One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
first main theme was melancholy and I persuaded him to go with something more
innocent. The music he’d written for the stairway flashback…I played it to Tony
[Perkins] and he cried. [He] said he’d
lived with Norman all those years and no one else had ever understood his innocence
– ‘the boy man’ as Tony called him.”
II (1983) director Richard Franklin,
in an interview for my book Horror Films
of the 1980s (2007). Page 351.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) concerns the “private traps” that people often make
for themselves, then its impressive 1983 sequel -- directed by Richard Franklin
-- focuses on what happens when people won’t let go of those traps.
No matter what.
coincidentally, Psycho II involves a generation gap of sorts, since two
protagonists (Norman Bates and Mary Loomis) are compelled to join their wayward
parents (Lila Loomis, Emma Spool) in those aforementioned traps, with dire
this case, the will of the older generation is imposed violently on the younger
generation, and the cycle of violence and madness continues because of it.
fact, that’s the image Psycho II leaves us with: madness
re-asserted at the Bates Motel because the older generation can simply not live
with the possibility of countenancing something new or different. Lila refuses
to believe that Norman can be sane, and Spool succumbs to her madness to
protect Norman, an act which re-awakens Norman’s own Mommy issues.
short, both Lila Loomis (Vera Miles) and Emma Spool (Claudia Bryar) wish to
stick rigorously to their long-standing biases and preconceived notions, and
even take (violent or subversive) action to assure the outcome that validates
their viewpoint and desires.
is the children, however, who suffer for the sins of the mothers, and Psycho
II is thus a story about the ways that families keep replaying the same
dramas and reliving the same pathologies, one year to the next, one generation
to the next.
sub-text adds some meat to the bones of the film, which -- while not
revolutionary like its storied predecessor -- is nonetheless an extremely
well-made thriller. More than that, even, Psycho II is a compelling mystery
featuring many effective and unexpected twists and turns.
it seems impossible not to read “the generation gap” sub-text of Psycho
II as a pre-emptive defense of this sequel.
more, we must consider historical context. The older, established movie
intelligentsia was up in arms about a sequel being crafted to Hitchcock’s
masterpiece in 1983. It argued, basically, that a sequel could only be more of
the same: violent hijinks at the Bates Motel.
story, its narrative content, seems to suggest otherwise. Indeed, one aspect of
II that remains quite beautiful is the one alluded to in the quote above,
sequel beautifully expresses Norman’s tragic and innocent qualities. One spends
the film wishing Norman some measure of happiness, but understanding that the
cynical, caustic forces of the world will simply not let him have it.
love and admire the original Psycho for all the reasons I
enumerated yesterday. I love how it plays with structure and shatters
decorum. And I admire how it splits our
point of identification, the protagonist, into three individuals.
II has its pleasures too, even if they are of a different, perhaps more
resorting to gimmickry or cheap tricks, the sequel really reveals to us Norman
Bates as a human being who is worthy of our sympathy, not just as a surprising
so many ways, Norman really is like a lost “boy man” instead, and as this film
points out, the world -- circa 1983 -- simply has no place for him. He is now not only a man out of his mind, but
a man out of time, out of step with the present.
film’s serious, sincere attempt to excavate Norman’s identity (and plight) is
the very thing that refutes those who say “you can’t make a sequel to Psycho,
because it will just be a lame imitation.”
II opened the
same day as another sequel, Return of the Jedi (1983), but
nonetheless succeeded at the summer box office, and paved the way for
additional sequels, all of which continue more or less in the vein of Franklin’s
film, not Hitchcock’s.
sequels are, essentially, character studies of a “lost boy” in the modern
world, and the ways that society continues to fail him.
don’t believe, honestly, that the sequels would have succeeded to any creative degree
if they had not adopted this grounded, character-based approach.
Psycho II turns the gaze of the camera squarely on Norman and the world
of the 1980s.
in that view, it’s clear to audiences Norman Bates isn’t the only insane one.
The world is “psycho” too (II).
“When he murders
again, you will be directly responsible.”
twenty-two years in asylum, murderer and former mad-man, Norman Bates (Perkins)
the hearing before his return to society, Lila Loomis (Miles) stands up and
complains that the laws of the country protect the guilty, not the innocent,
and that there is no justice for Norman’s victims. She warns that he will very likely kill
again, and that when Norman does so, the blood will be on the court’s hands.
returns home to Fairvale with his psychiatrist, Dr. Raymond (Robert Loggia),
and learns that the Bates Motel has been turned into an “adult” (pornographic)
establishment by its manager, Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz). After taking a job at a local diner with
kindly old Mrs. Spool (Bryar), Norman fires Toomey and decides to run the motel
also takes in a waitress from the diner, Mary (Meg Tilly), who is having
relationship troubles. But the truth is
that Mary is Lila’s daughter. Her mother has asked her to insinuate herself
into Norman’s life and drive him crazy, wearing his old “Mother” garb, while
Lila telephones him and claims to be the dead Mrs. Bates.
Mary gets to know Norman, she sees how cruel her mother’s plans truly are, and
begins to rebel against Lila and the strategy to de-stabilize Bates.
all along, another figure lurks in the shadows, one who claims to be Norman’s “real”
mother, and will commit murder to protect her beloved boy…
“I don’t kill people
one point in Psycho II, Norman experiences a flashback of his mother, Norma
Bates, while standing just outside her bedroom. In the brass door-knob (and over it, in the door itself) we can
see a distorted reflection of Norman, but in that reflection, Norman is not a
grown man, but rather a child.
image, in many ways, is the key to appreciating this sequel.
is developmentally arrested and a virgin to boot, as Anthony Perkins and Richard
Franklin have both pointed out. He lived in a fantasy world before being caught
in 1960. But since 1960, he has been frozen in time and living in a bubble of a
different sort. While exorcising the ghost of his mother, he has actually
learned nothing of life. Thus when Norman is released in 1983, he is a fish-out-of-water,
a victim both of his mother, and of the society which incarcerated him but
never taught him how to live, or how to succeed. Norman
returns to “real life” rudderless and without direction, with few friends, and
This situation makes him incredibly vulnerable. That
vulnerability is ruthlessly taken advantage of.
Loomis is a victim in the same sense: a pawn in her mother’s twisted scheme to
send Norman “over the edge.” This plan
puts Mary in mortal jeopardy, but it also requires her to be a liar and
deceiver. And it all must happen in the
name of Mary’s aunt, the dead Marion Crane. Lila Loomis has been unable to
forgive Norman for her murder, even after twenty-two years.
fact, Lila has become a cruel, strident person railing at everybody, including
the legal system, for failing her. Lila is so consumed with rage and anger that
she dresses as Norman’s mother to vex him, and calls him on the telephone and
pretends to be Norma. There can be no argument about the fact that she acts
deplorably. Never once does she allow
for the possibility that Norman might be healed, or seeking some form of
simply can’t get beyond the past, and about what she “knows” to be true. Everyone
else -- the law, the psychiatrist, and even her own daughter -- are wrong for
thinking otherwise. Lila is thus a dead-ender, a person willing to believe things
which are not true so as to validate her own hatred and prejudices. It’s a surprising and rewarding idea to turn
our final protagonist in Psycho, Lila, into an antagonist in
the film’s sequel, but is also speaks to a sad truth about people. They
sometimes get brittle and inflexible with age.
comes about, in a sense, from our conflicted feelings for Norman. He is
heart-breaking when he talks about his mother making him toasted cheese
sandwiches, and being good to him, and yet, we also remember the weight of
history. We know he has killed and that, as I wrote above, that Norman is
one well-directed scene, Norman cuts a sandwich for Mary and the scene is alive
and electric with tension. Mary hands Norman a very large butcher knife, and,
remembering the past, he doesn’t want to hold it or take it.
-- in on the plan to de-stabilize Norman -- realizes that by handing the knife
to him, she is putting herself in danger.
then, as audience members, we have to wonder about the moment too. Mary is handing Norman the tool that could be
used to murder her!
finally, is responsible, when someone knowingly hands a former murderer a
knife? Is Norman responsible for his
actions? Or is it Mary? And does the
fact that Norman does not succumb to violence mean that he is, in fact, cured?
II asks us to
consider all these ideas.
great scene occurs near the film’s climax.
Norman attempts to disarm Mary, but she is holding the knife. He keeps approaching her, hands outstretched,
and she stabs him, and cuts his hands. At this point, it is not Norman who is acting
violently, but Mary, driven to rage by her mother’s death, who does the stabbing. This is a neat inversion of typical horror
movie tropes. Here the “boogeyman” is
unarmed and pleading, and the final girl, Mary, is losing her grip on sanity
and drawing blood.
terms of style, Franklin is a Hitchcock protégé, and so Psycho II features many
moments as elegant and frisson-creating as those I enumerate above. Some moments in the film are also downright
shocking, even today. Lila takes a knife
to the mouth (and through the mouth),
and the violence is, in its way, decorum shattering too. Here a sweet old woman (and our former
protagonist) isn’t just killed, but tactlessly butchered!
Before she dies, Franklin provides a close-up of Lila's mouth, screaming in horror, and the shot should look familiar from Psycho. In this, in set design, and in fidelity to the characters, Psycho II seeks to honor its predecessor without slavishly imitating it.
wrote about this some in Horror Films of the 1980s, but Psycho
II is really about Norman making a choice.
he choose the sanity that society prefers, or, finally, the love of a (psychotic)
one hand, society makes it clear it doesn’t want Norman. Lila frames him. The
sheriff suspects him of killing two teenagers. And Mary, even, betrays him. In
broader terms, cut-backs in social services mean that Norman is never visited
by a social worker, someone who can help assimilate him back into the
the other hand, we have a woman, Emma Spool, who claims to be his biological
mother, and would kill to protect him. “I’m the only one who truly loves you,”
Mother says to Norman. “Only your mother truly loves you.”
great thing about Psycho II is that Mother’s comment -- while horrifying -- also
happens to be absolutely true, given what we’ve seen of mainstream society in
the film. If his only choice is between a world that hates him and a mother who
is steadfast (but nutty…) then love wins out, every time.
moment is perfectly conceived and executed. The vacancy sign turns on at the
hotel, storm clouds roil in the night sky above, and Norman stands in the
shadow of that Gothic house, in the shadow, again, of his mother.
Norman, this is a return to madness, and some might even say it’s a reset of
franchise, taking us back to the world as it was before Marion’s visit in 1960.
really, it’s the only logical destination for Norman, the lost “boy man.” Another shot in the film goes even further in
depicting his plight. We see Norman banging on the attic window of his house,
locked in and unable to escape. He sees
the world outside, but can never quite get to it. That’s Norman in a nut-shell.
just not getting out of the “private trap” the world has made for him. But tragically – and quite unlike Lila or Emma
– he really, really wants out.