Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Psycho II (1983): Or, There's A Right Way And A Wrong Way To Have Mommy Issues

My dearest readers, I bid thee welcome, for it is I, the Duke of DVD, once more standing firm at the gunwale of cinematic mastery. Legs spread, I weather the pitch and yaw of the stormy seas of forgotten film minutiae, striving evermore to land the white leviathan that is silver-screen awesome. Do not despair, gentle readers! Together we shall shed light on the deepest of mysteries, catching the rare glimpse of that pallid abomination that slides through the ice-cold, inky blackness.

Today I turn my head to the left, then to the right, pointing with a glyphed dagger to the eight cardinal directions, muttering the names of unspeakable monstrosities from beyond time. Today friends, we raise the spectre of one Alfred Hitchcock as we trample across his grave in an attempt to reconcile the greatness that is Psycho II. What perverse greed drove filmmakers, a full 23 years after the original, to exhume this moldering corpse, string it up on a rough-hewn pole, and brandish it around town whilst horrified on-lookers shrieked and cowered, stabbing their scabbed fingers at the air with arcane signs to ward off ill omens?

Let us find out!

After the wild success of Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960, one would think that a sequel would have been fast-tracked. Luckily for 1960's moviegoers, Hollywood wasn't suffering the collective head trauma that they are now, and the movie stood on its own. Modern-day Hollywood, as my astute readers already know, is currently being consumed by itself. Demented by pain and rage, it shudders and groans, passing sequel after sequel, remake after remake, through its long digestive tract before a final grunt plops the cinematic offal directly onto the faces of the modern movie-going public.

"You're not fully clean unless you're Zest-fully clean!"

Psycho was spared this fate for over two decades, until in 1982 Robert Bloch wrote a book called Psycho II, which basically amounted to a send-up of the slasher genre. Before you could say "Holy FUCK! What a great idea!", Universal had jumped all over the idea of reprising Psycho. Negotiations were quickly underway, with everyone down to the Universal janitors trying to get Anthony Perkins to sign on. It wasn't until other names were bandied about (namely Christopher Walken, how fucking great would that have been!?!?) that Perkins finally consented.

Luckily, the original Bates household still existed on the Universal back lot, so all that had to be done was to rebuild the motel out front. The movie was originally intended to be a made-for-TV film, but I guess wiser heads prevailed and it was released in 1983 to critical acclaim and box office success. The movie ended up grossing over $32 million, making it one of the top draws that year. How did lightning strike twice for this franchise, before completely running off the tracks for sequels 3 and 4?

First off, there's Anthony Perkins. Why he isn't more popular is a subject that I will not get into here, but if you just looked at his work in the first two Psycho movies, you would be at a loss to explain it. Perkins plays a supposedly-newly-reformed Norman Bates with an aplomb that is palpable. He owns every scene, his eyes constantly alive with whatever emotion is he supposed to be feeling. He chews through every scene of the movie this way, and it is riveting to say the least.

The movie opens with the original footage of Janet Leigh's death in Psycho. Once again we are reminded of how much of an utter fucking genius that ol' Alfred was. No frame is wasted, each shot composed and presented to give the utmost in suspense. The murky figure of Norman, wearing his mother's clothing and wig, seen through the shower curtain is simply chilling. The brutal stabbing, so much more brutal if one imagines seeing something like this in 1960, is simply stunning. The close-up of Janet's hand gripping the curtain, until she finally tumbles out, face pressing against the floor, dead, as the camera lingers on her eye, seeming to show us the final light escaping it. Stunning, and brilliant.

This segues us into the early 80's, and a middle-aged Norman Bates sits in court as the judge pronounces him fit to return to normal society, where men are allowed to dress up as their departed mothers in the privacy of their own homes, provided they keep the killing to a minimum. Present in the courtroom is Lila Loomis (Vera Miles), sister to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who causes a brief ruckus by loudly proclaiming that Norman isn't in the least rehabilitated and shouldn't be released. Nothwithstanding, the judge brings the gavel down, and Norman is free to go.

"Uh, doc, couldn't you have bought me more than Trix and canned beans?"

Norman is driven back home by his court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Raymond (played excellently by Robert Loggia). Now, folks, I may not be a noted psychologist, but long years of listening to the Vicar wax philosophic on such subjects as the proper way to don a pair of ass-less chaps have given me a near preternatural insight into the human psyche. It seems to me that if someone was raised by a tyrant mother, and then finally kills said tyrant, and then proceeds to murder other victims wearing his mother's clothes, shouldn't that person, as part of their treatment, be made to, oh I don't know... STAY THE FUCK AWAY from the house in which it all occurred?

But this is the logic of film we are talking about, and so Norman is escorted right back to where it all began and unceremoniously dumped into the mouldy old house in which he was raised. Very quickly we are introduced to the seedy manager of the Bates Motel, who has been running the place in Norman's absence. The how or why of it isn't explained, but we learn that the motel is the happening spot for illicit affairs and drug deals, a fact which makes Norman a very angry boy. He fires the manager - played by a young Dennis Franz I am happy to report! - and tries to get his life on the right track.

"Are youse lookin' at my bum?"

This includes a sort of work-release program at a local diner. Norman is given the job of "cook's helper," which he takes to with relish. He meets the over-worked waitress of the joint, Mary (played by the scrumptious Meg Tilly). Norman comes to her aid several times, and ultimately gets her to come stay with him at his house after hearing that her boyfriend has kicked her out. This leads to what will become a long line of awesome Anthony Perkins-related scenes.

"Sorry, I really don't care for PB&J&Arsenic. Thanks anyway."

In the house, Mary and Norman sit at the kitchen table, and Norman offers to fix her a sandwich. This leads to Norman finding, get this, the exact fucking knife that he did foul murder with, just sitting there in the kitchen drawer! Uttering a line that is simply fantastic, Norman stammers out, "I am still getting set up here, and don't have much in the way of cuuuuuuuutlery."Mary begins digging around, finds the knife, and hands it to Norman, who shakily cuts her sandwich in twain. Brilliant stuff!

Everything seems fine to begin with. Norman seems well-enough adjusted, and despite the shock of finding his old murder weapon, not to mention a hand-written note from his mother from years ago (saying something to the effect of having dinner ready later), he is getting along with minimal problems. However, things quickly start to unravel. While working the orders at the dinner, Norman spins the order wheel around and sees a note from his mother! It reads "Get that slut out of my house! -Mother" or some such. Needless to say, he freaks the fuck out, but when his coworkers investigate, they find no note.


Later, Norman starts receiving calls from someone purporting to be his mother, which Norman buys hook line and sinker. He starts a downward spiral, and we the audience do indeed believe that he is losing it--that is until a more nefarious plot is revealed. It seems Mary isn't just an innocent waitress, and is instead Lila Loomis's daughter, niece to the Norman-murdered Marion Crane! Knowing that the courts will not keep Norman locked up, they have taken it upon themselves to drive him insane enough to be recommitted.

Things start getting even more bizarre when it's revealed that not just Mary and her mother are sneaking around the house. A mysterious 3rd party is peeking through peepholes at Mary getting out of the shower (a few quick seconds of Meg Tilly nearly full-frontal was enough to send your beloved Duke into a turgid dream-world, until I found out it was a body double, which caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth!) and hacking to death teens who are foolish enough to use the Bates' basement as a make-out spot. Norman is insistent that his mother is still around, and we start believing right along with him, even knowing it really can't be true.

"Oh baby, your breast feels like a warm bag of sand... what's that sound? Sounded stabby..."

The good Dr. Raymond even takes Norman out and has his mother's coffin exhumed, basically shoving his face in it saying "There! Look! She's dead, ok?! Christ, for the love of..." Ok, so he didn't do that, but he should have. Meanwhile, the sheriff is getting increasingly suspicious of Norman. First, the vagina-bearing half of one teen couple survives and informs the sheriff that someone killed her boyfriend in the Bates basement. However, an exhaustive forensic investigation (read: the corpulent sheriff standing in the basement, looking around a few seconds, then pronouncing "Nothin' ta see here'a"), nothing is confirmed.

"I knew I shouldn't have tried to flush that tampon..."

Norman then has a public argument with Mr. Toomey, the now-fired motel manager, who returns late at night to loudly pack up his belongings after Norman gives him the boot. Toomey is subsequently murdered, but it seems that Norman has an alibi, casting suspicion once again upon this mysterious 3rd party. The police continue to investigate, finally finding Toomey's car driven into the swamp near the house (which is fucking great for hiding bodies!), with Toomey's rotten corpse stuffed in the trunk. Meanwhile, Lila sneaks into the Bates basement and pulls her "Norman's Mother's Costume" from beneath a loose flagstone, only to be stabbed through her open mouth and out the back of her skull by a shadowy figure wearing yet another dress!

Stabbed through the heart, and you're to blame...

They are still unable to pin any of it on Norman, though, who is looking ever-increasingly fevered and demented as all of this progresses. By the final act, Norman is sweating through his skin, jumping at shadows, looking around with the wall-eyed visage of a hunted animal cornered by fell beasts, and just generally looking uncomfortable. His only respite is with the phantom phone calls from his "mother." Unable to convince him that this is just Lila calling, Mary becomes frantic to prove to Norman that it is all a ruse. Unbeknownst to Mary, however, is that her mother Lila hasn't been calling. Who's ringing the phone, then?!

"You may be a psycho, Norm, but I'll tell you man-to-man: you got one HELL of an ass!"

The movie culminates with Dr. Raymond, who is convinced that Mary and Lila are trying to drive Norman mad (which they are) and who jumps out and grabs Mary (who in turn has dressed as Norman's mother, complete with wig, in an attempt to talk Norm down from his insanity [WTF? Great idea, lady!]) and Mary shrieks then stabs the good doctor to death before she realizes who grabbed her. The doctor plunges over the banister with the knife protruding from his chest, and lands on a lower railing, directly on the knife, which is pushed further into his body! Brutal and brilliant, as well as well-shot!

"Sorry, there's no Hugh Jazz here... hey, wait a minute!"

Distraught, Mary runs downstairs to find Norman having a conversation with his non-existent mother still. He hangs up and tells Mary he'll take care of her while slowly advancing on her with a manic look in his eyes. Mary panics and stabs him, repeatedly, though they amount to stigmata-esque hand wounds and a few more shallow stabs on his person. She slowly backs in the basement, still stabby in her actions. She trips backwards over a pile of coal, and reveals the stabbed corpse of her mother!

Before you can say "How's your father?" she screeches at Norman and tries to run him through, only to be shot by Sheriff Portly! Norman, hands bandaged, is taken to the sheriff's department, where he is exonerated, sans trial, for any wrong-doing, by the lard-ass sheriff. He is then given a ride home, where he sets two places for dinner and waits. After dark comes a knock at his backdoor, which he answers. In walks a small-ish old lady, who informs Norman that he is indeed her true son, and that who Norman thought was his mother was instead this new lady's sister. Apparently Norman's real mother was too young, and about to be institutionalized, so she gave up Norman.

"Avon calling!"

Norman accepts this with surprising calm, as he fixes her some tea, poisoning her with the same stuff he used to off his first "mother." As she's starting to choke, he apparently decides that this is taking too long, and uses the coal shovel from the basement to bash her head in! He picks up her stiffening body and carries it upstairs, to his mother's room. The camera pauses with a high-profile shot facing downward to outside the door. We hear Norman reassure her that everything is going to be fine, and then we hear his new mother's voice, telling Norm that he's a good boy and to stay away from "filthy girls."

"I told you, no more fucking Brussel sprouts!"

The final shot of the movie is a fantastic frame of Norman walking away from the house, down to the motel. It is night and the sky is steel-gray; thunder rumbles in the distance. We see a lighted window at his mother's room, and her dark silhouette, watching, as Norman turns his head back to face the house. Fin.

Dearest readers, I must say, that this movie is completely awesome. Never in my wildest fantasies (and I've had some pretty wild fantasies, I assure you!) did I imagine that any sort of direct sequel to Psycho would be successful. And yet, here it is. Director Richard Franklin and writer Tom Holland pull off something that would seem at first glace to sucketh, yet pull it off they do. The visual compositions, which include a ton of off-angle, elevated shots, speak visually to Norman's state of mind. I also found it highly entertaining that not only did the producers keep you guessing as to what in the fuck is going on, but that even upon retrospection the killer identities is ambiguous at best. One can easily say that Norman's real mother killed Toomey and the kid in the basement, but did she really? It very well could have been Norman...

Anthony Perkins just nails the shit out of his reprized role, as I elucidated upon earlier. One interesting note is that due to Meg Tilly's young age, she was relatively unaware of Perkins' fame for his 1960 role as Norman Bates, causing her to ask what all the hubbub about Tony was, which reportedly pissed Perkins off to no end, causing him to cease speaking to her like some petulant child for the remainder of the shoot! Tony Perkins: a big girl's blouse when it comes to being a star.

There's no place like home.

In the end, this movie is most certainly greater than the sum of its parts. From the fantastic performances of even the most bitty of bit parts, to the reused house from the original, to the way each shot was composed with much forethought, Psycho 2 ranks right up there in the pantheon of brilliant sequels that not only add to the mythos created by their predecessors, but are also fantastic movies in their own right.

A standing ovation and 3 Thumbs Up, my friends. Stay stabby.


DJ Capybara said...

I can remember watching this with my dad when I was a teenager. Neither of us was expecting him to hit her with the shovel at the end and we both laughed our guts out. Ahhh good memories....

Anonymous said...

This is truly an underappreciated gem. Another amazingly awesome and epic review. I had no idea Walken was ever considered for the role of Bates.

The Film Connoisseur said...

This sequel is solid, I mean, out of all the films that followed the original, this is by far my favorite one. The story grabs you if you stick with it all the way to the end. ANd the ending! What a shocker dammit!

Part III is solid as well, but this one is better.

Al Bruno III said...

A surprisingly good film for a decades after the fact. I think that if might work just as well as a stand alone film if you stripped out the Psycho mythology. The final meeting between Norman and his mother was a shocker.

Oh and Duke I do agree that young Meg was quite the cutie back then and if there is any justice in the world your fine work will someday make you the meat in a Tilly sister sandwich.

Stephen Phillips said...

Couldn't agree more! I absolutely LOVE 'Psycho II' and have been telling people for years what a great sequel it is. Granted, that was the last good installment in the franchise, but I thought it was a worthy successor to the first film. You truly feel sorry for Norman in this one, because he really is just trying to live a normal life.

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