Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Psycho Franchise

Here we are, in November, with Halloween in our rear view mirror as most people are looking forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the happy thoughts that come with it. But I, the sick man that I am, still have horror movies on my mind. Yet, as it turns out, I’m looking towards Christmas as well, so I can pop in some Christmas-themed horror into my Blu-Ray player. Films like, Silent Night, Deadly Night or Black Christmas or Gremlins or maybe even Jack Frost. Yes…’tis the season, right?

However, we’re still a ways before we even get to Thanksgiving, so I still consider this as the spooky season of Halloween. So, with that in mind, there’s one movie—or shall I say, movie franchise—that I revisit once a year, usually around the month of October. But for some reason, I wasn’t able to jam as many horror movies in as much as I have in the past. Maybe it’s because of the strange, lingering hot weather that has over-stayed its welcome. Whatever the reason, I was only able to watch half as many as I have in the past. But, anyway, the franchise in question is none other than Psycho.
Alfred Hitchcock was a genius, there’s nothing more I can say that has already been said countless times from countless film historians and critics alike, and so I’ll just go into why I like the first film as well as the sequels.

As a child, I had always known about the film, Psycho, but really never watched it all the way through until the early 1990s. The shower scene was continuously parodied or referenced in one way or another, so I was very familiar with it. But if you were to ask me, prior to 1990, what the film was about, I probably wouldn’t have been able to give you a straight answer because I probably didn’t know exactly.

Thinking back, I probably watched the first two sequels before deciding to watch the original film, but one thing’s for sure, I really appreciate them all as a whole a lot more now than I had back then.

I’ll start with 1960’s Psycho first, as I had bought the Blu-Ray when it was first released in 2010 as a 50th anniversary edition, so I’ll get into how that looks as well.

As a warning, there will be spoilers ahead. 
It’s impossible to get into the sequels without
talking about what happens in the first film,
so you’ve been warned.

The story is well known and based on a bestselling book by Robert Bloch: girl loves guy, guy’s in debt, girl steals money to help guy, girl runs off to be with guy.

Said girl is Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and yes, we all know the story that happens afterwards, where Marion, on her way to be with said guy, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), finally needs a place to rest for the night and unfortunately chooses the Bates Motel, getting to know Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and finally meeting Norman’s "mother" during the famous shower scene. So I really don’t need to go into that other than to say that to this day, that shower scene was shot and edited perfectly. It’s definitely the highlight of the film. But the story as a whole, as well as the choice to kill off the star of the film a third of the way into the movie, is magnificent. Though a bit tame for today’s standards, I think it still works.

The acting from all players is understandably rigid and a little outdated. Seeing that this is a film from 1960, you have to forgive it and just get by it. Personally, I like it because, in watching the rest of the franchise, you have to see this as a period piece and not try to see it as a modern film. However, there are some scenes where the stiff acting plays to the scene, particularly the scene between Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) and Norman Bates, as well as Loomis and Bates.

The sets are mostly special to me because they were built and filmed at Universal Studios. For years, I had enjoyed seeing the motel and manor sets on the tram ride during the back lot tour. But not too long ago, I found out that the sets seen during the tour are not in the exact place as they were when filmed in 1960. In fact, it’s been said that the sets were rebuilt here and there for the sequels, but they’re the same since those 1980s films. Still, the sets and glimpses of the back lot always bring nostalgia to the forefront because most of my favorite movies were filmed there. Above all else, however, the Bates Manor is the most awesomely spooky set ever built for any horror movie, in my opinion. When I finally took the back lot tour for the first time and understood that the house was just a shell, that there’s nothing inside, I was a little let down. Still, Universal Studios was able to recreate the motel and manor set perfectly.

The music by Bernard Herrmann is very memorable and beautifully done. Of course, the stand-out of the film is the screeching strings during the death-in-the-shower scene.

Above all else, Anthony Perkins is magnificent in this film as the person you sort of care about and understand what he’s going through, even after you find out he’s crazy and was the one who actually murdered Marion Crane and Detective Arbogast. The film, as a whole, is a work of art—a masterpiece—in Hitchcock’s repertoire. Coincidentally, I can’t wait to see Hitchcock with Anthony Hopkins playing the Master of Suspense himself.

What’s interesting about Psycho is Hitchcock negated his usual directing fee and asked for a percentage of the returns instead, he filmed the movie in black & white during a time when most films were being filmed in color, he used most of his television filming crew to make the movie, and all set filming was done at Universal Studios (even though this was to be distributed by Paramount Studios). All this was done to save studio space and money that Paramount did not want to give.

By far, I’ve got to say that Psycho is my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, with The Birds a close second.

As I’d mentioned, I had purchased the Blu-Ray disc of Psycho when it was first released in 2010 to coincide with its 50th anniversary, happily replacing my barebones DVD I had in my collection. The new disc boasted how it had a new stereo sound and clear transfer and that made me wonder how that was possible. I knew the original was filmed with mono audio, meaning all the sound was recorded as one; there was no separation of sounds and that’s usually impossible to reverse. As explained much better in one of the featurettes, there’s a new process where they can painstakingly separate all the sounds to make it stereophonic. Let me tell you, it shows. The pattering sound of the rain showering down on Marion’s windshield used to sound like white noise coming from the television now sounds separated and clear, even directional as if you can hear the separated drops across the window. At the used car lot, you can hear the traffic passing from left to right and right to left. It’s incredible what they were able to do with the sound on this disc. Of course, the film is so crisp and clean, it’s hard to believe that the movie is 50 years old!

So on to 1983’s Psycho II, bringing Anthony Perkins back to reprise the role he made so famous 23 years prior.

I wasn’t an avid theater visitor until the mid-80s, so this is a film I watched when it hit video rental shelves sometime after it was released. I don’t think I had seen the original yet, as I had mentioned before, but I was very curious to see any horror movie during this time. The 1980s, after all, was the pinnacle decade for horror flicks, no matter what the sub-genre was about, so I lunged at this VHS when I saw it on the store shelf.

Initially, I didn’t care much for the film. Maybe it was because I wasn’t too familiar with the original to understand what they were doing in this sequel or maybe I was just looking for another masked serial killer to take out a bunch of teenagers at a camp of some sort. But, overall, I didn’t hate it. Though, after watching the original, then seeing this one, my appreciation for the series went up ten-fold.

The story is a bit convoluted and has a few bits of impossibilities in it, especially when the killer is revealed, but if you can put all that aside, it’s a really great, underrated film.

To summarize, the sequel takes place 22 years after the events from the original. Norman is being released from the institution after being declared sane and is able to rejoin the population again. Vera Miles returns as Marion’s sister, Lila Crane (now Lila Loomis after marrying Sam), as a staunch detractor of Norman Bates’s release. In the opening scene as we see Norman in court as he’s let back into the world, Lila is there to show the petition of names she’s collected against Norman’s release. But it falls on deaf ears.

Norman is brought back to the manor and motel, being run by a lowlife manager by the name of Toomey (Dennis Franz) who runs it as an adult motel, complete with a lot of drug-use and prostitution. Norman is clearly not happy about it and Toomey clearly knows about Bates’s past.

To get back into the world, Norman is assigned a job as an assistant cook at the local diner, meeting Mrs. Emma Spool (Claudia Bryar) who shows him around the diner and introduces him to everyone. He befriends one of the waitresses, Mary (Meg Tilly), who happens to be Lila’s daughter, and allows her to stay with him as she tells him her boyfriend threw her out of their apartment.

Throughout the film, Lila and her daughter are trying to drive Norman crazy again to send him back to the institution and during that time, someone is offing people but we don’t know who it is. Is it Norman? Is it Lila? Is it Mary? Someone’s also calling Norman and saying it is his mother. Is it in his head? Or is it actually his mother?

One of the best things about this film is the music by Jerry Goldsmith. He sure had big shoes to fill when being hired to score this film. It was a smart decision to not remake or recreate the music already heard in the original film, but it must’ve been nerve-racking to try and come up with an original piece. However, Goldsmith accomplished it and I say bravo to him. It’s been said that the main theme he created for this film brought Anthony Perkins to tears. Usually, I’d dismiss this as bullshit, but a few years back, I was going through some emotional turmoil and decided to watch this film. Although I didn’t resort to crying, the music did add to my distress and increased the sadness I had been feeling. To me, Goldsmith’s music is a highlight of this film.

Regarding the opening, I actually love how they start the film with the shower scene from the original movie. It’s a good way to transition the two movies since one was shot in black & white and this one in color.

Overall, amidst some plot holes in Psycho II, the story is very moving and intriguing with a very unusual twist at the end. I’ll avoid the spoiler for this one, because perhaps most of you haven’t seen the sequels and regarding this one as such a worthy follow-up, I don’t want to ruin it for you.

And then there was 1986’s Psycho III

As the film opens with Maureen (Diana Scarwid), a nun at a convent who is struggling with something emotional, leading her to want to commit suicide by jumping from the bell tower. The head nun tries to pull her back but falls to her death instead. Maureen then leaves the convent, shunned by the other nuns and tries to run away somewhere. She ends up at the Bates Motel, of course, and becomes a love interest of Norman’s, especially because of the resemblance to Marion Crane, the woman he murdered all those years ago.

I won’t get into this one as much, because the movie, as a whole, turned out to be the typical slasher-fare of the time. The 80s were ripe with these types of film, so it was a no brainer to cash in on the craze. But what’s interesting about this film is the fact that it was Anthony Perkins’s directorial debut. Another thing was that this film corrected the bizarre twist the previous film went into at the end.

So, if you can get past the slasher template throughout the movie and take note of the important aspects of the movie, you’ll enjoy it. Overall, it was nice to see Norman back at home with “Mother” and delving back into his creepy demeanor, not to mention how he finally finds a love interest. Underneath the characteristic 80s horror film that it set out to be, Psycho III is definitely a tragedy, reduced a bit by the ridiculous ending filmed to open it up for a possible sequel.

So, onto the possible sequel that happened four years later…I bring you, Psycho IV: The Beginning

Out of the original four Psycho films, this is definitely my least favorite. It’s still a good sequel/prequel, but not to the caliber of the previous two.

First off, you have to suspend disbelief big time here. Because how the hell would Norman ever get out of the mental institution after the events of part 3? There would be no way! But if you can get past that, then it’s a pretty enjoyable little film.

In a nutshell, Anthony Perkins returns again as Norman, in a new home, talking on the phone with the local talk radio show, discussing his “mommy” issues. The story flashes back to show the life he had prior to the events of the first film.

The sequel portion of the film is a little boring to me as all we see is Norman alone at home, talking on the phone with this radio host. The scenes are intercut with the host, Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder), and her guest, Dr. Leo Richmond (Warren Frost). I find myself wanting to fast forward these scenes because they’re a little boring. But holding up on doing so pays off a little as the scenes transition well into the prequel portions of the film.

In the prequel—or flashback—scenes, the story takes place when the motel and house were new and had some color to it. A young Norman Bates (Henry Thomas) lives there with his mother, Norma Bates (Olivia Hussey), and basically tells the story of what happened that led Norman to go crazy.

These flashback scenes are what save the movie and makes it refreshing to watch. However, I didn’t like how they used the same music cues from the first film, nor did I like how they used the same exact dialogue. I mean, come on, what’s the likelihood that Norman would use the “Blood! Blood!” line exactly the same way? And it seemed that they were using the word “inordinately” to tie Norman’s character to the first film. But Norman wasn’t the one who had used it in the first film, it was Marion.

It’s a little sad that this was how Anthony Perkins closed his Norman Bates chapter, because it wasn’t well written and doesn’t hold your attention as well as the other films. It was an interesting concept to have Joseph Stefano (who wrote the script for the 1960 film) write Psycho IV’s script, but it fell a little flat.

Another sad thing about the film, to me anyway, was that it wasn’t filmed at Universal Studios in Hollywood, as the other films were, but in Florida. They did a fine job at recreating the house and motel set, but knowing that fact was a little depressing to me for some reason.

More than that, this film wasn’t released theatrically, but rather as a straight-to-cable film.

Above all else, it was sad altogether that we lost Anthony Perkins a short two years after this film was released.

Well, eight years later, a terrible thing happened…an event that happens quite often nowadays in Hollywood. Some A-hole gave the green light to have 1960’s Psycho remade.  It sounded good at the time, a time when we weren’t getting a few remakes every year, but it was a newsworthy item that sounded promising. Yes, Gus Van Sant was given the reigns to direct a remake, or reshoot, of Psycho. I say reshoot, because that’s all it really was. It wasn’t a reimagining or a reboot; it was just a shot-for-shot re-filming of the original movie. Same dialogue, same running time, same scenes, same everything. So you’d think it’d be just as good as the original, right? Wrong! If you take dialogue from the 60s and put it into a modern-looking film, it’s going to seem very out of place. It made Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates sound like a weirdo, it made Anne Heche’s Marion Crane boring as shit, it made William H. Macy as Arbogast sound like he was parodying a noir film scene from the 40s…it just did not work on any level whatsoever.

It’s no lie, the movie is scene-for-scene, shot-for-shot, the exact same movie as the 1960 film, save for some weird flashes the director stuck in there for some unexplained reason.

If there’s any saving grace, is to see the motel set once again, but with a different gothic house in the back. But the film is terrible. I’d skip it.

One thing I had forgotten to mention was a television movie that was made and released in 1987 called “Bates Motel.”  I’d never seen it. What I’d heard was that Norman leaves his property to a fellow institutionalized inmate after he dies. The guy, Alex West (Bud Cort), opens the motel back up after he’s released and the show is sort of set up like “Fantasy Island” or “The Love Boat,” where guest starts show up and stories revolve around them. I guess this was meant to be a series, but it didn’t go on so the first two episodes were made into one TV movie.

Coming up in 2013, and I forget what network is airing it (I think it’s A&E), “Bates Motel” will be tried again, this time in a more serious tone.  I will definitely look forward to that.

Well, I think I covered everything Psycho-based, but I’ll leave you with this as my final “bit” on the Psycho franchise:

For a great look into the story, as well as great interviews by a lot of people involved with the franchise, look to a superb documentary entitled, The Psycho Legacy.  It is very well done with such an interesting look into the making of these movies, with archival footage as well as interviews of the casts and behind-the-scenes crewmembers from all the movies. You can’t get much deeper than what Robert V. Galluzzo did here. What he put together in this documentary is a dream-come-true for Psycho fans such as myself. It’s definitely the bookend to my collection.

So there you have it, my love of these films will be in me until the day I die. I’ve often talked to my wife about how I’d like to be cremated after my death, but the question that always came up was where I’d like my ashes to be spread. Usually, I’d tell her that I’d like them to be spread out, dropped from an aircraft, above the back lot of Universal Studios in Hollywood. But the debate is still up in the air. How cool would it be to spend my eternity in the back lot, living my afterlife in the Bates Motel?

I hope you enjoyed reading this and if you’ve never visited the franchise, or maybe you have and never watched the sequels, I hope I’ve convinced you to give it a try. The 1960 original is definitely the Holy Grail of horror movies and no horror fan should be without it in their movie collection. If you don’t have it, go out and buy it. The sequels are optional, but I suggest you watch them at least.

Once again, thanks for reading!

You can reach me on Twitter: @CinemaBits.