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.

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