“PSYCHO II & III” (Scream Factory Blu-ray Reviews)
Recently, the AVClub posted a list of 1983’s “lousy” sequels, which (justifiably) pointed out that one year gave us JAWS 3-D, THE STING II, STAYIN’ ALIVE—sort of a who’s who of notoriously bad follow-ups. However, they inexplicably included PSYCHO II (while leaving out Amityville 3-D!), which was a head scratcher. By most accounts, this was a remarkably good (some say great) sequel that deftly jumped two incredible hurdles. One being time; it had been 23 years since the first film had broken so much ground in the genre, and thus the younger audiences that made horror such a lucrative endeavor in the early 80s might not even know about it. The other, of course, was the lack of one Alfred Hitchcock. Who would dare attempt to follow the master?
As it turns out, the best choice would be a guy who wore his admiration for Hitch on his sleeve. Perhaps even more than Brian De Palma, Australian director Richard Franklin was an avowed student of the legend, and had already impressed audiences with his creepy PATRICK and the superb suspenser ROAD GAMES (itself a bit of a Hitchcock tribute). That he was a skilled filmmaker in his own right helped make PSYCHO II the rare sequel that feels like a genuine, necessary extension of a story, rather than cynical cash grab. And the gamble paid off; it scored one of 1983’s 10 highest grossing weekends and wound up with a respectable $34 million take (nearly $90 million in today’s grosses). Not bad for a 23 years “late” sequel. Do you think a follow-up to a hit movie from 1990 would pull in that much today?
So does it hold up, or was AVClub’s article wrong? Well, let’s put it this way: I didn’t feel the need to retract the angry tweets I posted on the day I read it. PSYCHO II is obviously not as groundbreaking as the original, but it’s a terrific, tension-ridden and fairly realistic look at what might happen when a murderer is set free. Having been found not guilty by insanity, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, of course) is released and returns home to find his motel still operational (run by a loudmouth slob played by a young Dennis Franz) and his house more or less exactly as he left it. His doctor (Robert Loggia) arranges for him to work as a dishwasher/assistant at a local diner, where he meets Marie (Meg Tilly), a clumsy waitress who recently found herself homeless. Norman offers to let her stay at the motel “FOC”, hoping to connect with someone and live a normal life… but it seems Mother is not yet done with him.
The genius of Tom Holland’s screenplay is that we fully expect Norman to snap and start killing folks, now that we know his secrets. There’s no mystery anymore, right? He’s crazy and has a split personality, and Marie’s going to end up like Marion Crane; end of story. Not so fast. At roughly the same point that Ms. Crane took her fateful shower in the original, we find out that [spoiler for 30 year-old movie ahead] Marie is actually the daughter of Lila Crane, Marion’s sister (played by a returning Vera Miles). Lila (who married Marion’s boyfriend. What a cad, that guy) is not too happy about Norman’s release, and has convinced her daughter to help drive him crazy again so he can be locked up for good. However, Marie becomes sympathetic to Norman, and doesn’t want to help her increasingly obsessed mother with her plan. Things escalate from there, and once again someone ends up dead at the bottom of the staircase. But who’s the killer?
I have issues with the film’s final reveal, but overall I find PSYCHO II to be a very good, admirably classy variation on the whodunit slasher, one that does the 1960 original proud. Even with the fact that we know Norman is a murderer right off the bat, the movie offers plenty of twists and surprises while still adhering to the “rules” of the sub-genre; there’s even a scene where two teens sneak off to fool around and encounter the knife-wielding killer. Franklin (and DP Dean Cundey) stage some terrific set pieces, and unlike the original (where a new audience will find it all but impossible to escape its notoriety. who doesn’t know Marion dies 40 minutes in at this point?), you might not always see where it’s going. And the tension, particularly in the third act when you’re not sure who’s on whose side anymore, is often just as unbearable as in the original, with the added queasy bonus of the audience feeling equally sympathetic and fearful of Norman.
Previously released on bare-bones DVD from Universal, Scream Factory has put together a special edition that’s not quite as expansive as their other Blu-ray releases. The only major video supplement is the original EPK (Electronic Press Kit) from 1983, which features some choice soundbytes (most of which are repeated at least once) and behind the scenes footage, plus interviews with Perkins, Miles, and even Janet Leigh (who reminds us that she still refuses to take a shower unless the door is open). It also includes a few clips from the movie, which is redundant and makes its 34 minute runtime less impressive. Some of the material is recycled on an alternate audio track that plays over the first 15-20 minutes of the film (it ends when Franz first appears), which also includes what sounds like radio spots and other promotional material. A bizarre feature, but I guess it beats just listening to the stuff while looking at a blank screen.
Thus, the only truly new feature is an audio commentary with Holland, moderated by PSYCHO LEGACY director Rob Galluzzo. Holland (who has a small role in the film as a deputy) has a good memory and heaps lots of praise on all of his collaborators, and Galluzzo keeps him on track while adding in some insight of his own, making it a solid listen that makes up for the lack of any new interviews or retrospective material that’s usually a standard on these releases. The picture and audio are also quite good. There’s some occasional (and very minor) print damage—specks and dirt and what have you—but I actually enjoy seeing that sort of stuff as it reminds me of a. watching it in the theater and b. that it was actually shot on film.
During the commentary, Holland notes that Perkins’ European sensibilities had him occasionally making suggestions that didn’t quite fit with the writer’s ideas for the movie. For Holland, everything should inform the story, but Perkins would ask for things that only made sense to the character, and then adds that you can see the difference in “the one he directed.” That would be 1986’s PSYCHO III, also released on Blu for the first time via Scream Factory. A much more polarizing entry than the first sequel, some love this one’s “artier,” somewhat sleazier approach, while others find it to be an overly violent departure from the first two that fits all too well with the low budget slasher junk of the day.
I myself fall somewhere in the middle. It’s certainly a fun movie to watch, and I don’t blame them for not attempting to have lightning strike three times, but with PSYCHO II ending on something of a cliffhanger and Perkins up for directing it himself, I can’t help but feel it should be a bit better than it is. New writer Charles Pogue had no interest in the “Mrs. Spool” plotline, and thus only references it when he absolutely has to, more or less writing it right back out of significance by the film’s end, and itself in the process. One could skip from the original to PSYCHO IV without any fear of being lost in the story. What’s more, Perkins and Pogue also didn’t really create much of a mystery this time around. For the first time, we actually see Norman in the same room as “Mother” while carrying on full conversations, and they even show him committing the murders on occasion.
In the place of any real twists and turns is a sort of love story between Norman and Maureen (Diana Scarwid), a nun who has lost her faith and sort of on the run after accidentally killing one of her fellow sisters. Like all troubled women in this universe, she finds herself at Bates Motel, and Norman (as Mother) wastes no time trying to kill her, only to find that she has attempted to do the job herself with a razor to her wrists. This is a nice little twist on the expected “shower scene,” but it’s one few such moments in the film. Pogue’s script is more content to constantly reference the first film with lines of dialogue, and perhaps since he was behind the camera, Norman himself takes a backseat to Duke (Jeff Fahey), a wannabe rock star who has taken an assistant manager job at the motel. Indeed, the movie actually introduces both of these characters before we even see Norman. Whereas PSYCHO II opens with some footage of the original and gets us up to speed right away, there’s about 10 minutes or so before anything PSYCHO-related appears here.
There’s also a subplot about a reporter seemingly trying to drive Norman crazy again (or prove that he always was), which feels a bit too much like a retread of Vera Miles’ story PSYCHO II. Add in a bunch of rowdy football fans that seem lifted out of any mid-80s slasher like SLAUGHTER HIGH, and you’re left with a film that doesn’t even measure up to the other sequel, let alone the original it keeps reminding us of with every turn. That said, it’s certainly not without merit; the climax is much more violent than you might expect, offering the film’s only true surprise, and there’s a novelty to finally seeing Perkins in full-on mother mode (his quick run into the room at the end of the original doesn’t really count). It’s also got some great little black humor touches; Perkins’ amused expression when the sheriff comes this close to discovering one of his victims’ bodies is genius.
If you do find yourself on the “PSYCHO III is better” team (I’ve talked to a couple of folks who even prefer it to the original), you will find yourself immensely pleased with this special edition, with four new interviews alongside the standard trailers/still gallery collections. The longest and certainly most exciting is Jeff Fahey (a late addition that’s not even mentioned on the packaging), who seems to be auditioning for a Dennis Hopper biopic as he recounts getting the role, working with Perkins, and even a fun little anecdote from the set of GRINDHOUSE. Victim Katt Shea delivers an eight-minute interview for her four-minute role in the film (her onscreen appearance is so brief that the piece even reuses a couple of her shots), discussing how her less than glamorous role was instrumental in her transition from actress to filmmaker (it was one of her last acting roles; she directed her first film STRIPPED TO KILL the following year). Makeup FX man Michael Westmore is also on hand to talk about the various prosthetic gags, pulling off the slashed wrists in the shower scene and other bits, and they even have Brinke Stevens in a new interview. She was Scarwid’s body double for a single shot; in case you were as confused as I was at first as to what she was doing there (her “role” is not credited on the film itself).
There’s also a new commentary by Pogue, moderated by Michael Felsher (who produced all of the interviews, as he does for nearly every Scream Factory release). I was a bit worried at first since Felsher’s moderating work on some of their other releases (such as Gary Brandner on THE HOWLING) tends to forget about the movie we’re watching in favor of general questions about their career, but he stays mostly on point here, and Pogue talks about some of his minor arguments with Perkins as well as some of the film’s earlier concepts (at one point, Janet Leigh was considered to play a new character that would understandably remind Perkins of Marion). He also reveals his original concept for what would be the next sequel, which didn’t pan out due in part to this film’s underwhelming box office. It’s nothing that will change your mind about the movie if you’re not a fan, but a must-listen if you are, or are just curious as to what they were thinking. Another solid transfer rounds things out, no surprise there.
As for PSYCHO IV… wait, Scream was wise enough to skip that one.
I become more impressed with PSYCHO II every time I watch it, and if nothing else, PSYCHO III’s vivid colors (Duke’s room in particular) benefit from this high def release, making both welcome additions to my collection. With BATES MOTEL mostly stinking up the franchise’s name (I liked the pilot, but man it went downhill fast) it’s great to go back and revisit the entries that proved there was indeed some life after Hitchcock.