Sunday, October 31, 2010
The Past Is Never Really Past
One thing’s for sure, when a movie opens with someone screaming, “THERE IS NO GOD!” at top volume, it’s certainly making some sort of statement of theme. It’s maybe too easy to speculate right off the bat what Anthony Perkins was trying to say in the opening moments of his directorial debut but soon enough it becomes clear that PSYCHO III takes place in a world that, like its legendary lead character, is totally insane, one that has left any sort of god far behind as it embraces all the possibilities of its madness. The film has at times a truly twisted feel to it that plays now as more than a little surprising since most part threes of any kind would be inclined to play things a little safe. But here the characters who you would expect to be the point of audience identification aren’t that at all, the ones who turn out to be such aren’t even particularly likable and any ‘normal’ people who turn up never seem to be anyone you’d want to spend time with. And there’s Anthony Perkins, this time directing his own performance as Norman Bates, one that has always been criticized for taking things too far in its skittishness—and maybe he does—but in the context this film places it in the approach kind of makes sense, at one with everything that surrounds it. The film wasn’t a hit when it was released over the Fourth of July weekend in 1986 (same day as BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, incidentally) and it’s probably remembered now as little more than a curio but in some ways it’s become even more potent because of its own obscurity, an evil little jack in the box that Anthony Perkins left around for anyone interested to check it out down the line. And for a film that really has no rational need to exist whatsoever the way it explores the insanity of its famous lead character allows it to somehow find a reason.
Soon after the events of PSYCHO II, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is once again fully in charge of the Bates Motel with his ‘mother’ watching over him. Business is even picking up slightly and when would-be rocker Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey) passes through Norman hires him on as Assistant Manager. Also passing through is the unstable former nun Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid) who left her convent when her own suicidal anguish resulted in the death of one of her superiors. When he first sees her Norman is struck by Maureen’s unmistakable resemblance to the one and only Marion Crane--the initials certainly don’t help--just as visiting journalist Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell, Jake Gyllenhaal’s mother in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) begins snooping around, suspicious of Norman. Since Norman is naturally attracted to this new young woman who Duane has unknowingly placed in Cabin No. 1, it seems that history is about to repeat itself. Then, things begin to get really weird and some surprising secrets about Norman’s own past begin to come to light.
I happened to be watching this film recently for a Halloween season viewing when I was trying to come up with my ten most underrated horror films for the fine blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks. Naturally, I always slightly freeze up when trying to come up with these things but midway through this viewing I knew that it would wind up on my eventual list. Compared to the slightly straight-arrow nature of Richard Franklin’s PSYCHO II, director Perkins and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue take a more daring approach right from the get-go with that opening scene, also combining a clever bit of misdirection with a sly VERTIGO homage and all throughout the film has a visual daringness that indicates a truly twisted bent to its horror. At times the style seems to be what the world looks like through the eyes of the forever mad Norman Bates which, in a way, is what it is anyway. It really is a genuinely bizarre film, playing now more like a strangely personal black comedy than a horror-suspense-thriller on the part of Perkins to the point that I honestly wonder about his mindset at the time he made this, six years away from dying of AIDS, but I suppose that’s really none of my business. Furiously crammed into that dark comedy are doses of sleazy 80s slasher fare but even those elements don’t feel entirely out of place and even the graphic nature of the killings feels somewhat more a part of the aesthetic than it did in the previous film—the closest equivalent to a shower scene, set this time in the confined quarters of a phone booth (with a pretty minor character in this case) adds the awkward touch of a sweater half over the victim’s head and the emphasis placed on touches like bare feet getting bloodied by the broken glass almost feel more effective than graphic stabbing.
The genuinely perverse nature at times extends to moments like when Norman pauses to kiss a female corpse before he disposes of her as well as considerable touches of dark humor (some involving a body hidden in an ice chest) but in spite of the laughs sprinkled throughout it feels like there’s almost no respite from any of this madness--Diana Scarwid’s Maureen Coyle is about as unstable an individual who has ever been a lead in a film, Roberta Maxwell’s crafty reporter is hardly sympathetic in the slightest and some of the scenes down in the cabin occupied by Jeff Fahey’s Duane Duke have a genuine sense of nastiness to them as if the film actually wants us to resent that it’s making us spend time there. Even some of the ‘regular’ people who turn up around the Bates Motel, like the yahoos occupying the cabins when they’re not at the big homecoming game, hardly seem any more admirable (the most likable and level-headed of them, played by future THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 director Katt Shea Ruben, comes to a nasty end of course and on a toilet, no less) as if to say that in some ways hanging out with someone who keeps his dead mother up in the house isn’t much worse. It really doesn’t matter, but I don’t know if Norman Bates is searching for some kind of redemption in his hoped-for relationship with Maureen Coyle or if the character (and Perkins?) is looking for some kind of meaning in this mad world that the film is set in. I’m not sure he does either.
Within the schematics of the plot, several of the deaths do make this thing into more of a slasher movie than the past two films were and some of the who-is-Norman’s-real-mother stuff just feels like plot gimmickry that doesn’t really matter all that much in the end. It’s the feel that the film really means all this madness right down to the celluloid it’s being unspooled on that sticks in the brain more than the story which unfurls at a fast 93 minutes, racing to a few key confrontations almost before they might be expected to occur. Norman is a little at sea here so the film is a little at sea—there’s no one else left around from previous movies to confront him and in this sense while Tom Holland’s work as screenwriter on II may have been stronger, what Pogue has to do may have been harder—where he starts from isn’t as expected and where he takes it all is somewhat more daring, far beyond a sort of “This week on PSYCHO, several new visitors come to the Bates Motel…” that it might be in lesser hands. Since there’s not as much of a mystery as to what’s going on this time, the suspense is allowed to be somehow more internal within Norman’s own head. Along with Pogue’s exploration of the character is some cleverness throughout in the dialogue which revives the legendary “We all go a little mad sometimes” and even the previous film’s quirky “F.O.C…free of charge.” As director, Perkins has an oddball visual approach that doesn’t show much interest in ornamental passages provided by Albert Whitlock matte paintings found in Richard Franklin’s effort, focusing on the intensity of his own images and the (Bava-like?) colors from the motel’s neon that at times make appearances in Bruce Surtees’ cinematography. He’s also willing to try things that are slightly nonsensical in how they don’t quite work (like Norman departing Maureen’s hospital room and walking directly into Mother’s bedroom in one shot) but are sometimes oddly effective anyway—is Perkins photographed in blackface through most of the climax? The madness from his character makes its way into every frame of the film itself along with an early score by Carter Burwell (then fresh off BLOOD SIMPLE which Perkins was apparently a huge admirer of) that takes a jangling approach towards a veritable soundscape—musically speaking, it has nothing to do with either Bernard Herrmann or the traditional film-scoring of Jerry Goldsmith—becoming as unnerving as anything else here.
PSYCHO III is off-kilter every step of the way. It’s not a great example of storytelling—if that was even possible at this point in the well-trodden saga of Norman Bates, I’m really not sure—but it is surprisingly daring so the edge it wants to bring its own dark comedy and twisted self, like a key confrontation underscored by the incessant laugh of Woody Woodpecker coming from a nearby TV, has aged in an interesting fashion separate from the Hitchcock legacy while at the same time completely honoring it--the previous entry may be a better example of sheer plot construction, but it also feels a little square in comparison. This film is set in a world in which everything that happens is truly arbitrary in its unfairness and nastiness with the handful of Hitchcock nods also including one particular mortal struggle as a car sinks into the swamp that slightly recalls the key murder sequence in TORN CURTAIN. The implications of the opening line are never quite dealt with in the end—unless it’s just implied by the film’s own madness—and that might partly be due to a weak coda which some reports unsurprisingly have as being a reshoot. I can understand why Universal would have wanted to end it this way, even if it does kind of make the story pointless, but the moment still feels like it’s missing an extra beat to make it work or maybe it needs some kind of voiceover like the end of the original film. Either way, it’s a little too abrupt and makes the end result slightly unsatisfying. It’s a minor point, really, because PSYCHO III at its most audacious is a kind of scream of pain at the world and how no one gets out of it untarnished. In a way, we all wind up in Cabin No. 1 at the Bates Motel and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. As we all know, Anthony Perkins couldn’t either.
As for Perkins as an actor here, it’s not necessarily his strongest work, indicating that his mind was maybe on other things (Norman at his most normal here feels like Perkins at his most mechanical) but the more infamous parts of his acting style here goes beyond skittish and becomes a kind of performance art in itself, seeming somehow right for this film no matter how big he goes. And he interacts in interesting fashion with his costars too—playing someone who is genuinely disturbed in her own way, Diana Scarwid as Maureen Coyle in her conservative clothes (“Conservative clothes never go out of style.”) is both fragile and heartbreaking, playing someone who has no idea how to react to any sort of kindness and totally at sea when it comes to making anything resembling a right choice in what to do. There’s an undeniable energy to her presence, her character desperately leaning forward as she tries to express herself, and that alone gives the film a surprising amount of soul, making the film considerably more than just a clockwork structure allowing Norman to go crazy again. Jeff Fahey (all hail Frank Lapidus on LOST, while we’re at it) is smoothly cool as Duane Duke, hugely enjoyable in his sleaziness as he adds the right sort of danger and yet still playing how canny he is in how he can tell that there’s something going on at this motel beyond what anyone knows. As reporter Tracy Venable, Roberta Maxwell does some very sharp work, maintaining an interesting balance of never being too likable or unlikable, playing things more smart and cautious than might first be expected. Hugh Gillin reprises his role from II as the local Sheriff (a few of the diner employees turn up again as well), doing a particularly nice job of spitting out some ice in his best moment.
Maybe the total feel of anguish that comes from PSYCHO III just plays for me now more than it would at other times but what can I say, it’s been a strange year. More than anything after seeing this film again, what stays with me is the sincere desperation of Diana Scarwid’s character, looking for sanity in a place where she has no idea how little there really is. And I also remember that look on the face of Anthony Perkins, possessed by this point in the role of Norman Bates (which he played one more time after this in the cable movie PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING), in one of the film’s very best shots as he heads for the location where a note from his mother tells him she is (you’ll understand how that happens when you see it), a look that shows nothing but skittish madness, a battle going on in which both sides are totally mad and there’s never going to be any way to get fully out of it. Within that look on his face is the entire film, a modest achievement, but one Anthony Perkins deserved to feel proud of. It’s not always assured of itself—it is a directorial debut, after all—but it is alive. Just as, for many of us, the character of Norman Bates still is and always will be.