The adventures of our marathon man: he’ll watch anything, especially if there’s a lot of it
“WE ALL GO a little mad sometimes,” goes the notorious Norman Bates quote. Well, after a nine-hour binge on the Psycho feature franchise, I am, indeed, feeling a little mad. Not crazy mad, but angry mad. Anthony Perkins’ brittle, stammering, nervy Norman is such a perversely sympathetic creation you can’t help feeling oddly protective of the homicidal, cross-dressing fruitcake. The abuse Bates gets from Mother? That’s nothing compared to the torture inflicted on Norman by the diminishing sequels.
First stop: Hitchcock’s rule book-ripping Oedipal slasher. This is my wazillionth viewing of Psycho, and it never disappoints. Prime your cine-radar and fresh, dark details always ping up. Ever noticed that Norman wears black after each kill? That Janet Leigh’s night-drive through lashing rain doubles as a shower-death premonition? Or that knife never meets flesh during the bathroom shredding scene? (He actually misses, twice.) Perkins’ inhibited hysteria is spot-on, but what’s endlessly striking is how Hitch uses light and shadow to visualise the internal turmoil of Norman’s duelling schizophrenia. Still, one detail’s always niggled: what in fresh hell is a swamp doing in the middle of the California desert?
Sneakily, Universal waited until Hitchcock died to kick-start the Bates saga. How do you follow-up the most revolutionary horror ever made? Psycho II’S surprising answer is laughter. Sanity restored after 23 years in the asylum, Norman’s serene return to the Bates Motel is shattered by the mother of all copycat massacres. Whodunnit? Psycho II’S slippery murder mystery has a vast cast of suspects (including Vera Miles, back as Leigh’s rancorous sister). It also goes 120 twists too far, but it’s such a wicked, winking pastiche, I’d argue it’s the first truly self-reflexive post-modern horror, beating Scream by over a decade. The final act, revealing Norm’s real mother, smacks like a shovel to the skull. Then, everything goes abnorman. Psycho III, directed by Perkins, is billed as “the most shocking of them all” but really, it just has the most novelty deaths: the Bates bait are bludgeoned by guitar, trepanned on banisters and stabbed on the toilet. But where Psycho invented the slasher,
Psycho III turns Bates into a Michael Myers clone with better table manners. Aside from Norman’s new, gel-spiked ’80s hair, the character has nowhere to go other than ricochet between good and evil, before going back to the asylum.
Psycho III was such a flop, Perkins’ final outing was a made-for-tv whimper. Like
Hannibal Rising and Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, Psycho IV: The Beginning is a prequel that over-explains. Bates’ backstory, already explicit in Hitch’s original, is dug up like a dusty corpse with the clunkiest of plot-spades. On parole (again), Norm calls up a radio station hosting a matricide phone-in. Cue abusive flashbacks to his 1950s childhood with E.T.’S Henry Thomas as Young Norman, hinting at a Son Of Norman sequel that never happened. Instead, the next Psycho was a mutant twin.
I’ve avoided Gus Van Sant’s almost shot-for-shot update since 1998, and it’s everything I feared. Just in case Bates’ warped sexuality wasn’t obvious enough, Van Sant throws in a wanking Norman scene — but that’s the least of its problems. Ditching Hitch’s stark, gothic monochrome for full beige blandness,
Psycho 2.0 is lit like a rom-com and hideously miscast. The sole reason Perkins was so unsettling was because he looked like he couldn’t hurt a fly. Vince Vaughn’s Norman looks like he wrestles pitbulls for the Mob.
As the credits roll, I picture Hitchcock, not spinning in his grave, but churning the earth towards Van Sant like a Tremors graboid. As for me? I’m off for a cold shower to scrub away the memory… Second thoughts, make that a bath.