Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Not Living For Dead People
In the battle of sequels featuring iconic characters that come 23 years after the original film, I say PSYCHO II beats WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS hands down. It’s certainly more entertaining and it also makes more sense as a follow-up especially since we don’t have to sit through Norman Bates happily attending any kids’ birthday parties—it seems fully aware of why people remembered the original film and its lead character, why it lingers in their cinematic memories. Of course, unlike the Gordon Gekko continuation, it didn’t even have the original director, no surprise since Alfred Hitchcock had died several years before, but Universal knew enough to enlist the services of the talented Richard Franklin, whose history with the famous director actually dated back to when he was a student at USC and not only arranged a screening of ROPE with the famous director’s permission, he even got him to come down to campus to give a lecture. After graduating Franklin returned to his native Australia, eventually directing the excellent Hitchcock-inspired thriller ROAD GAMES which more than anything must have been what caught Universal’s attention in regards to this film. Directing PSYCHO II brought the director to back to America and gave him a chance to literally follow in the great director’s footsteps, as daunting an opportunity as that must have been. Considering that making this film was probably one of the great no-win situations of any sequel ever made the end result turned out pretty well, providing an interestingly twisted character piece in a way that the original could never have been. It did pretty decent business when released in June 1983 and even Quentin Tarantino, that unpredictable rapscallion, has stated that he prefers it to the original. In fairness PSYCHO II, now considerably older than even PSYCHO was when it was first released, isn’t quite that good and it’s certainly not that iconic—it probably is more of a tribute than anything and in its defense I’m not sure that was really possible anyway, not if they were going to make a PSYCHO II with Anthony Perkins that people wanted to see. But for the most part it clearly knows what made the first film not only such a classic, but why it remained a part of pop culture and a surprising amount of it still works pretty well.
Twenty-two years after being locked up for committing several murders in the persona of his dead mother, including the slaying of Marion Crane in Cabin No. 1 of his family motel, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is judged sane and released much to the protestations of victim Marion Crane’s sister Lila (Vera Miles). Returned to his home by Dr. Raymond (Robert Loggia) who seems fully confident in Norman’s sanity, Norman soon discovers that the motel now run by sleazy Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz) is now an adults-only establishment. After beginning a job as cook’s helper at the local diner Norman meets pretty young waitress Mary Samuels (Meg Tilly) who, after he hears her break up with her boyfriend over the phone, takes up Norman on his offer to stay with him. But soon enough Norman begins to find notes from his “mother” and receiving phone calls from someone claiming to be her so when several murders begin occurring around the house he’s the first one who is suspected. Is someone trying to drive Norman back to insanity, has he been insane all along or is there really somebody out there actually claiming to be his mother?
First things first: no, there was no way to ever compete with Hitchcock, to compete with PSYCHO and its legacy. There was no way to live up to the shock that film was in 1960 and the film seems to know this so it just decides to focus on continuing the forever twisted story of Norman Bates. Making any sort of sequel to that film was no doubt a difficult prospect anyway since the intentionally gimmicky narrative was so reliant on its own twists, with much of any depth it had coming from what was fleshed out by actors Perkins, Janet Leigh and Martin Balsam during production. The 1983 film can’t really follow up too much on what Perkins did in the original since his character’s biggest secret was, naturally, withheld until the very end leaving a fair amount of his character intentionally blank. In a way, the role he plays here is a sequel to people’s own memories of the original, filtered through what it meant to them and it plays like for Perkins, his tall and imposingly thin frame well-utilized in shots throughout, this performance is a way to also sort out what the character meant to him deep down over the years.
Beginning with a flashback reprise of the legendary shower murder that feels a little obligatory, it still takes some time to settle into exactly what this film is anyway, partly due to a certain amount of abruptness in the storytelling during the early section (the crafty screenplay was by Tom Holland—original PSYCHO author Robert Bloch’s own sequel novel of the same name was not used as the source)—Norman is released, sent home, starts a new job and brings Mary home with him all in the same day which might get things moving but seems just a little rushed for the sake of credibility. Not to mention how when the character returns to his house and motel everything is still there and in operation as if he’d been gone for an extended weekend instead of over two decades (to be specific about things, the ad campaign and film itself say 22 years but the film was actually released 23 years later). Norman is left alone in this house where he committed murders watched over by no one except for visits from a doctor who, in spite of his very nice car, comes off as pretty ineffectual in the discussions we see him have with his patient. Once these contrivances are moved past so the characters can settle into the story and allow secrets to be revealed, things do begin to come together (and to be safe I’m going to try to avoid spoilers here), turning into what really is for the most part a tight, well-paced thriller with numerous surprising twists piling up all the way through. Well, they’re not all equally surprising and I’m not sure of the wisdom of the moniker “Mary Samuels” (I guess I can’t say more than that) but for the most part the plotting cleverly keeps us on our toes, not to mention Norman, about the actual state of his own sanity as we wonder whether he really is still crazy or even if he’s only putting on an act for the people who are trying to drive him mad. There’s a fair amount of cleverness all the way through in Holland’s script—I like how Loggia’s casual dismissal that Perkins sees someone in a window is turned on its ear later on when Loggia thinks he sees someone—and at times there’s the impression that director Franklin is using this opportunity to toss every “Hitchcockian” visual idea he ever had into the mix, even tossing in a Hitchcock cameo for those looking carefully. There are lovely grace notes sprinkled throughout like a very high angle shot of someone frantically running from the Bates home at a key moment and some exciting crane work but to a certain extent Franklin also seems to be deliberately replicating the Universal backlot aesthetic employed by Hitchcock when making his film, which was itself an intentionally fast shoot done with the crew from ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS—here little, if anything, seems to be shot anywhere else with the approach complimented by rich cinematography by Dean Cundey who does some particularly beautiful work inside the Bates home along with evocative matte paintings by Albert Whitlock used on occasion to illustrate the surrounding environment.
Certain shots and moments are blatant nods, obviously, but more surprising in contrast is how Jerry Goldsmith’s fine score makes next to no attempt to replicate the legendary sound composer Bernard Herrmann so famously brought to the original. One could imagine this film utilizing the same music in blatant fashion, similar to how Scorsese later used Hermann’s CAPE FEAR score in his own remake or even just attempting a Herrmann-like score in general. But instead of approaching it as a sequel or tribute Goldsmith basically scores the film as a thriller made in 1983, utilizing electronics for the suspense (the music over the final shot also contains some harsh percussion reminiscent of PLANET OF THE APES, but that’s neither here nor there) and a more melancholy, yearning theme to represent the character of Norman Bates, returning to this home he has such bad memories of. It was a canny and daring choice to take this route, going a long way towards having PSYCHO II be an actual story about this character as opposed to just a gimmicky revisiting of a classic horror film which by then had already passed into parody. There’s a subtext throughout the story of whether it’s impossible for anyone, insane or not, to fully be able to move beyond the past, making the film in some ways about Perkins’ own acceptance of how this role really is his cinematic mortality once and for all.
Placed up against the iconic stature of the lead a number of characters are a little too thinly drawn to be totally credible. In the original, Vera Miles who as Lila Crane/Loomis had really no character to play (Hitchcock famously had next to no interest in the characters played by her and John Gavin) so the sequel recreates her as the most insufferable old harridan imaginable, barely given a single believable human moment so we have absolutely zero sympathy for how she lost her sister years ago. Since Jamie Lee Curtis had worked with Franklin in ROAD GAMES it’s no surprise to learn that her name was in the mix to possibly play Mary but, possibly hesitant to take a role that was so associated with her mother, turned it down. It’s a tough call whether she would have been the right choice anyway—in some ways she may have been almost too perfect for the part becoming a touch that would have made the story into too much of a gimmick—and as it is, the film has a variety of nods to the original both obvious (an eye staring through a hole in a wall, some familiar framing in the Bates home and a quick fade out similar to the point of the Arbogast murder to name a few) and a little more subtle (“The bathroom…”). At times it feels like it’s teetering on a tightrope trying to figure how much is too much but at times when it succeeds it’s as a thriller on its own terms with a certain Hitchcock flavor as opposed to a strict homage, if there’s even any difference.
In truth, I kind of find myself going back and forth in my head over how good some of it is, but I guess the film kind of does that too in how the pieces it gets right sometimes come right up against what it doesn’t. It’s possibly prevented from being even better by contrivances that are necessary to keep the plot going and (maybe) what seems like the demands of the marketplace at the time--the sequence of the two kids down in the basement of the house feels a little too much like something out of any other slasher movie, as well as a way to keep the body count building, but it does have a shot which always makes me jump a little where “mother” is suddenly much, much closer to who she’s coming after than we first realized. Some of the more extreme carnage that occurs late in the film has understandably always been criticized—maybe the studio demanded the gore, maybe Franklin was trying to take this stuff as far as possible (there’s some nudity this time too, probably by a Meg Tilly body double, but it’s not as exploitative as it might have been) to a point of outrage just as the original film did in 1960 but it never really works. To put it simply, this stuff is out of place not because it’s too violent but because, well, it kind of sucks. It’s too bad that some of these touches wind up hurting the movie because every now and then the film really does work well with the director at times getting suspense out of nothing but Perkins or Tilly nervously moving around the house and moments like that are clearly where the director’s talents lie, moreso than digging into the story’s sleazier elements. It’s not at all a criticism to say that based on what works best here the director (who sadly died in 2007) was possibly more at home with the straight ahead suspense/thriller elements than in the more twisted elements of the Norman Bates saga but in some ways he has the face of Anthony Perkins to dolly in on at times and just doing that has as much effect as anything.
And Perkins brings that off-kilter nature to it all, making the reformed Norman as skittish as he needs to be and yet somehow always likable, believable as someone who doesn’t know who he is if he isn’t the Norman Bates he once was since “the doctors took everything else away.” He levels the madness somehow, even managing to make his famous drawn out phrasing of the word “cuuuuuutlery” seem somehow underplayed, all things considered. I think it’s how he cuts the word off as soon as he says it, not allowing it to linger. Meg Tilly brings an odd effect to the insecure Mary that feels weirdly real as if the actress herself didn’t even bother to see the original and doesn’t fully know what’s going on. Vera Miles comes off as so completely intolerable as Lila Loomis (we’re told Sam has died—somehow I doubt his character would have allowed some of the shenanigans that go on here) that it’s hard to believe that the actress really isn’t. Maybe this is a good thing but couldn’t she have been allowed a semblance of depth? Dennis Franz is pretty enjoyable playing what in this context is really the Dennis Franz role and Robert Loggia’s tough-guy nature provides an interesting contrast both against Perkins and the way his doctor is somewhat weakly scripted, with the cool toughness of the actor bringing the right kind of intensity. Hugh Gillin is the local police captain who is also given the enviable task of serving as this picture’s Simon Oakland near the end (it’s a pretty silly speech, but I like it) and Claudia Bryer is Mrs. Spool, one of Norman’s coworkers in the diner. There’s an old school Hollywood contract player nature to both Gillin and Bryer that seems appropriate to the surroundings as if either of them had already briefly appeared as their character in the original--of course, they didn’t but Loggia did actually appear on a few episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS way back then.
PSYCHO was never meant to be a classic. It just worked out that way. PSYCHO II was never meant to be a classic either and, well, it isn’t. It’s very possible that Richard Franklin was a little too much of an acolyte and maybe a touch too square to really delve deeply into the psychology of it all. But at the same time this really was an impossible film to make and that’s it as good as it is in itself is a sort of triumph, not to mention how where Norman Bates ends up here makes for a considerably more satisfying ending than where Gordon Gekko did at the end of his sequel. If it’s not PSYCHO, it still is a pretty decent thriller enjoyably put together with a few twists of its own knife that takes things right up until the final shot. And, all things considered, that’s perfectly ok.