Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Retro Review: Psycho II (1983)

Last year for Halloween I reviewed my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, and my favorite psychological thriller, the classic 1960 film "Psycho." I sometimes call it my favorite film of all time, but I usually hesitate in doing so because I prefer to compartmentalize things into categories. It's easier to declare my favorite film from a certain year, a certain genre, or a certain filmmaker rather than declaring a favorite film ever, especially since I haven't seen every film ever. Regardless, though, it's safe to say that I think the movie is great, regardless of what label I throw on it. This year to follow up on that, I thought it would be fun to dive into "Psycho II," a sequel that some might not even realize exists. I think the idea of a sequel to "Psycho" is rather preposterous and so did everyone else. Alfred Hitchcock had just died in 1980 and so it seems like the studio was trying to take advantage of that to cash in on the current trend at the time of never-ending horror sequels, most of which are pretty awful. I mean, I highly doubt that Hitchcock had any plans on making a sequel himself, nor do I imagine he would've approved of it. So to start production on it shortly after he died sounds rather blasphemous. And that's why it's so surprising that this actually works.

Before I dive into the movie, though, there is a bit more history here that I would dive into, namely concerning Robert Bloch, the author of the original book. Because, yeah, if you didn't know, Hitchcock's 1960 film was based on Robert Bloch's novel. Now I don't know the full history of Robert Bloch's reactions to everything, but I do find it interesting that he wrote a sequel to his novel, also titled "Pyshco II," which was released a year before the movie came out. The book was released before the script of the movie was written, but the movie script was not based on his book in the slightest. In fact, "Psycho II" the book was a novel written with the intent of directly criticizing splatter films at the time and Universal, the studio behind "Psycho II" the movie, was appalled at his book and tried to convince Bloch to abandon the book. He of course refused and was thus never involved in the making of "Psycho II," nor was he invited to any of the screenings. Although I haven't been able to find his reaction to the movie, I think it's safe to assume that he probably wasn't a big fan. Now I actually haven't read either of Bloch's "Pyshco" books, but one of these days I think it would be fascinating to find them and give them a read. Then I can call myself a real "Psycho" expert.

Onto the film, though, I also think it's worth noting that Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles, who play Norman Bates and Lila Crane in the original movie, originally turned down the opportunity to reprise their roles, but then ultimately agreed after reading the script. And yeah, after watching the movie for the first time myself a few years back, I was also surprised at the final result, which is crazy because this shouldn't have worked. Yes, it is true that the filmmakers did contact Hitchcock's family and got their blessing to make this, but I have a hard time believing that their ultimate motivations weren't solely due to money. I don't think whoever's initial idea this was woke up and came up with a brilliant idea of the natural progression to "Psycho." I think they saw franchises like "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th," both of which had three films released before "Psycho II" in 1983, and tried to come up with a way to take advantage of that trend. Perhaps seeing those other movies, then seeing "Psycho II" the book, gave someone the idea of bringing Norman Bates back to the big screen and turning "Psycho" into a traditional 80's slasher franchise. Whatever the motivation, though, director Richard Franklin claimed they wanted to honor Hitchcock's original film.

And, yes, "Psycho II" feels like the natural progression of the original movie. The reason why it works so well is because of the performances of Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles, as well as how the screenwriter Tom Holland (but not THAT Tom Holland) wrote their characters. The movie takes place 22 years after the events of the original, which ended with Norman getting locked up in a mental institution. This movie begins by him getting released from said institution because his doctor had been working with him over those years and helped him to overcome his DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), at least to the point where he can act normally. Once he accepted the fact that he killed his mother, he was able to live separately from her without having that second personality in his mind. According to the "Psycho" lore, the reason why the DID started was because he was so traumatized after killing his mother that he created that second personality and later had a hard time telling the difference. So after accepting the fact that he killed her, he was able to become more normal in this film. I don't know how that works in relation to DID in real life, but for the sake of the film, it's a passable story arc in order to bring back Norman Bates to the Bates Motel.

On the flip side of things, Lila Crane, who is now Lila Loomis, is certainly not happy that he's been released. This is also a natural progression for her character. Given that her sister got brutally murdered by Norman Bates in the first movie, the idea of Norman Bates being released into society does not sit well with her. And rightfully so. I think it would be hard for anyone to accept. If someone you love has been murdered, being able to forgive that person is something that is close to impossible to do. To accept them being released into society again is even harder. So this situation sets up a pretty solid conflict between Norman and Lila as the movie progresses, which we'll get into later because the movie foreshadows said conflict, then takes a step back for a while and focuses specifically on Norman Bates as he tries to reintegrate into society. This is where Anthony Perkins really shines because he's always portrayed Norman as such a charismatic individual that you really want to root for. You can see he struggles with his mental issues, but deep down he seems like he has a good heart and wants to be a good person. That's what makes Norman Bates so fascinating. He's not born without a soul. He just has mental struggles that always manage to get the best of him.

I will say, though, that this portion of the movie is where things initially seem like they are about to get super repetitive. Norman Bates seems like a normal man. He has normal conversations with people. But after getting back to his old home, things around the house start to become triggers and you assume that he's going to snap and start killing again. And that's where you become afraid that they are going to turn this into a cliche 80's slasher, which would be extremely disappointing. Because although "Psycho" is the movie that started the slasher sub-genre of horror, the heart and soul of the movie is not a gory slasher, but a psychological, suspenseful thriller. Early on in the movie Norman makes a connection with a girl named Mary. You assume that he ends up killing the old drunk man who keeps taunting him because a figure dressed up like his mother walks out after Norman appears to have lost it and kills the man. Then the girl Mary goes and takes a shower and you assume that Norman spying on her is going to cause the mother figure in his brain to snap and go kill her, because that's what usually happens when Norman starts to care for a girl. The mother part of his personality gets jealous of his infatuation and disposes of the girl.

But then we have a bait and switch. Norman DOESN'T walk in and kill Mary. That's our first sign the the movie might actually be doing something different. And that's the point in this movie where if you haven't seen it and you want the second half of the movie to remain a secret, you might want to leave this review now because I'm going to dive into spoilers. This is my only opportunity to dive into "Psycho II" and there's things I need to talk about in regards to the ending of this movie. Because the reason why this ends up being a fun movie that does justice to the original is that it becomes more of a twisted mystery where you're not sure what's going on. Mystery and suspense is what Hitchcock did best. He went to great lengths to make sure the secrets of his original film didn't get out. I can attest to the fact that seeing the movie for the first time, having no idea what's going to happen, is quite the phenomenal experience. When I first watched the movie, I had no idea what the secret was. I just knew there was a famous shower scene. But that was it. I still remember the shock that I experienced when the movie revealed its secrets. An experience like that is essential to the enjoyment of a "Psycho" sequel, which is why I was pleased with these results.

If you've already seen the movie or you don't care about spoilers, let's proceed and discuss the rest of the film. We're going to get to these secrets in order of reveal because there's several of them. The first big reveal is that Norman is actually fairly normal. The 22 years of the doctor working with him actually helped. Once the drama starts with Mary, Norman starts seeing notes from his mother, starts getting phone calls from her and hears her yelling at him in the house and he thinks he's starting to go crazy again. This is also where Anthony Perkins' great performance really shines because as he thinks he's going crazy, he starts to break down and feel devastated. He really wants to be normal, but he fears that he's not. While he puts on a face for the police and others, he starts to bare his soul to Mary, whom he's started to trust. As it turns out, though, Norman is not the villain in this movie. He's the victim. The villain here is Lila, who is so upset that he's been released that she's come up with a scheme to get him locked up again. Her goal is to make it seem like he's going crazy, both to him and to the police, so they can throw him back in the mental institution, hopefully for good this time. That's a pretty mischievous plot, but also provides a really solid twist.

I do take some issue with this. Mostly I think it works. But Lila in the original film is such a strong female character that I think having her go crazy and come up with an elaborate plot to destroy Norman seems to betray her character a bit. But at the same time, having your sister get killed by a psycho is going to impact you in a negative way and to have that killer get released 22 years later with the justice system seeming to be protecting the criminals instead of the victims might realistically make someone go crazy. So it's plausible. But I'm not 100 percent convinced that her character would've gone to such lengths if this were Hitchcock writing the sequel. On this note of Lila going crazy, the other big twist in the middle of the film is that Mary is not some random girl who happened to stumble on Norman, like Marion Crane in the original film. She's Lila's daughter and has been in on this the whole time. This leads to some great drama between her and her mother, as well as her and Norman as she feels her mother has gone overboard a bit and she feels bad for continuing to help her. So Mary tries to make restitution with Norman without sending him off in an angry rage against her. Much props to Meg Tilly as Mary.

After all this setup, this is where the movie starts to spiral out of control, mostly in a good way, because you have no idea what's going to happen in the end. In cliche 80's slasher movie fashion, a teenage couple sneaks in and gets killed by Norman's mother, but you have no idea who is actually dressed up in that outfit. Is it Mary or Lila? Has the two ladies' plan finally worked out and caused Norman to kill? Is Mary going to be able to stop her mother in time for this to be a happy ending. When I first watched this movie, I had no idea how this movie was going to end, much like I was completely shocked by the reveal of the first movie. Funny enough, when I re-watched this movie earlier today in preparation for this review, I had also forgotten the specifics of who was behind what. I just remembering being surprisingly entertained, but I couldn't remember exactly which events happened in which "Psycho" sequel, because there's a total of four of these movies, plus a 90's remake. And I think I will get to all of them on successive Halloweens. But this means I also had fun re-watching this because the movie had me in suspense yet again. I'm not sure if it's a bad thing that I forgot the ending or a good thing that the movie surprised me twice, but it is what it is.

In revealing all the secrets here, Lila sneaks into Norman's basement and tries to get Mother's clothes to scare Norman once again, but suddenly sees someone else dressed in Mother's clothes, which we again assume is Norman finally gone crazy, and gets killed herself in graphic fashion. I'm not sure I liked this decision of killing Lila. That was sad. But this leads to Mary finding herself in a tough situation as the police start to suspect that she's been behind this whole thing. She somehow ends up alone upstairs, thinks Norman is coming in to kill her, but accidentally kills the doctor. The police barge in, see her with a knife, and shoot her dead. That also made me a bit sad because I wanted her to survive the movie. Norman doesn't get taken in because the police assume they just solved everything. But this is the point where he actually has lost it. Lila was successful with her plan in making him go crazy, but she ended up dead before seeing it come to fruition and Mary is the victim in all of this because she ends up dead and being blamed for everything. Meanwhile, crazy Norman is once again left all alone in the Bates Motel, setting us up for Psycho III, which hit theaters three years later in 1986. For now, I'll plan on getting to that next Halloween.

But wait! We're not done with the twists. After Norman is left all alone in his house, his mother walks in and reveals that she's been behind all the killings this whole time. Norman has killed no one. And by Norman's mother, I mean Norman's real mother. Because apparently Norma Bates was not Norman's real mother. Norma Bates was Norman's aunt. Norma Bates' sister is Norman's mother and she walks in and explains her reasoning behind everything, including why she gave Norman up to her sister when he was just a baby. But since Norman has gone completely crazy, he poisons her and hits her over the head with a shovel, then carries her dead corpse up to the room, talking with it like he did with Norma. And that's how we really. I'm not sure how I really like that ending. I think the filmmakers got a little carried away with all their twists and could've benefited by a more simplistic plot. But overall I do consider this movie a surprising success. Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles and Meg Tilly all give great performances and the filmmakers did a great job of providing a suspenseful movie with a lot of fun twists and turns. It obviously doesn't hold a light to the original film, but in a decade full of awful horror sequels, "Psycho II" is a pleasant surprise. I'm going to give it an 8/10.

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