The sequel to Hitchcock’s horror classic is not only a satisfying piece of film, but arguably a richer experience than its predecessor
“Then who did it?”
“My mother, she told me so herself.”
To many people Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960s horror film, Psycho, is an untouchable piece of art on a whole other level than the rest of cinema. A lot of people consider this film to be the be-all and end-all of horror that how dare they ever try to attempt a sequel to this legend in the first place. Most have even moved through life having no idea that Psycho is in fact one piece of a larger franchise chronicling the journey of Norman Bates. While Psycho II’s existence might come as a surprise to many, that almost ends up making the film be all the more effective. It’s safe to say that a lack of expectations are usually at the door for fodder like this, so the fact that Psycho II isn’t only a passable sequel to Hitchcock’s original, but that it’s actually a very good film that’s arguably as fulfilling as its predecessor makes the sequel’s impact hit even harder. Now, right after the film’s 33rd anniversary, what better time to revisit the misunderstood title and look at what makes it such an exciting piece of horror?
Psycho II is not a film that was just rushed into by any means. This is a sequel that was released 22 years after the original. Hell, films weren’t even being shot in black-and-white anymore. The heavy gap between these films paired with Anthony Perkins’ return to his career-making role shows that this sequel wasn’t headed into without trepidation. Everyone was aware of the stakes present here. In that light, I kind of respect the hell out of this film opening against Return of the Jedi of all things, too. Imagine what a crazy double feature that could have been?
The film even uses the 22-year break between films to its advantage. This isn’t a sequel that takes place immediately after the first film. It’s a product that has aged in real-time, simultaneously giving both Norman and the audience 22 years to heal. The film becomes a conversation all about that lost time, using the past decades as justification for revisiting this world in the first place. Seeing what Norman’s up to a week later arguably holds diminishing returns, but checking in on him after two decades of rehab is a solid premise. Who knows what that character now looks like in that new light? Along the same lines, Psycho II also smartly plays with the lore and reverence of the original film’s events, treating it like a legend as much as the film itself is. This is again something that can only be achieved through a sequel (or remake/reboot) with Psycho II inevitably having more to say than the original because it’s additionally commenting upon the original.
There’s a solid story being told here with everyone’s favorite schizophrenic seeing release from his 22-year long tenure from a mental institution. Norman’s been passively not hurting flies for long enough to finally be deemed worthy of going home. It’s just a shame that Norman’s home in the case is Bates Motel, a building full of triggers for him in what seems like a situation designed to bring on a relapse of the crazy. Then again, this story is very concerned with Norman confronting his demons in order to overcome his problems once and for all, which requires him returning to this place.
As incredible as Anthony Perkins is in the original film, he really knocks his previous work out of the park here. This is a much more layered version of Norman Bates and Perkins relishes the opportunity to rise to the challenge. There are moments where he feels like a completely different person than who he is in the first film. He does masterful work in his delivery of lines, and small touches like the quiver in his voice and his speech being just slightly off speak volumes for what is going on with him internally. This is the product of 22 years of extensive therapy being put to work. It’s more than clear that Perkins has an enormous respect and love for this character and franchise (it’s not at all surprising to me that he would go on to be the director of Psycho III—who better to understand that world?). He’s giving everything here.
With Hitchcock not even being a possible contender to be director here, the decision of who would helm the anticipatory film was obviously a huge question, with the Australian Richard Franklin being a pretty solid choice. Franklin was a true student of Hitchcock and had even met with him on several occasions. His previous film, Roadgames, is also a huge love letter to Rear Window, and with Franklin already following up a Hitchcock film there, so to speak, there was a degree of rationale to this choice. Tom Holland (Child’s Play, Fright Night), who wrote the script, had extreme reservations approaching the material and because of such things would end up working harder than ever. Bernard Herrmann’s score in Hitchcock’s film is one of the most iconic pieces of movie music that is out there. While Psycho II loses Herrmann, it does gain legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen), who in many ways is just as prolific. His score to the film is some of his strongest work and carries the heavy string theme that Herrmann introduces. You even get to experience the bizarre instance of Goldsmith re-recording the score for “The Murder,” which is like getting Picasso to paint a version of “Starry Night.” Some interesting food for thought here, too. Goldsmith’s original theme for Norman Bates was rejected here, but then eventually used in the second segment (“Kick the Can”) in Twilight Zone: The Movie, if you’re curious to hear his original plan.
The film made it a point to have the blessing of the original Psycho in as many ways as possible, staying faithful to its spirit. Production would go as far as seeking out Psycho’s assistant director, Hilton A. Green, to be a producer on the film. When unsure of what to do, Green went to Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia, on the matter, who said that Alfred would have loved the film and that Hilton should do it. Quentin Tarantino has even gone on the record for saying that he prefers the sequel to Hitchcock’s original (what I would give for him doing a commentary track on the film), and it’s not hard to see why.
The best thing about Psycho II—and why I think it works so well—is it truly digs into the idea as to whether Norman is cured or not. It’s not surprising when murders begin happening at the Bates Motel, but the film effectively keeps you guessing in regard to whether Norman is off the wagon, if he’s just imagining this stuff, or if another party is intentionally screwing with a vulnerable person here, making Norman think he’s killing. The original Psycho has none of that. You’re not trying to figure out who the murderer is. Sure, the film is scary as hell, but it’s all pretty linear until its revelation at the end. Psycho II’s perspective is an exciting, unique take on a horror sequel that has you constantly tangled in empathy. This is a film where its universe is constantly rooting and pushing its “hero” towards being a killer. Where else do you get such a thing? You watch this film wanting Norman to be okay and get out of the other side of this still sane, but this also inevitably has you siding with someone who might be a killer. It’s an endlessly complicated, yet rewarding place to put the audience.
It almost feels like the film tries to get its baggage out of the way immediately. For instance, that elephant in the bathroom is addressed immediately by the film starting in Psycho’s iconic shower murder of Marion Crane (complete with black-and-white veneer) before cleverly extending the set piece, giving us a glimpse of what Norman went through afterwards. What a better way to kick things off? Granted, a move like this could feel deeply manipulative or forced, but again, the film’s unique vantage point makes these sort of exercises justified. It plays off as Norman being lost in the past or struggling not to revert to former urges as he tiptoes through his former life. There’s some great work done here with the idea that Norman’s behavior might even be instinctive rather than something learned.
There are many moments that harken back to the original picture with Norman echoing himself, like reaching for Marion’s former room key once more, or stabbing shots being identical in composition and rhythm to their counterparts in the original. It acts as a nice way of respecting the original, but is also done for story purposes. Norman feels déjà vu and is unsure if history is repeating itself as shots visually reflect the past. There is even a beautiful posthumous cameo done by Mr. Hitchcock himself, in silhouette, during the scene when Norman goes back into his Mother’s room for the very first time. This kind of commentary can only be done through a sequel, so while as much as an idea like turning Psycho into a saga might make you cringe, it’s nice to see the film being used to expand this material rather than just repeat itself.
The Easter Eggs and love for the original continue with details like Mary Loomis’ pseudonym being Mary Samuels, after Marion Crane’s moniker, Marie Samuels. The fact that this film involves more of the Loomis family at all, in the form of Mary and Lila (with Vera Miles reprising her role from the original!), is also pretty satisfying. It’s nice to see this sequel in a lot of ways be just as much about the victims from the original film, as it is about Norman Bates. It also makes a whole lot of sense that even if Norman has gotten “better” that the damage he’s done is still out there and there are still consequences to his actions that he’s being forced to deal with. Having this film focus on Norman’s punishment for his actions, just as much as it does on his retribution for it all, is a nice, balanced idea.
If you still have any lingering reservations, this film is far more than just a collection of satisfying nods and fan service. It’s hard to say if Psycho II is actually as scary as what Hitchcock created, but it does go to some genuinely disturbing places. One murder features the victim falling down the stairs, hitting the banister on their way down, which only wedges the knife deeper into their body. Another tough scene has Norman trying to just perpetually embrace the person who he thinks is his mother, while repeatedly getting stabbed, tolerating the pain to be close to her. And then there’s of course the infamous death where a woman straight up gets stabbed through the mouth. Many of these tow the line between reading as comedic beats, but this almost acts as yet another commentary on Norman’s fractured self and how close one extreme can be to the other.
The prime example of this might be the shocking “shovel death” at the end of the film. This piece receives a lot of flak for coming off as humorous, but I attest that it’s a truly chilling note to go out on. Its bluntness makes it all the more powerful. All of this is combined with the bombshell of an ending that forever changes what we thought we knew about Norman and his mother. Norman finally get a chance at normalcy with a “good” mother but he kills her to keep up the façade that he’s more comfortable with, and embracing the sort of “mother” that he’s used to. The idea that a normal Norman has to involve a dead mother in the window is just a brutal, devastating fate. Once the voice starts up again in the film’s final moments, it’s almost too much.
Look, I understand that Hitchcock is an auteur operating on a near-God level, but once you get past accepting the idea that a sequel to Psycho can actually be good, this experience is a whole lot easier to swallow. There’s a whole lot going on here that would be crazy to miss simply because of thinking this film should suck. Take the original off of its pedestal, put it in the shower, and stab it to pieces. Just give in and have a great time with this horror film because 33 years later, it’s certainly earned it. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up driving me mad.
Then again, we all go a little mad sometimes…