Friday, October 31, 2014
(Re-Posted from Earlier in the Week)
In the Monsters (1988 – 1991) episode “The Hole,” three soldiers in the Vietnam War, led by Sgt. Kenner (Ahmad Rashad) probe deep into the ground, into an unexplored Vietcong tunnel system.
As they tread deeper and deeper into the Earth, into the network of tunnels, Corporal Torres (Antone Pagan) leaves shot-gun shells in the cave walls as bread-crumbs to chart the way out of the confusing labyrinth.
At the bottom of the tunnel system, however, the trio discovers a Viet Cong headquarters, and is surprised to see guns, ammo and sensitive intelligence documents left behind. A dying Viet Cong soldier is also there, and he offers the Americans a grave warning.
When this tunnel was dug, its builders went “too deep” and awoke something in the Earth.
The Viet Cong also buried their dead in the dirt walls, and the dying soldier warns that they are coming back to life to kill the living, and that “the Earth might be avenging all the blood spilled upon it.”
Afraid that they are “crawling through a cemetery,” Torres suggest they leave at once. Kenner agrees and the trio retreats, only to find that there is no way out of the tunnel; that it wraps around itself again, and again, with no end and no beginning, no top and no bottom. The Earth has swallowed them whole.
Worse, skeletons are coming out of the walls, hungry for the flesh of the living…
Monsters, a 1980s horror anthology, features some great, chilling horror stories, but one of the darkest and most unforgettable of the catalog is “The Hole,” a third-season entry.
The late 1980s and early 1990s was a time in the pop culture when America was trying to exorcise the ghosts of the Vietnam War.
Films such as Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), The Hanoi Hilton (1987), 84 Charlie Mopic (1989), Casualties of War (1989), and TV series such as Tour of Duty (1987 – 1990) explored this uncomfortable milieu, and for the most part without resorting to simplistic tropes about American Exceptionalism or patriotism.
Instead, these films examined, in three dimensional fashion, America’s involvement (and behavior) in the controversial conflict.
“The Hole,” like many of those films, is strongly anti-war in general. Here, soldiers blunder into a man-made cave that has tread too deeply upon the Earth, and the Earth responds angrily by trapping and killing them there. Corpses burst out of the cave-walls, re-animated, and on the war-path.
The cave, or cave entity, importantly, does not distinguish between Viet Cong or Americans.
Human blood is human blood, the episode suggests, regardless of nationality. The Earth is angry about all the death that has taken place on its soil, and isn’t out to parse politics or take sides in a petty conflict of man’s making (and over man’s ideologies). The idea here, is that nature doesn’t separate us into “tribes” (like American, or Vietnamese, capitalist or communist), but instead sees us as being all of the same group.
When man goes to war against his own kind, the episode suggests subtly, he is falling into a hole where there is no escape, and, ultimately, no winner.
What makes “The Hole” so frightening, in part, is the claustrophobic setting. The entirety of the episode is set in the extremely-tight cave system, which is so narrow that the soldiers can’t even stand up straight at points. Only twice -- at book-end points; at the beginning and ending of the episode -- are we afforded a peek at the outside world.
By keeping the soldiers trapped in these tight, dimly-lit tunnels, the director of the story gives us, like Corporal Torres, a bad case of “tunnelitis.”
The fear at work here is not only of being lost, but of being buried alive. These soldiers are the walking dead, in their graves, they just don’t realize it yet. Indeed, there’s a good argument to be made that this tunnel is Hell itself, a place of endless torment, with no escape, and no exit.
The kicker is the episode’s final scene, which sees heroic but desperate Sgt. Kenner scrambling to dig a tunnel up through the cave roof to the surface. He finally succeeds, but when he lifts himself up through the hole, he promptly finds himself back at the bottom of the tunnel, climbing up into the lowest floor.
This is the very stuff of nightmares.
“The Hole” ends on a down-note, which seems appropriate given the story’s themes. All those who have fought in this war, and spilled blood upon the Earth for man’s petty causes have “transgressed,” and when they wander into this cave, Nature shall have them.
Surreal and circular, “The Hole” is a throat-tightening descent into terror, and one of the most accomplished and horrifying of all Monsters episodes.
In the Monsters episode “Jar,” a scheming femme-fatale named Ann (Gina Gershon) takes her mobster husband (Ed Kovens) with a weak heart to an out-of-the-way motel near a swamp in New England.
There, she finds that the owner of the motel, Mr. Hallett (Fritz Weaver) captures strange, homicidal swamp creatures and keeps them in pickle jars. He then sells the jars (and the creatures inside) for a high price.
Gina plans to use one of the creatures -- which can dissolve a human body in seconds -- to get rid of her mobster husband and live off his wealth while the authorities search for him.
Everything should go just according to plan, but an investigator named Bateman (Richard Edson) shows up at the motel in search of another missing person, and realizes what Ann is up to.
She attempts to seduce him, suggesting that he can share her husband’s wealth with her…
“Jar”, a second season installment, nicely reveals the elasticity of Monsters’ horror anthology format.
Some stories in the canon are straight-up horror, some are ironic comedies with social commentary, and this episode is a dedicated film noir, the story of a private dick, a femme-fatale…and murder.
Down to its shadowy, chiaroscuro lighting and textbook characters, “Jar” apes the film noir format.
We meet a jealous husband, a private “dick,” and even a “trapped” (and dangerous) woman trying to make her way in a man’s world independently.
The story also features other film-noir trademarks, notably a pessimistic tone, and moral ambiguity. On the latter front, both Bateman and Ann leave the motel with a jar (and monster) intended for the other.
So much for true love, right?
The implication is that each lover is ready to kill again, and claim the stolen money. The message: nothing matters more than money.
The hard-boiled dialogue here is occasionally stilted (“If I die, she’s cut off…bye-bye Golden Goose…") and yet in its own fashion it also harks back to the 1940s era of film noir, even if it could be a bit more accomplished.
The highlight of “Jar” for horror fans may not be the milieu it successfully apes, but rather the monster of the week. At about the twelve-minute mark of the episode, the pickle jar opens and a green, face-hugger-like thing leaps out and promptly eats/dissolves the mobster’s face.
It doesn’t stop there, either.
After the face is liquefied, the thing works its way down the neck and trunk of the body, leaving the husband’s clothes to wither and deflate in place. It’s a show-stopping moment, and one of high suspense because the episode has built up to it for approximately half its running time. Sometimes in horror, patience is really a virtue, and "Jar" has a nice pay-off with this gruesome scene.
Wickedly effective here, as well, is Fritz Weaver who plays a taciturn motel owner, and keeps his cards close to the vest.
In keeping with the ambiguous morality of film noir, Hallett is not really depicted as being good or evil, just interested in making a buck and selling those jars. Again, we see that (the love of) money is the root of all evil.
In “The Match Game,” four teenagers -- Jody (Ashley Laurence), Paul (Byron James), Matthew (Sasha Jensen) and Bev (Tori Spelling) -- decide to spend the night in the old Waverly Mansion, which stands on a thick swamp called Becker’s Pond.
As night approaches, the group decides to play “the match game,” wherein each teen lights a match and tell a portion of a horror story, until their match dims. Then, the next person lights a match, and continues to tell the same story.
Little do the teenagers realize, however, that one of their number boasts the power to make the stories come true.
And therefore, on this night, monstrous old Herbert Waverly (Tom Woodruff Jr.) will rise from his watery grave in misty Becker’s Pond to take vengeance on anyone he finds trespassing in his home...
“The Match Game” is such a great capsule of the late 1980s, in part because of its cast, in part because of its rubber-reality nature.
Regarding the cast, it is headlined by Hellraiser’s (1987) Kirsty, Ashley Laurence, and by Halloween IV’s Sasha Jensen.
Intriguingly, Jensen’s character, Matthew, is killed the same way in “The Match Game” as his character, Brady, is in The Return of Michael Myers. There, his head is crushed by the Shape. Here it is crushed by Herbert Waverly.
More intriguingly, perhaps, “The Match Game” feels like a missing link between the rubber-reality films of the late 1980s and the post-modern horrors of the 1990s, like Candyman (1992), In The Mouth of Madness (1994) or Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994).
Specifically, the story involves a ghoul at the bottom of a swamp who comes to life because he is “created” in a fictional campfire tale (or thereabouts) by four teenagers.
Paul’s energy, specifically, brings the rotting Herbert Waverly to horrid life, and the monster can only be dispatched when Paul conceives and repeats aloud an ending to the story. “We made it up,” Jody notes “But you brought it were. We have got to finish the story!”
In this case, finishing the story means limiting the corpse’s life to one night, and suggesting that by light of dawn he must return to his watery grave. That’s precisely what happens, and “The Match Game” suggests that evil can’t be vanquished, at least not fully, until its story is told to an appropriate conclusion.
Again, this idea would be treated (with greater depth) in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. That brilliant film acknowledges the fact that children, listening to bed time stories, need closure in their tales, or the story's monster can roam free in their psyche.
This is also one episode of Monsters that eschews humor or irreverence and goes right for the horror jugular. There’s a moment here when one of the match game participants, in the dark, discusses the rules of dealing with Waverly. If he looks you in the eye, “Don’t look back. Don’t look into his eyes. One look will drain the soul from your very body.”
Poor Tori Spelling learns the hard way that this warning is not hyperbole.
But the horror of the episode is carefully constructed from a filmmaking standpoint as well, not merely through chilling dialogue. Specifically, long takes are deployed. At one point, we move around the players of the match-game in a long, slow circle, as the story continues, develops, and grows ever more menacing.
Like “Sleeping Dragon,” this is one episode of Monsters that I saw on its original broadcast in 1988, and I remember, afterward, that “The Match Game” troubled my slumber. That's appropriate, because the episode reminds us that the greatest power in the world is that of imagination.
In “Sleeping Dragon,” a sixty-five million year old stone capsule is discovered at a fossil dig outside Reno. The object’s discoverer, Merrick (Kin Shriner) brings it to a local university for further study, but the professor (Russell Johnson) there has grave doubts about its authenticity, even if his beautiful daughter, Lisa (Beth Toussaint) believes the evidence of their eyes.
The trio attempts to pierce the ancient capsule with a laser drill, and a carnivorous prehistoric reptile emerges, one that possesses a great, if malevolent intelligence.
Merrick postulates that perhaps some dinosaurs survived the Great Extinction by going into hibernation in capsules of these types. His hypothesis that proves frighteningly accurate when another four hundred capsules are discovered in the desert…
“Sleeping Dragon” is actually the first episode of Monsters I remember watching on broadcast TV, in the fall/winter of 1988. The story is practically a bottle show, set in one room -- a college laboratory -- and in this case the monster of the week, the dinosaur, isn’t terribly convincing.
Yet this is a taut, well-directed show that transmits a strong sense of claustrophobia and danger. Outside the laboratory, the snow relentlessly falls and inside the (intelligent) dinosaur has cut the power, trapping its human prey in darkness.
Monsters often plays like a traditional, Grade B, 1950s horror movie, and this episode even has a veteran of that era (and This Island Earth ), Russell Johnson playing a wrong-headed scientist At one point, the professor attempts to talk reason to the dinosaur and he is promptly eaten alive for his troubles. We have seen moments like this both in Howard Hawks’ version of The Thing (1951) and George Pal’s War of the Worlds (1953).
But the quality that makes “Sleeping Dragon” hold up today is its core conceit of a dinosaur civilization that saw the end coming and took steps to survive it. These clever dinosaurs went into suspended animation and waited for the climate to be more to their liking.
Now, their “alarm clocks” are going off, and they are awakening in the human world.
This is not entirely unlike the Silurian/Sea Devil stories in Doctor Who, but Monsters tilts the narrative towards terror by associating the intelligent dinosaurs with early man’s legends of dragons.
Perhaps some of these creatures awoke generations ago and confronted mankind. He thus created the dragon stories to describe encounters with them. Also terrifying is the notion that even though they are “civilized” enough to create suspended animation chambers, the dinosaurs refuse to recognize mammals as intelligent beings.
The episode’s denouement -- which reveals that three-hundred and ninety-seven new predators will soon be on the prowl -- is appropriately chilling, and it made me consider that someone could make a pretty good horror movie today out of this premise.
With a little more dough, such a film needn’t be limited to one room. Instead, it could be the story of a dinosaur civilization awakening --- hungrily – in the midst of our own. Throw in a message about climate change, and the way we are reshaping the planet to be more to a reptile’s liking, and you’ve really got something.
In “The Feverman” -- the very first episode of Monsters -- a desperate family man in Victorian England, Mr. Mason (John C. Vennema), takes his feverish daughter to an alternative healer called “The Feverman” over the objections of his traditional physician, Dr. Burke (Patrick Garner).
At first, Burke’s concerns about the Feverman, Mr. Boyle (David McCallum), seem well-placed, since he is a grumpy, ill-mannered alcoholic.
However, when Mr. Burke interferes in Boyle’s ritual to cure the Mason girl, he is surprised to learn the truth of the matter: The Feverman engages each disease he encounters in mortal, physical combat, and in this case, the girl’s fever presents as a blubbery, tumorous monster.
When Burke’s interference causes Boyle to be mortally-wounded, the Feverman tells the conventional physician that he must take his place, and kill the hulking, fleshy fever with his bare hands.
With the great David McCallum (veteran of such anthologies as The Outer Limits [1962 – 1964]) leading the way, “The Feverman” qualifies as an assured debut for Monsters. At its heart, the premiere story concerns the idea, deeply ingrained in our culture, that only Western-style medicine can “heal” the sick and that anything else -- or from any other tradition -- qualifies as quackery.
In “The Feverman,” for example, Dr. Burke is disrespectful and cynical about Boyle’s approach to healing the sick, and he even calls him a “trickster.” He worries that Mason is being conned. He also asks Boyle if he will refund Mason’s money if his patient dies.
Boyle’s response is perfect. He asks if Burke also refunds his fee when his patients die. The implication is that they are both doctors, but that their approaches differ. In some way, this seems a subtle acknowledgment of the East/West divide in terms of how to approach healing.
Of course, in real life there are charlatans and fakers the world around, but “The Feverman” suggests that in this case, Boyle is the real deal. The episode reaches its apex when Burke comes to understand that fact, and is faced with a very grotesque and memorable monster, the first in the series’ stable.
In this case, the Mason girl’s fever is depicted as a giant, fleshy obese thing, one that is “big and strong” in Boyle’s words, and which knows how to “attack, but not defend.” The key to destroying it is to attack it full-on, and that’s, finally, exactly what Boyle does. He literally wrestles the hulking, tumor-covered infection to the ground, and then snaps its neck.
In a very real sense, doctors do battle with the diseases of their patients every day, but it is fun how this Monsters episode visualizes that conflict as a real-life, physical wrestling match, one where the doctor has as much skin in the game as does his patient.
Indeed, from a certain perspective, “The Feverman” is really all about Burke, and how he travels from being set in his ways, attached to convention and protocol, but finally breaks out of that thinking to save a life.
It’s probably a romantic notion, but I like to believe that good doctors sometimes operate in this fashion, trying everything they *know* to do first, and then, failing the conventional, launch into the unconventional or untried methods. In the final analysis, “The Feverman” is about a set-in-his-ways physician opening his mind to new possibilities, new avenues of healing, and a new way of viewing the world.
I have always had a soft spot for Monsters (1988 – 1991), the horror anthology from Laurel that succeeded the company’s successful Tales from the Darkside (1984 – 1988).
Specifically, I watched Monsters while I was away college, late at night on the weekends, and even if my expectations weren’t high, the series usually met them. I’ll forever associate the series with my freshman year dorm room at Robins Hall, on the University of Richmond campus, and late night deliveries of Dominos Pizza.
Monsters emerged from the great syndication boom of the late 1980s, the period that brought us such cult-TV favorites as Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994), War of the Worlds (1987 – 1989), Friday the 13th: The Series (1987 – 1990), and more.
Although it was a distinctly low-budget horror series, Monsters always felt like it was made with love and affection for the genre, and it never took itself too seriously.
“It’s sort of like working in the old B-Movie era,” series writers Bob Schneider and Peg Haller told Fangoria, “…one of the things that’s great about Monsters is that it’s good for writers. Because of the limited special effects and limited sets, a lot of it has to be done with dialogue and characters…the situation demands that you come up with a concept that really works.”
More often than not, those concepts did work. The series featured some great, straight-up horror shows (like “The Match Game,” or “The Hole”) but also, in the spirit of Rod Serling’s horror anthologies, occasionally delved into social commentary.
One episode – “One Wolf’s Family” was a riff on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968) and concerned a werewolf bringing home his were-hyena girlfriend to a bigoted, Archie Bunker-like father, played by Jerry Stiller.
Another story, “My Zombie Lover” was about a girl (Tempestt Bledsoe) who fell in love with a zombie over the objections of her parents. In the age of Howard’s Beach, Tawana Brawley and the disgraceful Willie Horton ad, these and other episodes argued cogently against racism, and did so in funny and entertaining ways.
Time Magazine noted in 1989 that the typical episode of Monsters is a “lively half-hour…which each week delivers just what is advertised: a grotesque and usually malevolent creature,” and that the show was “enlivened by grisly good humor.”
In 1997, The Blockbuster Entertainment Guide to Television reported that the series was “irreverent” and “provided a good scare, like those old midnight terror tales on the radio.”
That latter observation represents almost exactly how I view Monsters.
The stories are solid, and occasionally inspired, and the overall tone is nostalgic in some sense. The series doesn’t attempt to belabor grittiness or any other modern qualities of the genre. So, clearly, it’s a throwback. Even the introductory montage (which I blogged about last Sunday) seems to obsess on the simpler days of Yesteryear, when the American family would gather round the living room TV to eat dinner and catch a show together.
Back in the late 1988, Monsters went up against a better-known horror commodity, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), who was hosting a different anthology, Freddy’s Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street The Series (1988 – 1990), and so proved a ratings underdog despite the advertising lure of a “a new creature featured every week.” Where Tales from the Darkside had signed 125 stations around the U.S., Monsters was able to scare up barely 78 affiliates.
But because of the show’s quality, Monsters showed 55 percent audience growth over the first month it aired while the inferior but better known Freddy’s Nightmares saw its numbers plummet following heavy curiosity viewing.
After three seasons and seventy-two episodes, Monsters went to Rerun Heaven, and it was broadcast on the old Sci-Fi Channel frequently in the late 1990s. Just this year, the anthology was released on DVD for the first time, and so for Halloween this year, I’ll be blogging episodes throughout the day.
I’ll close with another of Monsters’ amusing tag-lines. “Look what they’re hatching now!”
Today, this blog will be the place to do just that.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
Unlike its three predecessors, Psycho IV: The Beginning is a made-for-TV movie. The film was written by Joe Stefano and produced for Showtime. It aired November 10, 1990.
The switch to the TV market occurred because Psycho III had not lived up to expectations at the box office. Following a failed attempt to move the franchise to network television with the low-rated Bates Motel (1987), Mick Garris came on board to direct this premium cable project.
Psycho IV: The Beginning stars Anthony Perkins, but also functions ably as a prequel to the original Psycho, one which reveals the childhood of Norman Bates. In the scenes set decades earlier (in the 1950s), Henry Thomas plays young Norman, while Perkins appears in the scenes set in the present. These moments occur thirty years after the events of Hitchcock’s film.
Your mileage may vary when it comes to prequel stories, but The Beginning’s finest moments, invariably, involve Thomas, Olivia Hussey as bipolar Norma Bates, and the events preceding the first film. Psycho IV does a terrific job of recreating a bygone era in American history, and restoring that famous Gothic mansion with a happier, more colorful visage.
By contrast, The Beginning’s framing device -- which finds a troubled Norman Bates calling in to “The Fran Ambrose Show” to tell his story -- is not terribly compelling, and the film’s denouement takes us to a destination Norman had already reached at the end of Psycho III.
Here, after burning down his old family house and putting to rest the ghost of his mother, Norman declares -- just like he did in the climax of the Perkins-directed 1986 film -- that he is now “free.”
The fact that the very same line is repeated here -- with literally no variation -- suggests that for the first time in the Psycho franchise, it is treading some water, and not entirely moving forward.
Nonetheless, it’s always great to see Anthony Perkins back as Norman, a role that the actor connects with on a powerful, emotional level. But despite his fine performance, the modern Norman story actually interferes with the powerfully-vetted flashbacks. Those remarkable looks into the past represent the story audiences really want to connect with, in part because Hussey is so compelling as Mother. By contrast, we could care less about talk-show host Fran Ambrose (C.C.H. Pounder), or her attempts to stop Norman from killing again, a sub-plot which is self-evidently a time-waster since it is left unresolved when the end credits roll. The focus shifts to Norman, and we don’t go back to Fran at all.
So Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) is a bit of a mixed bag. Some moments are authentically involving and well-vetted, and others feel like filler. In the final analysis, the TV-movie ends the saga respectably (until the 1998 reboot, anyway…), provides a last hurrah for Anthony Perkins, and is quite affecting in its charting of the heretofore unseen Norma/Norman relationship.
“What makes boys kill their mothers? I thought I could help.”
A rehabilitated Norman Bates (Perkins) has moved on with his life, and even left the old motel and house near Fairvale.
His wife, a nurse named Connie (Donna Mitchell), is expecting their first child, but that fact troubles Norman. In fact, he is contemplating a new murder to prevent what he fears will be another Bates bad seed being born. This time, however, he will not kill as Mother, but as Norman.
On the night of his birthday, as Norman contemplates killing Connie and preventing the continuation of the Bates blood-line, he calls in to The Fran Ambrose Show, a radio program which happens to be discussing the subject of matricide. One of the guests is Dr. Richmond, who first treated Norman, years earlier.
As Norman begins to relate his story -- from childhood -- of his mother and her boyfriend, Chet, Dr. Richmond comes to suspect that they are conversing not with “Ed,” Norman’s alias, but Norman Bates himself…
“Some days, little boys can be giants.”
Although it was made for television, Psycho IV: The Beginning features a nice visual through-line. In particular, the famous Bates house symbolizes Norman’s state of mind, and even his sanity. As the flashbacks commence, the house is a lovely yellow Victorian, well-maintained. At this juncture in the story, Norman is a happy boy, and life is good.
Later, as his relationship with his mother grows strained, and he kills her, the house falls into the state of disrepair we associate with it from Psycho, Psycho II and Psycho III.
Finally, at film’s end, the house is burned down, destroyed, and that fact could be interpreted as a sign that the memories (and pathologies) the edifice hides will no longer have control over Norman.
Bates’ story, however, is inexorably tied to that family home, and its external appearance provides us clues to how well or poorly Norman is coping with life. That house is always with him, at least until the film’s end.
In more abstract term, I find very commendable the elegiac tone of Psycho IV: The Beginning. There’s the feeling here of an older Norman remembering his life and trying to make some peace with it, both with the hurts done to him and the hurts he caused. The flashback of him as a little boy, enjoying a sudden rainstorm during a picnic with his mother does a good job of putting us in his shoes, and making us understand his innocence and love for his mother.
“Some days, little boys can be giants,” Norman says of that memory, and it’s heart-breaking. Later, when he describes the pain of missing his mother, he likens it to “soul cancer,” and once more, we are asked to reckon with the very real idea that Norman both loves and hates his Mother at the same time.
Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) succeeds to the degree it does in large part because of the efforts of Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey, who create vivid characters in these flashback scenes and make us care about their plight. Thomas is perfect as a young Norman, in part because he has the same wide shoulders and trim, gangly frame as Perkins, and in part because he uses his eyes in the same, expressive manner as the older Norman.
Hussey is…not what we might expect at first blush. The Psycho movies have always portrayed Mrs. Bates as an old, foul-mouthed shrew. In this movie, we learn that Norman “aged” her in his mind, and that she died in her prime, a beautiful but capricious and mercurial woman. Her beauty and charisma goes a long way towards explaining why Norman is obsessed with her. One moment she is attentive, and it feels like the sun is shining on him. The next minute she is cruel, and downright abusive. Today, we understand that Norma’s behavior is a result of a bi-polar disorder, and that she is not entirely responsible for her cruelty.
I would also praise Psycho IV: The Beginning for treading into the strange, twisted, murky sexual terrain that any Psycho movie should, but which is not, simply, the stuff of mainstream movies. On two occasions, young Norman gets an erection while in the presence of his lovely mother, and his shame, embarrassment and humiliation is palpable. Norman has very twisted feeling about his mother, feelings that his Mother nurtures. Yet she is abusive to him when he shows the obvious physical response to her physicality and sensuality. A less honest movie simply wouldn’t go there. This one does.
Finally, however, Psycho IV doesn’t entirely overcome several missteps, despite the powerful performances from Perkins, Hussey and Thomas, the brutal honesty of the screenplay, and the elegiac tone. Director John Landis has a supporting role in the film, and though he is a very good director, he is not an actor. Seeing him in this role, as the radio station manager, immediately takes one out of the story, because we know he’s there as an “homage” and as a friend to the director. A real actor should have been hired instead. Landis is distracting, especially since the part is not just a momentary cameo.
Also, there’s a sort of two-dimensional nature to Norman’s experience with a local girl. This teenage girl wants to sleep with Norman, but comes across like a nymphomaniac, or worse, a prostitute. She is so over-the-top in pursuing not affection and connection with Norman, but sexual intercourse, that it just doesn’t seem real.
Imagine how affecting it would have been if Norman killed the first girl he loved, and who loved him. Instead, he simply kills a girl who wants his body, and that is less emotionally-satisfying, in terms of narrative. Why is this hot-to-trot prospective lover after Norman, an outsider and strange guy, to this degree? Wouldn’t she be pursuing other young men in Fairvale, instead? Something about how this flashback plays out rings as untrue, or superficial.
And, as I noted in my introduction above, Psycho IV feels it necessary to rehash Norman’s break from Mother, a triumph already spotlighted in (the superior) Psycho III.
Also, if we are to care about Fran Ambrose, why does the film leave her sub-plot totally unresolved? The character is actually just a writer’s device to permit for Norman’s flashbacks, and once those flashbacks are finished, she becomes unnecessary to the drama. This fact is exposed when the movie drops her like a hot potato. I love CCH Pounder, and she is strong in the role of Ambrose, but the character is a cog in a wheel, and not a real person.
Psycho IV is my least favorite entry in the original series (those that feature Perkins), and yet I still like it, and still believe it’s strong enough to merit a recommendation. With a better framing device, and a little more subtlety in terms of its writing, it could have better served as the final, moving punctuation of the tragedy of Norman Bates.
It almost gets there, but gets stuck in some traps along the way.
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