Psycho IV: The Beginning is a fitting end to the story of Norman Bates

I remember when I first read they were making a sequel to Psycho, I shook my head at how wrong-headed the idea was. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was an amazing, ground-breaking film that started the entire slasher genre. The fact that the next slasher film wasn’t released until ten years later (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) just reflected how ahead of its time Psycho was. How could they make a sequel?

When Psycho II came out, it got average reviews but did enough business to spur yet another film, Psycho III. I caught both films on home video, years later, and was unimpressed. Both Psycho II and III had their moments, but the gas had clearly run out by the time the credits rolled on the third film.

So, why did they go ahead and do a Psycho IV? Because they had a pretty good script, that’s why. Written by Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter of the original film, Psycho IV presented the back-story of how Norman became Norman, with a well-cast Henry Thomas playing the young Norman Bates. It pretty much ignores the two earlier sequels, and I think it works as a far better sequel to the original than both those films combined.

Produced for Showtime, the film has a TV-movie budget that feels limiting, but the performances are what makes the film noteworthy. Anthony Perkins plays Norman today, as he recounts his past to a radio show host doing an episode focused on patricide. Warren Frost, noted character actor best known for his role on Twin Peaks (and father of writer/producer Mark Frost) plays the psychiatrist character from the original film who is a guest on that program… after he treated Norman he became somewhat of an expert on mother-killers. Both Frost and CCH Pounder, who played the radio host, did solid work here. And Perkins, who by this point in his career had no other work than playing variations of Norman Bates, gives his all in one of his last performances.

The real standout work here, though, comes from Thomas and Olivia Hussey, who played Mother Bates. Thomas plays Norman like a tensed muscle, and when he loses control he is more than a match for the elder Perkins. And Hussey is beautiful and disturbing at the same time… abusing and loving Norman almost simultaneously.

It’s far from perfect, of course… A subplot with Bates planning to kill again doesn’t work very well, though one can see why it is necessary to rachet up the drama. Seeing Henry Thomas in the “Mother” outfit so often is… well, it just doesn’t work for me. And the violence in the film is unsubtle and gory, where some finess would have more appropriately reflected the “classic” Psycho aesthetic.

Three more things to watch for: First is the extended cameo by writer/director John Landis as the producer of the radio show. Second is the absolutely wonderful set decoration that makes the Bates house look brand new in the flashback sequences – it never looked better. And third, Norman’s alias as he calls into the radio show – “Ed” – is a great in-joke for fans who know the inspiration for the original Robert Bloch novel.

As I rewatch this (ironically, on the anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s death), and note that Hollywood is not only making a movie about the filming of the original Psycho as well as a new anthology TV series called “Bates Motel” (featuring a young Norman Bates), I am once again reminded that the entertainment industry has seen more original days. That they are again revisiting Psycho reflects just how iconic this story and the character of Norman Bates is… but after watching Psycho IV, I wonder what more, if anything, can be brought to the table.

Psycho IV: The Beginning ends with hope… hope that Norman can find some peace in his old age. I think that is the right way to leave things. Let Norman Bates rest in peace.

As we have seen, from this unique look at his life story… he’s been through enough already.

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