his cure “could not cure the hurt” that his actions caused.  He furthermore explains that “the past is not really the past,” a viewpoint that suggests a highly developed form of Catholic guilt. 

Long-time readers of the blog may remember how I discussed Catholic guilt vis-à-vis Captain Kirk in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), but Catholic guilt could defined as a melancholy or world-weariness brought about by an examined life. It's the constant questioning and re-parsing of decisions and history (some call it Scrupulosity). Here, Norman shows the capacity to examine his life, and see it from a perspective that is not to his favor. His quest is to be forgiven for “the past that is not really the past.” Maureen helps him to do that, but the scene with Venable explores the fact that Norman is not some mindless lunatic (in sharp contrast to the other slashers of the 1980s), but a man who is fully aware of the “private trap” in which he is snared.

The greatest scene in Psycho III, however, is one that would have made Hitchcock proud, and which isn’t strictly speaking, a part of the film’s theme of forgiveness/redemption.  

Instead, it’s just a droll scene brilliantly shot, that fosters suspense. The scene involves Fairvale’s Sheriff Hunt at the Bates Motel. He has come to question Norman about a missing woman, and digs his hand into the outdoor ice machine to cool off.  

Right out of his view, is the body of that victim, buried under all the ice in the freezer.  Norman knows the corpse is there, but the Sheriff doesn’t. Perkins’ camera cuts to a close-up of the ice -- the bloody ice -- next to the Sheriff’s grasping hands.  The scene’s pay-off is a close-up of the sheriff’s face as he licks bloody ice water from his lips, but is no wiser to the game.   

This scene is brilliantly written, constructed, and executed and it gets to the core appeal of the Psycho films. Not surprisingly, that appeal is schizophrenic. On one hand, we want Norman Bates to get caught.  On the other hand, we want him to go free and find happiness. Those two ideas compete in the brain, and the result is a kind of unbearable suspense.

Perkins gets it, naturally, and as Jeff Strickler in the Star Tribune wrote, he “shows the same precision as a director that he demonstrates as an actor.”  Psycho III is a “cut above” most sequels horror sequels because of his involvement, and proof positive that the film series was still conjuring new and worthwhile stories for Norman Bates in the late 1980s.

Later today: Psycho IV (1990).

1 comment:

  1. I love this film. Lord knows, Perkins needed to gave directed more. Kudos to another underused actress, Diana Scarwid. Love the dancing scene.