Aaron’s review published on Letterboxd:
Part of Hoop-Tober
"Who is this? My Mother is dead."
If ever a genre thrived on the commission of ill-advised acts, it is horror. Not the act of filming certain grotesque behaviors or telling certain disturbing stories—though many would argue that point, at least on a case-by-case basis—but the actions of the characters themselves. Don’t split up when a predator is on the prowl, you ninnies—don’t you know there’s safety in numbers?! Don’t go down into the dark basement with nothing but a quickly waning candle by your side—you just heard disturbing noises down there, what’s wrong with you?! Don’t open that flesh-bound book with the skull and crossbones on the cover—how could that possibly lead to anything good?!
Few, if any, of the actions of your typical horror-movie bipedal grist are as foolish, however, as determining to make a sequel to one of the most famous, most influential, and generally greatest works in cinema history. Like the ill-fated installments Citizen Kane II: Electric Boogaloo and Singin’ in the Rain: Still Singin’*, such films invariably feel like craven cash-grabs, inciting the ire of film lovers and inadvertently tarnishing the hallowed memories of their forebears.
As such, one might be tempted never to watch Psycho II, the belated sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece. Certainly the world was not clamoring specifically for more Psycho, and as far as definitive endings go, Psycho’s seemed especially definitive. Why not leave Marion Crane’s corpse at rest? Why re-dredge the swamp?
Why, as a craven cash-grab, of course. Sort of. Psycho II’s unlikely life began as a sequel novel written by Robert Bloch, author of the original 1959 novel from which Hitchcock’s film was adapted. Bloch, who had retained literary rights to the story and characters (Universal possessed the film rights), was disgusted by the slasher craze and so wrote a sequel to his most famous book intending to scathingly satirize the evils of Hollywood’s peddling of bloodlust. Universal—which could have adapted Bloch’s sequel free of charge as part of its ownership of the film rights—chose not to invest in a movie decrying one of its most lucrative product lines. Quelle surprise. (In fairness to the studio bosses, the novel Psycho II—which, in fairness to Bloch, I have not read—apparently includes only a small supporting role for Norman Bates and focuses largely on a Hollywood horror director with a backstory involving unappealing violent and sexual components (even by Norman’s rather lenient standards), so perhaps they weren’t driven solely by their balance sheet.)
Despite passing on Bloch’s Molotov cocktail of a novel, the book spurred renewed interest in Psycho and in Norman Bates. How better for a studio to capitalize on this revived attention, occurring coincidentally at the height of the slasher craze, than by producing a sequel? To add to the prospective moviegoer's sense of foreboding, Psycho II was rushed into production, shot quickly on backlots and with a tight budget, and intended originally as a made-for-cable movie until Anthony Perkins agreed to star. Sounds like a solid, intriguing foundation, no? As if trying to breathe within the shadow of its towering predecessor weren’t enough, the film starts off with a truncated clip of Psycho's classic shower scene—inviting both unflattering comparisons to perfection and the fury of those who would object to editing down the shower scene, you scissor-happy jackass. And yet, against all odds, Psycho II manages not just to be better than expected, or better than it has any right to be, but genuinely good.
It is by no means perfect. Director Richard Franklin's film has a mix of classical technique and fashionable gore that is at times uneasy, and some of the convolutions of Tom Holland's screenplay require a rather hefty willingness to suspend disbelief and forgive certain inconsistencies. To name one, is it really plausible that the state of California would release a twitchy serial murderer to live at the site of his murders with no post-release oversight? Perhaps not, but it sets the plot in motion—if Norman isn’t released, there’s no movie to be viewed. To name another, does the extra we’ve glimpsed playing the killer in the several murder scenes (and that person’s description by others) square with that person’s eventual unmasking? Decidedly not, but then again, misdirection is crucial to a whodunit’s success, so it’s forgivable enough.
Part of Psycho II’s success lies with its clever whodunit storyline. Holland’s script, which shows the promise he would fulfill with Fright Night, is twisty and witty and smart (sometimes too smart by half) in its approach to Norman’s story. Rather than follow the usual slasher-sequel formula—the previous film’s killer goes on yet another rampage—Psycho II picks up with Norman’s (Perkins) release from a mental ward twenty-two years after the first film’s events, much to the consternation of Lila Loomis (Vera Miles), the departed Marion Crane’s sister. Norman has been rehabilitated and wants nothing more than to lead a quiet, sane, non-murdery life. Yet everywhere Norman turns, it seems people are trying to drive him mad once more. He receives notes and phone calls from Mother. He sees Mother in her bedroom window. Bloody rags are found in the darnedest places. Noises come from within the house. Oh, and several people disappear and turn up dead. Is someone gaslighting Norman? Or is he reverting to his old ways?
Psycho II never really places Norman's guilt for the new murder spree in doubt. It is clear from the outset that someone is setting Norman up or otherwise acting in his stead (though the identity of that person or persons is kept hidden for some time). What is in doubt is Norman's grip on his newfound sanity—a grip that starts out as tenuous and becomes looser and looser as the film progresses. Perkins is perhaps not quite as indelible as in the original film, but he is still remarkable, slipping right back into the ticks and nervous charm that made his original performance so memorable—so memorable, in fact, that it both made and killed Perkins' career, as for years no one in Hollywood could picture him as anything else. As in Psycho, Perkins is remarkably effective at creating sympathy for Norman—a serial killer, lest we forget. Norman's desperation simply to be normal, simply to hang on to his wavering mental health evokes tremendous pity, more than a performance in a film called Psycho II has any right to. It's a nuanced, terrifically well-crafted turn.
The supporting characters and performances are nearly as good, helping to elevate Psycho II above typical horror-sequel schlock. Mary Samuels (Meg Tilly), the waitress Norman befriends at his new diner job, is quiet and scattered but with hidden reserves of strength and resourcefulness, and Tilly makes her growing fondness for Norman—again, a serial killer, in case you've forgotten—believable. Miles resurrects her role from the original and brings an understandable, albeit somewhat terrifying, fervor to Lila's crusade to see Norman recommitted. And Dr. Raymond (Robert Loggia), Norman's kindly psychiatrist, has such a firm belief in Norman's goodness and is so committed to his client that the audience can't help but want to agree. That the ever-stalwart Loggia sells such a difficult role is a testament to his character actor bona fides. Dennis Franz (as Warren Toomey, the sleazeball running the Bates Motel in Norman's absence) and Hugh Gillin (as Sheriff Hunt, a beer-bellied good old boy with no patience for the mayhem returned to his peaceful community) add lively dashes of flavor in the background.
Franklin, who was a student of Hitchcock's, brings a stately formality to the proceedings, clearly wishing to honor the spirit of the classic film whose lineage he is continuing. Numerous visual nods to the original film are sprinkled throughout, and there is even a cheeky Hitchcock cameo in the form of a shadow cast by his famous silhouette. And Holland's knotty script, which pours revelation upon revelation in its final third, is delightful even when it's ludicrous (one particular revelation best left unsaid may particularly irritate fans of the original, but it's handled with such brio that it's hard to deny the fun). It's all remarkably well done—except that it never needed to be done at all. But if you can put aside the knee-jerk animosity, the urge to protect a classic so unassailable it needs no defenders, and accept Psycho II on its own terms, you may find something worthwhile. A modest, charming, enjoyable little film that is—like its protagonist—not guilty by reason of insanity.
*Editor’s Note: Not actual movies.