Shadowvision: “PSYCHO II”
Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black and white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.
Before beginning the latest edition of Shadowvision, I’d like to address criticisms regarding the ethics of this particular column. There have been comments alleging that these articles are a slight to the cinematographers and filmmakers who crafted these films, often comparing the experimentation of black-and-white revisionism to the colorization of classic movies. I acknowledge that there’s a certain amount of willful disregard toward the cinematography of each film addressed, as well as their intended presentation, in rewatching them monochromatically.
At the same time, as a lover of movies and the stories they tell, I have to ask: What’s wrong with experimenting with the way you watch motion pictures? In a world where 3-D post-conversions, IMAX and D-box are changing the way we view films theatrically, I don’t see anything particularly wrong with experiencing these films—many of which I’ve seen time and time again—from a brand new perspective, especially when this experience can be reversed with the click of a remote. In fact, in more ways than anticipated, revisiting these productions monochromatically increases my appreciation of them as stories, and they hold my attention much more than in simple cable repeats.
I mention these points specifically as they’re somewhat applicable to this Shadowvision, Richard Franklin’s PSYCHO II. As the first film is an undeniable classic, paving the way for modern horror as we know it, PSYCHO II came under the same fire from horror fans who felt that to follow up Alfred Hitchcock’s classic after his death was a slight against the original. However, ethically speaking, the film was in no safer hands than those of Richard Franklin, the Australian director of intense genre fare like PATRICK and ROADGAMES and a personal friend and student of Hitchcock. With a strong, respectful script from Tom Holland, Franklin was dead set on telling the next chapter of Norman Bates’ story as genuinely as possible, and it’s for this exact reason that I chose PSYCHO II for Shadowvision: to see if film plays when altered to keep continuity with the black-and-white-lensed original.
This film is a little tricky in terms of setting contrast; you’ll likely have to go higher than usual due to the excess of darkly lit scenes in the late second and early third acts. In fact, you may want to increase the brightness instead of the contrast, depending on the definition, to prevent blowing out the whites during exterior scenes. But PSYCHO II sans color is remarkably reminiscent of Hitchcock’s original, despite the storyline being much more complicated. Franklin’s framing and camera movement feel almost ripped from the original at times, and the boyish naiveté of Anthony Perkins’ performance as the older Norman Bates is much more recognizable than one might notice in color.
In black and white, PSYCHO II also feels more in line with the original since it lacks the segue from the opening shower-scene flashback to the color main narrative. The sequel manages to maintain the paranoia and guilt of Norman’s struggle as consistently as it was following Marion Crane’s murder in the original, and Norman’s mental relapses feel way more authentic as a result. The art direction feels more foreboding when deprived of color, and Dean Cundey’s cinematography even feels borrowed directly from John L. Russell’s playbook at times, primarily during scenes within the Bates household. Additionally, the narrative updates seem more striking and even shocking in black and white; you might almost forget they’re coming, so when they do, the makeup FX feel more gruesome.
Perhaps most apparent when viewed monochromatically is Franklin’s aim toward making the film a true Hitchcock successor, with few sequences, beyond the obligatory opening courtroom scene, feeling as if they exist outside of Hitchcock’s visual palette. Even the dialogue feels more akin to that of classically informed cinema than in line with its ’80s-horror brethren, which adds to the artificial nostalgia evoked by the black-and-white viewing experience. The film also feels much creepier this way, with the heavy shadowing appearing more prominent and adding a layer of subtle mystique, especially when backed by Jerry Goldsmith’s Bernard Herrmann-esque score.
However, turning down the color on PSYCHO II is also somewhat detrimental to the intended viewing experience in terms of the revelation of information. In black and white, Norman’s psychosis feels much more apparent than it does in color, where his specific state of mind is questionable until the film’s third act. Furthermore, some scenes, such as one in which Norman discovers blood oozing from a toilet, feel out of place without the visual punch of color to accentuate the eerie details. But possibly the most significant missing quality is the visual representation of Norman’s perspective; when the film plays in color, the audience sees the world through the eyes of a man who is viewing this world for the first time as well.
In terms of the acting, the differences between the color and black-and-white experiences range from startling to barely recognizable. As previously mentioned, Perkins’ starring turn feels more tonally at home with the latter approach, as the lack of color draws attention to his body language as opposed to his trademark stammering nervousness. Alternately, Vera Miles’ performance as Lila Loomis feels out of place in black and white, as she is much more animated and desperate here than she was in the original PSYCHO. Meanwhile, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia, Claudia Bryar and Dennis Franz all deliver pretty much the same results, sometimes reminiscent of Hitchcock’s repertory company but generally giving it their all from Holland’s excellent script.
When all is said and done, the very dark scenes during the last two acts may keep PSYCHO II from truly earning a black-and-white viewing recommendation, but Hitchcock diehards should check out the film monochromatically, as the similarities in certain angles are too striking to miss. There are almost equal reasons for and against revisiting the film this way, yet the gratification of the experience will rely on the viewer’s expectations. For those who love the film and appreciate its place in the PSYCHO lexicon, the color version should provide the definitive experience. However, those who would like to see Norman Bates’ story continue through the same lens that it began, black and white is a worthy alternative viewing experience.
Recommended for black-and-white consumption?: Maybe.