is considered by many to be Alfred Hitchcock's crowning achievement. Although
I'd suggest there are several other titles that could justifiably vie for that accolade,
there's no disputing that it ranks as a premium couple of hours of suspenseful
drama that still packs a punch 57 years on from its release. I can only begin
to imagine the impact the burgeoning ill-ease and kinky twist reveal had on
unsuspecting audiences back in 1960.
it's practically a given that a box office hit will result in a hastily mounted
sequel, but back then it was almost unheard of, besides which Psycho delivered a self-contained story
with a satisfying conclusion, so there really wasn't any need for augmentation.
(To be fair though, one could say that about fistfuls of superfluous sequels
today.) In any event, as follow-ups go 1983's Psycho II rubs shoulders with the best of them; yes, it's
superfluous, but director Richard Franklin's film wipes out any suspicions of a
cash-raking exercise by delivering a beautifully tailored narrative that
dovetails impeccably with its ancestor. In fact it’s such a well-considered
continuation that one could almost believe it had been planned right from the
start. It isn't just good, it's really
with a slightly pared down replay of that
shower murder from Hitchcock's film, as the camera pans to the window and comes
to rest on the edifice that is the Bates house, the image subtly transitions
from the black & white of the original to colour. And so begins a tale
bristling with devilish twists, one that's almost as thrilling as the first and
that unexpectedly weighs in with a hefty emotional payload.
ago Fairvale motelier Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) was arrested following
several brutal knife murders – including that of larcenous Marion Crane – and
the discovery that as a child he'd poisoned his overbearing Mother. Due to his
state of mind he was declared not guilty of murder and incarcerated in an
institution for the criminally insane. Now, much to the ire of Marion's sister,
Lila (Vera Miles), Norman has been pronounced fit for release. He arrives back
at the family owned motel to find that an oily state-appointed manager, Toomey
(Dennis Franz), has allowed it to devolve into a dive patronised by unsavoury
clientele. Norman sacks Toomey and sets about doing the place up, intending to
relaunch it as a respectable establishment. To make ends meet in the interim he
gets a part-time job at a nearby diner where he meets and takes a shine to down-on-her-luck
waitress Mary (Meg Tilly) and he subsequently offers her lodgings. Although
she's aware of Norman's past – there's not a soul in Fairvale who isn't – she's
desperate and so, with some trepidation, accepts. As Norman's affection for
Mary warms, so the first of a series of notes from his dead Mother appears. Next
come the phone calls. And then people around Norman begin to die, each falling
victim to a shadowy, knife-wielding figure. Has the rehabilitation process not
been the success it first appeared? Are the messages from Mother all in
Norman's head? Or is someone messing with him, trying to retrigger his
insanity? Whatever the case, Norman quickly begins to unravel...
previously directed a couple of efficient chillers in his native Australia –
1978's Patrick and 1981's Roadgames – Richard Franklin's decision
to take on a sequel to one of cinema history's most venerated films for his
American debut was a bold and ambitious one. Fortunately, Psycho II proved a decent critical and box office success. It
boasts a sharp, intelligent script by Tom Holland, who would go on to helm some
fine chillers of his own (among them Fright
Night and Child's Play), and who
appears fleetingly here as a police deputy.
Perkins – slipping back into Norman Bates' loafers with such ease that it's
almost as if he never vacated them – gets the cream of the dialogue, including
some splashes of black humour, for example when Norman, former knife murderer,
nervously falters in his enunciation of the word “cutlery”. The script also rather
daringly turns Norman into a figure of sympathy as he tries to fit back
into civilised society, struggling valiantly to quell the re-emergence of
his former homicidal impulses whilst external forces seem to conspire against
him. There's a wonderful scene which finds Mary comforting Norman and he tells
her that she smells like toasted cheese sandwiches, kindling one of the few
happy memories of his mostly bereft childhood; if it sounds a bit corny on
paper, it's actually remarkably poignant.
Of course, it helps that there's a strong supporting cast. Particularly good are Robert Loggia as the psychologist tasked with keeping an eye on Norman post-release, Hugh Gillin as Fairvale's Sheriff (“We’re a tad slow around here, young lady, but we’re not incompetent”), Dennis Franz playing another of his stock in trade sleazebags and Vera Miles reprising her original Psycho role, albeit in a less genial capacity. Keep an eye open too for Perkins' son Osgood, who gets a brief moment in the spotlight as the young Norman.
As to the whistles and bows, the murders are much more graphic than those in Psycho, all staged with a discernible sense of sadistic glee; well, it was the 1980s after all and thanks to offerings such as Friday the 13th, An American Werewolf in London and the remake of The Thing horror audiences had come to expect much more splatter for their buck; it would only intensify as the years went on. Just the same, it’s a shame thatFranklin felt compelled to compete, for Psycho II would have functioned perfectly as well without it. The Bates abode’s voyeuristic peepholes get a thorough workout too, resulting in one splendid 24-carat jolt. And, yes, there's a crowd-pleasing shower scene (for which Meg Tilly was body doubled) that precisely duplicates several shots from Hitchcock's film, although it’s far more explicitly staged in terms of the amount of flesh on display.
Franklin never lets up on the suspense and manages to keep the audience teetering on the edge of uncertainty until the slightly divisive finale which, depending on one's outlook, either does disservice to the work of Robert Bloch and Joseph Stefano (author of the original film’s source novel and its scripter, respectively) or else adds a wicked new layer to the twisted tale of Norman Bates. I'm in the latter camp.
Ace cinematographer Dean Cundy's work is typically exquisite, brimming with a myriad of marvellously moody shots; one that lingers in the memory stares down vertiginously from directly above the Bates house as an almost-victim flees in terror. The labours of the art department meanwhile, recreating to perfection the interiors of the Bates house, are breathtakingly exquisite; when Norman sets foot inside his former home for the first time in 22 years I felt a real sense of wonderment, albeit tinged with the crawling apprehension with which Norman himself is understandably gripped.
Composer Jerry Goldsmith goes in a surprising direction with his score. There are, naturally enough, several deliciously ominous motifs throughout. But rather than appropriating the aggressive, stabbing sound of Bernard Hermann's classic original titles theme, Goldsmith’s opening pitch is unexpectedly melodic, one might almost say melancholic; it certainly works for me.
For everything that contributes to the well-oiled mechanics of Psycho II – and there’s very little about it that doesn't work – it's Anthony Perkins, arguably the show's auteur, who's ultimately responsible for its success, chewing up the scenery with twitchy relish; thank heavens the film-makers didn’t have to re-cast. Although his cinematic resume was diverse, I always enjoyed the actor most for his unhinged characterisations – those in North Sea Hijack and Crimes of Passion, the latter in which he's completely off the leash, are particular favourites – and Norman Bates is surely the one for which he'll always be best remembered. Indeed, he assumed the role on two further occasions, for Psycho III (1986, which he also directed) and Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), both serviceable enough but neither quite as efficacious as the first two. Psycho itself retains the crown, but Psycho II is an estimable production of which I have no doubt Alfred Hitchcock would have approved.
Arrow Video has issued it on Blu-Ray in a transfer from the original film elements. Picture quality is pleasing, if not exactly dazzling, with only moderate levels of grain in evidence, whilst the original stereo audio is nicely robust. Supplemental materials are prodigious. There's a discussion about the film between writer Tom Holland, Rob Galluzzo (writer/producer/director of recommended feature length documentary The Psycho Legacy) and Mick Garris (director of Psycho IV: The Beginning); a piece dedicated to author Robert Bloch; a period Australian television interview with Anthony Perkins; an entertaining feature commentary from Holland; a seemingly truncated vintage promo short focussing on late director Richard Franklin; Perkins and Franklin audio interviews; a scene-specific audio segment with Franklin; a collection of 9 original electronic press kit shorts which include some worthwhile behind camera footage and interviews; a slightly coarse demo version of Jerry Goldsmith's main theme for the film; an audio press kit (as supplied to radio stations back in the day); a modest stills gallery; two trailers (sadly drawn from video rather than film) and a quartet of TV spots. Unseen at the time of writing, the release comes complete with a booklet that includes salient material from Richard Franklin's (to date) unpublished autobiography and, as is standard for Arrow, reversible sleeve art.