How do you follow-up one of the most game-changing horror movies ever made? With an under-rated cult sequel, that’s how. Johnny Restall goes back to the Bates Motel to investigate…
Despite its initially lukewarm critical reception, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) went on to become one of the director’s most iconic works, frequently credited with reinventing the horror genre through its contemporary setting and shock twists. Attempting a sequel to such an established classic years later would appear to be a thankless task, destined to disappoint: yet against all odds Richard Franklin’s Psycho II (1983) stands on its own two feet, adding to the original without disappearing into its shadow.
Robert Bloch, author of the source novel for Hitchcock’s film, had actually already written a sequel of his own in 1982. However Bloch’s Psycho 2 – a poisonous mixture of grand guignol and venomous Hollywood satire – was not popular with producers at Universal and was entirely disregarded for the film (although elements of its plot are later echoed by 2000’s Scream 3). While horror sequels were proving to be big business in the early 1980s thanks to the likes of the Friday The 13th franchise, Universal initially had little more than a passing interest in making a follow up to Psycho, scheduling the project for cable TV rather than cinema release.
Director Richard Franklin had come to Hollywood following several productions in his native Australia, notably Patrick (1978) and offbeat thriller Roadgames (1981). An avowed Hitchcock fan who had actually corresponded with the director while still a student, his background and enthusiasm for the original made him a perfect fit for this follow-up. Faced with the daunting task of creating an entirely new story, Franklin recruited actor-turned-writer Tom Holland to fashion a screenplay, impressed by his script for 1982’s monster-chiller The Beast Within. Holland (who would go on to write and direct Fright Night and Child’s Play) turned in an ingenious script which secured the return of Vera Miles, once again playing the role of Lila Loomis (nee Crane). Crucially it was also intriguing enough to entice the initially reluctant Anthony Perkins to take the lead again as Norman Bates, a coup that helped finally persuade the studio that they had something more than a TV movie on their hands.
In a bold but sensible move Psycho II uses the legendary shower scene from the original film as a prologue, directly addressing the challenge of following Hitchcock’s classic by acknowledging its most infamous moment. The black and white visuals gracefully transition into colour as the sun begins to rise behind the old Bates’ house, subtly acknowledging the passage of time and hinting at a new beginning. By the end of the opening credits the harsh sunlight makes the house appear sad and neglected, stripped of the sinister qualities it held in darkness. Alongside Jerry Goldsmith’s melancholic title theme – a world away from Bernard Herrmann’s frantic original score – it is our first hint that the film will challenge expectations and strike a new tone of its own.
Set 22 years after the events of the original, the film follows an officially sane Norman as he returns home after many years in a secure institution. He soon finds himself entirely out of his depth in the brash, selfish world of the 1980s. His beloved motel has been turned into a sleazy dive by the venal Mr Toomey (Dennis Franz), who bluntly explains the new commercial realities to him: “People come here to party…If it’s not the kids, it’s the parents.” As if this weren’t enough of an affront to Norman’s traditional (if twisted) family values he must also contend with Lila’s unforgiving campaign against him for the murder of her sister in the first film, whilst weathering the simmering suspicions of the local community as well. A tentative friendship with Mary (Meg Tilly) – a struggling young waitress he meets through his state-sponsored job at the local diner – seems the only possible positive in his new life. But when notes from ‘Mother’ start to arrive and a mysterious figure is seen stalking the motel can Norman trust anyone – even himself?
The film does a remarkable job of keeping the audience guessing as to what is really going on, navigating some audacious twists and turns with startling ease. It relishes playing with the viewer’s expectations, nodding to our awareness of the original only to gleefully pull the rug from beneath us again and again. The established mythology is honoured, but the reverence is leavened with an infectious desire to invert it and add new layers to what we think we know. Yet despite this self-aware tone and several touches of dark wit, it always takes its characters and story seriously, relentlessly drawing us in without ever falling into spoof or parody. Reusing the old sets where possible, with flawlessly authentic production design from John W. Corso, the film slyly ensures that the audience soon becomes as ensnared as Norman himself, trapped within the forlorn shadows of the Bates’ house and caught between ghostly memories and new realities.
If Hitchcock’s film used Norman’s naivety and loneliness to mislead the viewer and mask its final revelation, the sequel uses his vulnerability to reveal the ‘respectable’ monsters around him, so convinced of his evil that they miss the culpability of their own actions. As Sherriff Hunt (Hugh Gillin) wryly observes: “If Norman Bates is crazy, there are a whole lot of people around here running him a close second.” Franklin and Holland subvert the established order of the first film so completely that the true villain of Psycho II is not Norman or his maternal alter-ego but a surviving victim from the original, playing ‘Mother’ so vindictively that they unwittingly become a monster of their own creation.
The story also effectively implicates the audience for our own morbid desire to see Norman return to his old ways. Every time he picks up a knife or goes near a bathroom the film teases us with our unspoken longing for a return to the transgressive thrills of the original, even as his struggle to stay sane engages our sympathies. Ultimately the filmmakers know that their inverted world will not satisfy audiences until it has been returned to its old, murderous order – and, to paraphrase Norman’s brave retort to one of the many prank phone calls he receives, that makes us sicker than he ever was.
Perkins’ remarkable performance is essential to the film’s successful reversal of expectations, turning his disturbed villain into a tragic victim. He utterly inhabits Norman, recreating the same damaged individual while adding wholly convincing new sides to his terribly divided soul. Stammering and nervous, but eternally striving to be kind and polite, it’s genuinely affecting to see him trying to rebuild his life. Drawn back to the only home he has ever known despite its terrible past it is almost impossible not to root for him as his fragile sincerity is misunderstood and abused. Psychologically he has been stripped of almost everything, with few safe harbours left for his unmoored mind. The cosiest details can cause him the most acute pain due to the memories they evoke, from the warmth of toasted cheese to the more sinister associations of the tea caddy. The sound of the kettle whistling on the kitchen’s stove is repeatedly used to build tension, emphasising the way in which Norman’s attempts to build a domestic refuge are consistently undermined by even the most innocent objects around him. Whichever way he turns, he cannot escape; in the face of such unrelenting pressure, it is little wonder that he eventually seems to almost embrace his inevitable fate.
While Perkins dominates the film, he is quietly matched every step of the way by Tilly’s Mary. Evolving on an almost scene-by-scene basis as the twists mount up, she remains believable and sympathetic despite her sometimes unpalatable actions. Her onscreen chemistry with Perkins is terrific, running the gamut from cautious friendship to conflict and suspicion, by way of moments of genuine tenderness, before ending in a kind of sorry martyrdom for them both. Tilly’s difficult but less showy role as a foil for Norman is as crucial to the film’s success as Perkins’ performance, and should not be overlooked.
In a conscious echo of the most widely-criticised scene from Hitchcock’s film, the primary plot of Psycho II is all-too-neatly wrapped up by the Sherriff (standing in for Simon Oakland’s psychiatrist Dr Richmond in the original). However Holland has one more sharp twist in his tale which will either intrigue or infuriate; it may be a step too far for some viewers, and certainly leaves the Norman Bates story in a tangle that sadly trips up 1986’s Psycho III, which follows on directly from this conclusion.
Regardless, Psycho II remains a remarkable achievement, particularly when considered in light of the largely underwhelming sequels, spin-offs and remakes which followed. Armed with a superb cast and a sincere but fearless screenplay, Franklin’s somewhat neglected film deserves to be more widely known, and surely stands as one of the strongest – and certainly most ambitious – horror sequels ever made.
© Johnny Restall
Psycho II is available to buy on blu-ray from Arrow Video. For more Psycho-related content check out our podcast deep-dive on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 original here.