Thursday, October 30, 2014

Cult-TV Movie Review: Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)

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.


  1. Psycho IV also features one glaring continuity error for the series. In the original film (also scripted by Stefano) Norman tells Marion Crane during their meeting in the parlor that the man his mother met convinced her to build the motel. Here, the motel has always been in the family. Not sure if Stefano forgot, didn't care, or just found it more convenient to have the motel front and center. I agree with all of your points, although ultimately you liked it more than I do.

  2. Another continuity error: Norman says his father was stung to death by bees, when in the last movie, it was revealed Mrs. Spool killed him.

    But I suppose she could've set the bees on him.

  3. Anonymous10:03 PM

    Plus, a reference is made to "the last murders" that took place four years ago, because Psycho III was released in 1986. However, Psycho III took place in the same year as Psycho II (1982) because they say in III that Emma Spool has been missing for a month. And it was 22 years since Norman was institutionalized. So, they should have said the last murders were eight years ago.

    Plus, in the original, the sheriff's wife says Norman's mother wore a periwinkle blue dress for her funeral, because she helped Norman pick it out. Here, the dress Mother wears during the funeral is not that color.


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