Confession time: I’ve not seen PSYCHO II in nigh on 17 years. As a matter of fact, after this viewing I’m debating whether I’ve seen it at all and maybe my memories are of PSYCHO III or an entirely unrelated film that I thought was a relative of Hitchcocks superlative original slasher. However, after a brief exchange on Twitter I knew that PSYCHO II was going to go onto my Shocktober playlist, and as the fates would have it, it would be the film that got the ball rolling.
The original PSYCHO has often stood as not only one of the greatest slasher films of all time but also of one of the great examples of misdirection in cinema. In a move emulated by filmmakers (including Quentin Tarantino), the film starts as one thing and ends up as another. As it shifts from crime drama to horror it plays with perception, perspective, imagery, mental health, trauma and in doing so proves itself to be an incredibly diverse film. It’s for reasons like this that the sequel, set and made some 22 years later, was met with extreme resistance from fans of the original. These fans didn’t hate it for the film it was, they hated it because it existed and by existing it set to tarnish the reputation of the original. Thankfully when it was released critics and audiences were kinder to it, and it enjoyed a successful run at the box office and garnered positive reviews. Siskel and Ebert were notable exceptions to this praise, whose review boiled down to ‘It’s not the original’.
When I first saw PSYCHO II I don’t think I was overly impressed with it. It was at a time in my late teens when I was immersing myself in film and frequently obtained video tapes and budget releases of film series. Bookshelves were overflowing with JAWS and its kids, the various HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH films, 3 CRITTERS movies… high quality cinematic releases. Sometimes the quality of the tapes was only marginally higher than the films on them and I think I branded PSYCHO II with that judgement. Now I sit here; definitely older, questionably wiser, undeniably beardier and I’ve had a change of heart. I love PSYCHO II. I think it’s as brave and daring as the original and it rises far above its roots as a movie-of-the-week television script.
One of the things that remains relevant today is the treatment of people with mental illnesses. People are stigmatised and treated as less than human as a result of their health and/or past. In the opening scenes of the films Lila Crane petitions for Bates to remain locked away. The thought that he could now be cured of his insanity is unimaginable to her. The fact that Normans condition was caused by a history of systematic abuse at the hands of his Mother is considered inconsequential. She has been wronged and the circumstance that lead up to those wrongdoings and any possible resolution of them do not matter.
It’s interesting to note that in these scenes Norman is a passive character, partly by his choice, partly by the actions of those around him: quiet, unassuming and unaddressed. Lila speaks to anyone but him, refusing to acknowledge his existence. Even once released and taken home Norman is devalued as he is informed that he doesn’t have a dedicated social worker due to budget cuts, but that his phone is active so he can call his Doctor any time. This resonates strongly today, in a world where in the UK at least mental health is both simultaneously in the public eye and also subject to budget cuts.
It is in part thanks to actions like this that Bates cuts a sympathetic character despite his past actions. Society has moved on around him; his beloved motel is a run down short-stay used by local youth looking for a good time. Local residents and authority figures who know who he is treat him with trepidation and suspicion. Everyone in the world is waiting for him to break again, to be the creature of their nightmares and fears. In retrospect it’s heartbreaking: all Norman wants to do is get on with his life, run his motel and find some peace. But the world won’t let him. It can’t. As Mother starts to make her presence known and the body count increases the question of the film soon changes from ‘Is Norman the killer?’ to ‘can the world let him not be the killer?’.
It is worth noting that whilst Anthony Perkin turns in a captivating performance he is aided and abetted by a strong supporting cast. Meg Tilly plays the nervous and conflicted Mary who is at once someone that Norman is both attracted to and protective of. Dennis Franz turns up the sleaze as motel manager Warren Toomey who is the only character to have direct physical conflict with Bates in the film, and noted character actor Robert Loggia plays Dr. Bill Raymond, who remains convinced of Normans innocence and fights to preserve his sanity. The script is provided by Tom Holland, who also plays the town Deputy. This comes at a time when his career is beginning its transition from in front of the camera to behind the camera and to tackle as prestigious a property as Psycho so early in that career is both admirable and astounding. In this case fortune favours the bold and the script holds up well when compared to the original without being a note for note retread.
Their actions play out against a score provided by Jerry Goldsmith, a longtime friend of original composer Bernard Herrmann who pays tribute to original musical cues whilst giving the film its own musical identity. Unlike those that followed John Williams in the JAWS sequels, he doesn’t retread ground where needed, and eskews a full orchestral score in turn using minimal strings and horns and embellishing with piano, keyboards and synthesizers. It’s atypical of his work at the time and stands with his other noted scores of this time period including POLTERGEIST, FIRST BLOOD and the score to the problematic TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE.
Direction from Richard Franklin crafts a self contained film that comfortably acts as a companion piece to the original. Franklin loved Hitchcocks work and his observation of the master at work on the sets of TOPAZ and FAMILY PLOT clearly influenced his career. However he successfully avoids making his sequel either a love letter to the original or a copycat with an increased gore count. In comparison to its slasher peers PSYCHO II is subdued in its bloodletting with only a few notable moments where the rug is violently yanked from underneath the audience.
In comparison to my initial viewing over a decade and a half prior viewers are now spoilt for choice when it comes to PSYCHO II. Scream Factory have produced a Region A Blu Ray that presents a beautiful transfer of the film, as well as a healthy dose of extras both new and old. Fortunately for those outside of the USA there is a region free version available from Australian distributor MadMan Entertainment that contains all of the Scream Factory extras. It is available on its own, with the first film, and as part of the immense PSYCHO: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION set that contains all 4 original movies and the 1998 remake on Blu Ray as well as a DVD of the BATES MOTEL TV Movie and the two DVD set of THE PSYCHO LEGACY documentary from 2010. You will struggle to get more PSYCHO per pound than this set offers.