Film Discussion

Psycho II – Throwback 40

“It’s 22 years later, and Norman Bates is coming home.”

It would take someone either particularly brave or foolhardy – or perhaps even some combination of the two – to try and follow in the footsteps of a classic movie, particularly one as directed by a highly regarded filmmaker and auteur. Look at director Peter Hyams, who had the thankless task of making a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s seminal feature 2001: A Space Odyssey.

It would seem that some are built as a fearless breed when it comes to venturing where others might fear to cinematically tread: another good example is Antipodean cineaste Richard Franklin, the man who ended up doing something seemingly unthinkable by reopening the Bates Motel, in a continuation of the late Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller Psycho. However, what ultimately ended up appearing on the big screen could have been radically different, had the original literary creator of Norman Bates had his way.

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Following the publication of the novel of Psycho in the April of 1959, Robert Bloch had diversified into screenwriting for both TV and films, contributing episodes for such series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Girl From UNCLE, and Star Trek, as well as penning the scripts for Amicus horror flicks like Asylum and The House That Dripped Blood. Whether he had intended to or not, Bloch had ended up laying down the groundwork for the ‘slasher’ subgenre of horror films, thanks to the impact of Hitchcock’s adaptation of his book.

After two decades, Bloch eventually gave into the entreaties of his agent, and returned to his infamous creation. Looking at what more he could possibly do when it came to the story of Norman Bates, Bloch used his own experiences of working in the entertainment industry – as well as his perceptions of the more lurid and sensationalist turn Hollywood had taken – and decided to give the narrative a rather meta twist, years ahead of the Scream series. Bloch’s idea was to have Norman hear that a movie adaptation was being made of his exploits, break out of the sanitarium, and head to Tinseltown.

When Bloch had sold the rights to turn Psycho into a feature film, he had also given Paramount the rights in perpetuity – which were subsequently acquired by Universal – to make theatrical sequels, but Bloch still owned the literary rights to his characters. Out of courtesy, Bloch showed the completed portion of his manuscript to Universal execs. Rather than the suits champing at the bit to turn Bloch’s sequel into a movie, they were instead completely appalled by his commentary on ‘splatter films’ and the Hollywood machine.

© 1983 Universal Pictures.

Even though Universal technically had the right to use and adapt his new book free of charge (due to an interpretation of the original contract), they instead informed Bloch that they had no intentions of making any follow-up to Psycho. However, when news got out of Bloch producing a second Psycho novel and getting major publicity, Universal’s high-ups appear to have taken notice, and decided to set about doing their own continuation of Norman Bates’ story, with Bloch’s own take having already been roundly discarded by the studio as a possibility.

The question soon turned to who would be able to pull off the task of bringing back Norman Bates and his Motel, Sir Alfred Hitchcock having passed away in April 1980. It was the suggestion of producer Bernard Schwartz that director Richard Franklin be put forward to Universal for a possible consideration to take the helm. Franklin was quite the fan of Hitchcock’s, and had even befriended him after inviting the ‘Master of Suspense’ to give a lecture at USC, having tried to arrange a screening of Rope.

Franklin had also directed a film featuring Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis – 1981’s Roadgames – which had been a Hitchcockian thriller, essentially a version of Rear Window set within a moving vehicle. Bernard Schwartz had been a producer on Roadgames, which is how Franklin was known to him, and why he thought the director would be suitable for Psycho II. However, Franklin had already made his own overtures previously about making a follow-up to Psycho, after a chance meeting in Melbourne when appearing as a guest at a science fiction convention.

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Franklin was there because of his 1978 sci-fi horror Patrick. Also in attendance was Robert Bloch, and the pair appeared on stage together. As they were leaving, Bloch happened to mention he was working on a second Psycho novel, and the revelation prompted Franklin to ask his agent to enquire as to the chances of obtaining the rights to Bloch’s sequel. The word came back that Bloch’s sale of the rights to the original novel for $10,000 meant that Universal automatically held the rights to any movie continuation.

Now in contention to be hired for the job by Universal, albeit with Bloch’s story having been rejected, he set about trying to come up with a compelling story to pitch. Franklin shared an agent with Tom Holland, who would later go on to write and direct Fright Night, as well as the original Child’s Play. Franklin and Holland crafted a storyline which saw Norman Bates released back into society 22 years after the events of the original movie, trying to build a life for himself outside the walls of the institution, while also attempting to hold on to his slender grip on sanity and reality.

Impressed with the screenplay, Universal sent a copy of it to Bloch, not as a courtesy, but instead with a suggestion that he abandon his novel – also called Psycho II – and instead turn to novelising Holland’s script for them. Bloch declined their offer, making them aware in response just how much he had been paid by Warner Books as an advance to write his new book. However, there was a far more positive response to the script from someone who would be wholly integral to the success or failure of the project: Anthony Perkins.

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Fearing he was becoming typecast, Perkins had spent years endeavouring to distance himself from the role of Norman Bates, which involved at one stage moving over to Europe to make films on the continent, and appearing on stage when he returned to the United States, in plays such as Equus. In 1976, Perkins was the guest host on an episode of Saturday Night Live, and pre-filmed a skit in which he picked up the mantle of his most famous part, doing a promotional video for ‘The Norman Bates School of Motel Management’, with a glorious bit of self-parody.

The piece was well received, and it seems to have planted the seed for Perkins to consider once more playing Norman. Dan Aykroyd – one of the ‘Not Ready for Prime Time Players’ cast on SNL – reportedly told Perkins he was great in the role, and he should play it again. However, when approaches were first made with regard to Psycho II, Perkins rebuffed them, and it seemed the filmmakers would need to recast. At this stage in proceedings, Psycho II was still being treated by Universal as being envisioned as nothing more than a ‘movie of the week’ for cable TV, rather than a theatrical release.

Thoughts were given to casting someone else in the part of Norman, with Christopher Walken being the top pick. All of this was to change, however, when a copy of Holland’s script for Psycho II was sent over to Perkins, who loved the take on Norman so much that he agreed to sign on for the sequel. It generated so much buzz that Universal had finally begun to realise precisely what a hot property they had on their hands here, prompting them to issue a press release which not only vaunted Perkins’ reprisal of the role, but also announced that Psycho II would be hitting cinemas after all.

© 1983 Universal Pictures.

In order to offer the project some additional legitimacy, the assistant director of the original Psycho – Hilton A. Green – was asked to produce. With Hitchcock having only relatively recently passed on, Green contacted the director’s daughter, and Pat Hitchcock gave her seal of approval, saying that she believed her father would have loved it. Another of Psycho’s original stars – Vera Miles – also agreed to come back as Lila Loomis (née Crane). The shadow of Hitchcock had certainly hung figuratively over the film, but Franklin certainly made sure it literally did as well, using a silhouette of the director’s profile in one scene, as a throwback to the cameos which the maestro used to make in his own films.

Holland’s story had a female lead who would be a potential love interest for the deinstitutionalised Norman, and when it came to casting, a number of actresses were considered for the part of Mary, including Kathleen Turner, Carrie Fisher, Meg Ryan, and Linda Hamilton. Another actress’ name in contention to play Mary was Jamie Lee Curtis, whose mother – Janet Leigh – had famously been Norman Bates’ first on-screen victim, in that legendary shower scene. However, as she had already appeared in two Halloween movies, Curtis was not keen to do another ‘slasher’ flick. Franklin signed up the relative newcomer Meg Tilly to play Mary (the actress’ older sister, Jennifer, would appear in several of the Child’s Play films).

Together, Franklin and Holland would deliver audiences a motion picture which would not only honour Hitchcock’s revered production, but also be a thoughtful and poignant continuation of Norman’s tale, taking it in a not just logical but also entirely appropriate direction. Psycho II reflects upon the nature of rehabilitation, asking whether it can be possible to have someone re-enter society after committing the most heinous of crimes, and if that society can forgive, if not actually forget.

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This is the tragedy of Norman Bates, with Psycho II showing him as a genuine victim, rather than being the perpetrator or antagonist. All he wants to do is to be able to try and put his damaged past behind him, but forgiveness is not something which is high on the list of those whose plot against Norman ironically ends up slowly unravelling him, and pushing him back towards his old ways, instead of getting the retribution his persecutors seek. The film gives us a deeper look at the inner workings of Norman Bates, and astonishingly makes the viewer feel sorry for him, as well as making him a much richer and deeper character.

The overall atmosphere is boosted tremendously by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which is in turns sinister, haunting and melancholy, his approach being a complete contrast to the approach taken by Bernard Herrmann in the original movie (although his famous shrieking strings are revisited during a reprise of the first film’s shower scene as a prologue). As with Hitchcock’s Psycho, Franklin’s Psycho II failed to receive on initial release the overall glowing critical acclaim it deserved. However, Psycho II still appears to be unfairly overlooked, as it absolutely more than holds its own against its progenitor, and it manages to be a hugely rewarding, layered production which deserves a reappraisal.

Psycho II was released in the USA on 3rd June 1983.

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