A Boy’s Best Friend is His Mother | Psycho II at 35

Sequels are unnecessary and more often than not, feel like a missed opportunity. There are though, a few rare exceptions. Psycho II is one of them.

Anthony Perkins had already starred in eleven feature films before director Alfred Hitchcock cast the then 28-year-old actor in the role that would come to define him.

1960’s Psycho has since been deemed by the US Library of Congress as ‘culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant’. A psychological horror film (which Hitchcock regarded rather strangely as a comedy), it was however, a departure for him from the tongue-in-cheek style thriller of something like 1959’s North by Northwest.

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The Original

Psycho was Hitchcock’s most grounded film. Norman Bates may be up there with both Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster in both literature and film. Yet, the difference is that Norman Bates wasn’t a gothic creature of the night or a science experiment gone wrong. He was the quiet man living next door that said hello when you passed him in the street.

Author Robert Bloch wrote a colossal array of novels, short-stories and screenplays during his lifetime. His output was truly immense. But it was his 1959 novel Psycho and its similarities to the real-life killer Ed Gein which made people stand up and take notice. Here was a seemingly normal guy, who was capable of looking after a family run motel business in the daytime, then cutting off a woman’s head in the evening.

Perkins considered Norman Bates the Hamlet of horror roles, and though by 1990 he had found himself as typecast as Roger Moore had been with James Bond, in Psycho II he gave himself up totally to the role (just watch the scene where Bates stammers, choking on the word “cutlery”).

Creating the Sequel

Set 22-years after the events of the first film, the producers Hilton G. Green and Bernard Schwartz could easily have thrown together a car-crash of a sequel. But Green had been the assistant director on the first film and a lot of people involved in the sequel had known Hitchcock. Their intentions were to make a dignified film to honour the original, assembling what fans loved in 1960, the threat of the mother, the house and motel, the sister of murdered Marion Crane and most importantly, Norman Bates himself.

But getting Perkins to commit wasn’t straightforward. At first, he turned down the offer of returning because the producers wanted him to sign-on without seeing the whole script. This led to a discussion about recasting, with Christopher Walken being one of the actors considered. After further talks with Perkins, who asked the producers to trust him and send the script in its entirety, they relented.

It turned out that Perkins loved the script, and agreed to reprise the role, along with Vera Miles, who once again played the role of Lila Loomis (maiden name of Crane and sister of murdered Marion, played by Janet Leigh in 1960). The object of Norman’s desires this time was Mary Loomis, played by Meg Tilly, who would go on to become an author with five autobiographical books to her name. We see a clue to her future literary career in the scene where Tilly is in bed reading Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast (an in-joke on the director’s part which was given a further nod at the beginning of Psycho III).

Writer’s Block

However, not everybody considered the film a good idea. A year before the screenplay for Psycho II was written, author Robert Block had produced his own sequel, also titled Psycho II. Well received by readers, Universal Studios considered it an attack on the Hollywood engine. In the novel, Norman Bates escapes from a mental asylum after killing a nun and dressing as her. He steals the nun’s van, and while on route, picks up a hitchhiker with the intention of murdering him, but the hitchhiker gets the better of Norman and kills him. The rest of the novel is set in Hollywood, where a movie is being made of the Bates motel murders. Cutting a long and slightly complicated story short, Norman’s psychiatrist turns out to be suffering from a split personality disorder and attempts to kill the actors and crew of the movie while dressing as Mrs Bates.

The producers and screenwriter Tom Holland decided not to go down that road when writing their Psycho sequel, instead they focussed on a reformed Norman Bates, who is released from the asylum and goes back to live at the house where it all began. There he is gaslighted by Lila Loomis, with the help of her daughter Mary (Tilly), with the goal of getting him re-institutionalised.

This clearly upset Block, though his critique on what he saw as Hollywood splatter films would later be used by screenwriter Ehren Kruger and director Wes Craven for the plot of Scream 3 in 2000. It is interesting to note that unlike the first novel, Block’s sequel and his third instalment, Psycho House, are now both out of print.

Student Becomes the Master

The Australian director and former Hitchcock film student Richard Franklin was given the director’s chair. His knowledge of Hitchcock’s methods was an advantage. Plus, it helped that his previous two films were also in the horror, serial killer genre. 1978’s Patrick (which was remade in 2013) and 1981’s even slicker Roadgames (starring Janet Leigh’s scream queen daughter Jamie Lee Curtis) were both fine entries into the horror cannon.

Three years before the cameras began rolling on Psycho II, another nod to Hitchcock’s masterpiece hit cinema screens. Brian De Palma’s new film was called Dressed to Kill or Psycho in New York, for those who want to draw a comparison. It starred Michael Caine as the psychiatrist with a split personality who dresses as a woman and kills when sexually aroused. De Palma even included two scenes towards the end of the film, one where a doctor explains the condition to a relative of the victim (similar to the scene with Vera Miles and John Gavin at the police station in Psycho.) And a shower scene with the killer silently approaching.

But hold on a second…Dressed to Kill came out in 1980 (two years before Robert Bloch’s 1982 sequel and three years before the movie of Psycho II). Could this then be a case of Brian De Palma stealing the plot-twist from Psycho, then Bloch stealing the killer psychiatrist plot-twist from Dressed to Kill? Maybe that was the real reason why the producers of Psycho II were so wary about using the psycho psychiatrist component?

Psycho II

Even though the people in charge of Psycho II were able to ramp-up the gore and violence, they chose instead to stay as true as possible to the origins of the first film. Yes, Psycho II was riding the same wave as other slasher films of the period, but unlike the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises, Psycho II offers only a brief glimpse of nudity, and on just two occasions do we see anything close to out-right gore. Anthony Perkins is on record claiming that the special effects team used just half a bottle of blood throughout the whole film.

Where Psycho made the audience forget that they were watching a black and white film, Psycho II reverses the trick, making us forget that we’re watching a film in colour. Some scenes are deliberately under-lit, the director aware that the gloom was just as menacing as the threat of Mother.

Of course, the real victim in Psycho II is Norman Bates himself. Nervous yes, but not unstable (or at least, not at the outset). Right up until the end, the audience are rooting for Norman, who just wants to put the past behind him and get on with his life. Where Psycho II does surpass the original is in the final scene. Norman standing outside the house with mother’s silhouette watching from the bedroom window is as effective as the bedroom light shining down on Father Merrin in The Exorcist.

The Aftermath

It is a shame that the good work was later tarnished by two further sequels of diminishing quality. Perkins went on to direct the ill-conceived Psycho III (with an opening scene reminiscent of Hitchcock’s brilliant 1958 movie, Vertigo). And he reprised the role for a fourth and final time in the made-for-television Psycho IV: The Beginning. Due to Psycho III’s commercial failure, Perkins was denied the chance to either write, or direct the fourth film, and spends the entire time looking rather bored with the whole thing.    

Gus Van Sant tried to reimagine Hitchcock’s original in 1998, doing the first film over again, almost shot-for-shot but this time in colour. The result was something that had the feel of an MTV video. Thankfully it was quickly forgotten.

Psycho II is not without its faults. Yet, it’s far from the same disaster-piece category of the later films. It did well at the box office, eventually grossing over $34 million dollars while going up against George Lucas’ Return of the Jedi.

It feels as though Perkins and co made a film not for the critics. They made it for the fans. They loved it, right down to the last spilt drop of blood.


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