Alfred Hitchcock’s highest grossing film based on the novel by Robert Bloch launched three sequels, a shot-for-shot remake, a TV series, and multiple documentaries. It also typecast Anthony Perkins, so effective in his role as Norman Bates that it became difficult for fans to accept him as any other character. Perkins knew his character better than anyone, reprising the role for all four Psycho films, and only when he approved of the script.
Centered around Norman Bates and his oppressive relationship with his mother while running the infamous, isolated motel, this psychological horror film series goes in very interesting directions. Though horror is filled with twisted relationships between parents and their children, none is as iconic as the one between Norman and his mother.
We revisited the core four films of the Psycho franchise for Mother’s Day, particularly to re-examine the highly underrated sequels that followed Hitchcock’s seminal film…
Robert Bloch’s source novel, which drew loose inspiration from Ed Gein, was far more vicious than the adapted screenplay. Marion Crane wasn’t just stabbed in the novel, she was beheaded. Norman Bates wasn’t the nice young man that made sandwiches for his motel guest before Mother took issue with their presence, but an unsympathetic overweight drunkard. Hitchcock suggested casting Anthony Perkins, however, altering the character in profound ways that would shape the psychological horror film, and the screenplay was written by Joseph Stefano. The original film was groundbreaking in so many ways; the sexuality of Marion Crane was trailblazing for its time, as was the shocking twist to off its main character not long into the run time. The shower scene stabbing of Marion Crane is the most singular iconic moment of the franchise, one that would be played back in flashbacks for the next two installments, and embedded itself in collective pop culture memory. When Crane’s sister Lila and her lover Sam Loomis come looking for her, they slowly uncover the truth behind the plucky Norman and his reclusive mother, but not before another person loses their life of course. The twist reveal that Mother had actually killed herself 10 years prior to the events of the film brought an even more shocking twist; Norman Bates’ Mother is still very much alive in his mind, taking over his mind and body in her persona to kill due to jealousy and possessiveness.
Though Lila Crane becomes the protagonist of the film, it’s Perkins’ role that steals the film. So seemingly earnest, up until the reveal, that he draws a lot of sympathy from viewers. Psycho doesn’t really delve into his relationship with his mother, but it doesn’t have to. The isolated setting alone, combined with the domineering Mother persona parcels out just why nice-guy Norman would repress the death of his mother and carve out a space in his mind for her to exist as an alternate personality.
Psycho II (1983)
The first follow-up to Psycho took over 20 years to arrive, and continues to be one of horror’s most overlooked sequels. Perkins originally turned down the offer to reprise his role, but when he read the script he changed his mind. Written by Tom Holland (Fright Night, Child’s Play), the sequel is set 22 years after the events of the first film where Norman Bates is released from the mental institution and has finally accepted that his mother is dead. Lila Loomis (Vera Miles, also reprising her role), married and widowed to Sam Loomis between films, very much opposes Bates’ release and fears he’ll return to his murderous ways. Norman once again resumes residence in the old house behind the motel, and takes a job working at the nearby diner. There he meets co-worker Emma Spool and young diner Mary Samuels (Meg Tilly), a pretty girl in need of a place to stay after her boyfriend threw her out. Norman is well adjusted, until he begins to receive notes from Mother at home and at work. As Norman’s budding friendship with Mary grows, so does the body count.
Psycho II cleverly takes what audiences know about Norman Bates and uses it to create its mystery. Is Bates losing his mind again? Or is there someone framing him? Norman’s relationship with Mother, and the Mother persona, take a backseat to the parallel oppressive relationship between Mary and her own mother. Like Norman, Mary’s mother is overbearing and uses Mary as a tool for her own rage. It’s through Norman that Mary learns to stand up to her. Psycho II also boldly evolves the mythology around the Bates family, with Emma Spool giving a surprising family history lesson to Norman at the film’s conclusion. It’s a sequel that firmly places Norman as the protagonist, engendering a lot of viewer sympathy.
Psycho III (1986)
Anthony Perkins not only returned to reprise the role of Norman, but this sequel also marked his directorial debut. The screenplay written by Charles Edward Pogue (The Fly, Dragonheart), Psycho III picks up after the events of the previous film with Norman working at the Bates Motel with a new preserved corpse of Mother. Mother has once again embedded herself in Norman’s mind, ruthlessly killing those that inspire jealousy. This sequel plays out more like a traditional slasher than the previous films, even the gore is more prominent with brutal throat slashings. The psychological element only comes into play with Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid), a former nun on the run after a Vertigo-inspired opening sequence death. Maureen shares a lot in common with Marion Crane, in both initials and looks. When Maureen attempts suicide in Norman’s home, the act causes Norman to regain control from Mother, who intended to kill her. The psychological element then becomes a question of whether the budding romance between Maureen and Norman will save him from Mother.
As the film climax builds to a fight between Norman and Mother, an internal good versus evil, Pogue dives deeper into the mythology introduced at the end of Psycho II. It’s a reveal that explains it might not just be a case of nurture versus nature for Norman, but both with heavy emphasis on the latter. It’s a fascinating separation between Norman and Mother; Norman is now wholly sympathetic and seen as a separate entity from the evil Mother.
Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)
With Psycho III a commercial and critical failure, this film marked the first to shift from theatrical release to made-for-television. However, Mick Garris (Critters 2: The Main Course, The Stand) was brought in to direct and original Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano was brought back to write this sequel. Stefano’s first order of business was to ignore Psycho II and Psycho III, namely the added mythology about Emma Spool. This sequel follows a rehabilitated Norman Bates now married to a psychiatrist and newly expecting. Norman is terrified that his child will inherit his mental illness and feels pressured to close the loop by resorting to old ways.
Psycho IV: The Beginning works as both prequel and sequel, using a framing device of Norman calling into a radio show discussing matricide and relaying stories from his youth, told in flashbacks, explaining the events that lead to Norman’s homicidal breakdown. Olivia Hussey plays Norman’s mother Norma in flashbacks, and Henry Thomas as young Norman. The flashbacks give major insight to Norman’s upbringing with his mother, and the state of her unbalanced health. Their isolated living brings about incestuous undertones, which leads to horrific punishments inflicted on poor Norman by his mother. It fills in every possible blank about the Bates family, including Norman’s first kills. This sequel/prequel has a fun cameo role by John Landis, and marks the final showdown between Norman and Mother as he confronts his past and seeks closure driven by an unwanted pregnancy.
The core of the entire franchise hinges on the driving force of the relationship between Norman and Mother, which was also vital to the success of A&E’s series Bates Motel. Equal parts horrific and sympathetic, Norman Bates is a horror lead unlike any other, his innocence constantly at war with his possessive, rage-filled mother. It says a lot about the maternal connection between mother and son that we wrap our heads around Mother without ever having met her (until the fourth film, that is). Between Perkins performance, and the fascinating turns the series takes, the Psycho film series is worth revisiting and there’s no better occasion than Mother’s Day.