Often considered the first legacy sequel, Australian filmmaker (and USC graduate) Richard Franklin delivered Psycho II, which has, over the years, become a respected film in its own right. In Tom Holland, Franklin not only saw an ability to write visual set pieces but also that Holland's previous experience as an actor would, seemingly, serve him well. This would all become a major part of understanding character ― arcs and the spaces they inhabit ― crucial elements Holland would implement for Franklin, who had given him the impossible task of writing the follow-up to a modern masterpiece.
Was Alfred Hitchcock's original an influence on you during your youth?
It had a huge effect. Scared the living bejesus out of me, and it was the first time I think I consciously realized that film was a series of pieces edited together. Before that, I had grown up on AIP and Hammer horror and they didn't cut their films like that; they didn't have terror like that. Psycho changed everything and made it "psychological." All of a sudden, you can kill your lead actress at the end of the first act. Incredible. I can't tell you what it was like, it was just a life-changing event.
No pressure to write the sequel, then?
[laughs] Well, number one, everybody I was surrounded by told me that it was a career-ender. Having the temerity to try to do a sequel to the classic.
It must have been terrifying.
It was. Totally terrifying. Psycho II was either going to be this huge opportunity or a death rattle. One or the other, but it turned out to be a huge opportunity. And this started out as a cable movie because in 1982, the cable systems were starting to come in, which is why if you look at the end credits on Psycho II, you'll see Oak Communications. So, basically, it started out being a TV movie. Universal was throwing it away. They had no idea that the title alone had a resonance and didn't realize how huge an icon Tony Perkins as Norman Bates was.
I guess with twenty years left to percolate and become such a definitive movie, they probably underestimated what it had become?
Well, most of us see Psycho as the start of horror as we know it today and also the birth of the slasher. It had an unforgettable and complex character at its center, and that needed to be understood, even by Universal. How I came to it was through a series of lucky accidents. The director Richard Franklin and I both knew that in order to have a shot of getting this as a feature film release ― because we knew the strength of Tony as Norman ― I had to write a script that would get Tony to come back and play Norman Bates.
He was resistant, if I recall.
That's right, he had turned it down before there was a script because he had blamed the original film for, well, not wrecking his career but severely limiting it because up until Psycho, he was a young romantic lead. He had just finished starring on Broadway in the stage version of Thomas Wolf's Look Homeward, Angel, and they had all these teenage girls lined up outside the stage door. Then he became the scariest thing after that; a horror icon. So I had to write a script to hook Tony, an actor who needed that character arc to play with. You need to begin in one place and end up somewhere else by the end. Firstly, what I thought was, what if I made Norman? If you start to see why Norman turned into a serial killer, if I could engender sympathy for him, then that would make the part more attractive to Tony. But I also gave him the most radical character arc I could think of. He comes out of the institution after twenty-two years, and he's sane, or at least he's desperately trying to hold on to what sanity he has. And by the end of the movie, he doesn't kill anybody until the final moments, and he is totally mad again, and nobody knows it.
The whole film is laced with irony.
Well, it's funny, I remember writing all that stuff with Mother ― "Norman!" ― and I was hoping my own mother wouldn't get mad at me for making mothers look so bad. But, despite all that, you understand Norman. I don't want to say you love him, but you feel really sorry for him, and you know that his relationship with his mother did all this to him, and at the very end, of course, he gets to kill his mother. Overall, I thought the script was an actor's dream. Later on, during production, Richard Franklin told me that Tony had been angling only to play Norman Bates again if he could direct the sequel. Of course, he later went on to direct the third
The great thing is that you are responsible for giving Norman Bates more dimension. The first is obviously a masterpiece, but you take him much further than the original film.
It helped with not having any interference because the studio wasn't thinking of it as a feature film. We had now managed to have Tony commit to a part he really loved because he now saw what he could do with the script. And with that, Universal put out a press release saying, "Hey, Anthony Perkins is coming back to play Norman Bates in Psycho II!" and the world went nuts. The studio was shocked but now realized they had a feature film. Not that they gave us any more money to make it with, I think we even shot it on a lot, just as Hitchcock had shot Psycho One. Can you believe I just said Psycho One? [laughs] I guess on some level, that's a huge compliment to Psycho II. But people forget it was a huge hit and one of Universal's biggest summer movies in the summer of 1983.
Do you also feel that the success was down to it falling in amongst the slasher boom, post-Halloween, and the influx of Friday the 13th sequels and other masked killers?
Yeah, but you can't equate Psycho II with any of those sequels and eventual remakes. When I worked on this film, sequels were rare. You just can't compare them.
They're not in the same stratosphere, but do you feel horror fans may have expected a similar movie during that time? Something (for want of a better term) "trashier?" This certainly holds up on its own as a movie, not just as a sequel.
Yeah… but I'm biased [laughs].
So you should be. It's a brilliant movie, period.
It stands out from those other slashers because it's character-driven. It's Norman's story, and you had a terrific cast of actors. Meg Tilly, Vera Miles, Robert Loggia, and Dennis Franz (before anyone knew who he was). That's a hell of a cast.
Even down to the production design and cinematography, it's head and shoulders above the rest. There's so much about it to love.
That's because the line producer was Hilton A. Green, and he had been Hitchcock's assistant director on the original and, I think, all the way through to Family Plot. Green ended up being the head of production for Universal, he was Lew Wasserman's man, and then he had been Hitchcock's man. Taking such a personal interest in the sequel, he just did a brilliant job. He ended up running Universal, so there was no interference. It was an amazing experience and, aside from Fright Night, maybe the best production I've ever seen.
Did Universal not even suggest ramping up the gore, or was that already in the shooting script?
There were some pressures, and because of that, you have Lila Crane [Vera Miles] being killed with a knife through the mouth. That was obviously a nod to where we thought the horror movies and the level of violence was going in those days.
Kind of where we were going with the slasher reference.
Yeah, hence the other suggestion from Universal: adding the teenagers in the cellar where somebody kills them. It's brilliantly shot by Richard ― he was spot on with everything ― but, ultimately, that moment is there because of the cliché "have sex and die in a slasher." That's what that was a nod to. But otherwise, everything in that movie remains Norman's story. I didn't do gore for the sake of gore beyond those two minutes, and Lila had to die, it was just a question of how horribly you wanted to kill her.
How did the experience of working on Psycho II shape you as a director?
Well… a huge thanks to the director Richard Franklin who I also worked with on Cloak & Dagger after this film. Sadly, he passed away in 2007. He was a great guy, and, as some will know, he was a complete devotee of Hitchcock and John Ford. Even though he was from Australia, he was part of that USC class of filmmakers like George Lucas, who held those same values. Working with him was like working on an intensely elongated graduate seminar on Alfred Hitchcock. It was fascinating. It was actually Richard who originally hired me because of a script I wrote called Crystal Tower.
Which you're now writing as a novel?
I'm working on it, yes. [laughs] I tell ya, I'm not going until they get the last produced movie out of me. Anyway, before starting on the script, Richard and I ordered up every movie that Hitchcock had ever made, and we sat in the screening room at Universal, starting with the silents while also watching films we felt had influenced Hitchcock, like F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu and Sunrise. Watching these films and the entirety of Hitchcock's oeuvre, Richard pointed to the shots he loved. There are also echoes of the original, such as the death of Dr. Raymond [Loggia], which is a nod to Arbogast killed on the stairway in the first film.
You were going through this Hitchcock education before you even put pen to paper?
Yes. Yes… Richard was a genius. I learned a lot. For instance, he also knew that he wanted to shoot everything in that motel and in that house. In the original, they used the motel, but they didn't really make the most of the house, and he wanted to take it there. So all of a sudden, I had a definite location I could write within.
The geography and use of space Norman inhabits stands out. What do you feel is the film's legacy? It still feels like what most sequels should be measured against.
From my point of view, it gave me a bump and launched my career as a writer/director. The film's legacy lies in what resonates in Norman Bates and the characters around him; the audience is emotionally involved. There's a horror film in there, but you're involved with the story about a guy who's trying to stay sane. And they're doing a very good job of driving him crazy. At the time, I didn't think anybody had ever done that story before.
Well, it certainly had more legs than Robert Bloch's version.
Ah, yes. Bloch's sequel to his original novel was released while we were filming… and he killed Norman off in the first few pages [laughs]. It seemed the film went away, my career moved on, and then they did III and IV, the Bates Motel TV series. It seemed to me that it slid out of everyone's mind, but if you hadn't had a financially successful movie with II, you would never have heard anything more about Psycho. It only seems in the last ten years that it's emerged as one the best sequels ever.
That's because it is.
Well, that's very gratifying to me.
Let's dig a little bit deeper into what you've touched upon about Norman and what makes him so appealing.
Because Norman comes out of that Freudian world, which was dominant then: where everything is your mother's fault if you're a male. [laughs] I'm serious, you know, there's this whole psychosis.
Do you think this still holds up in today's world? Or that Norman's psychosis is even more prevalent when it comes to representations of mental health and gender?
I think it has the potential to be a very different story. Everybody is a victim. What I mean is that part of the power of Psycho II is that you realize (maybe too late) that you're feeling sorry for a serial killer who is the victim. It's transgressive because you are identifying with Norman Bates because you're worried he's not going to make it. The irony we touched upon then plays itself out by the end.
Do you think that's the real horror of the story, that we identify with him?
That and it also has a very powerful and emotional ending.
The ending is fantastic. You also worked so many twists and turns into the film without derailing the plot. You are constantly thinking, "Is it Norman? If not, who could it be? Surely not someone else?" You just don't see it coming, weirdly, even on repeat viewings.
Even I said it, but when they start calling Psycho "Psycho One" [laughs], you know Psycho II has had an influence. That's incredible. With most films, you do the work, and they're gone. Films are disposable, even more so now with streaming. So it's amazing to be asked about this film on its fortieth anniversary, and I want to thank you, and I want to thank everybody out there who is reading this. We're finally all fans.
Tom also sat down last month with FANGORIA to discuss his new book Child's Play: A Visual Memoir by Tom Holland, available now via Amazon and the Terror Time shop. You can also purchase a signed hardback edition of the Psycho II script.