I’m slightly cheating here as there’s only five! But, inspired by a recent double-bill at the Prince Charles Cinema, here is my rundown of one of a cinematic masterpiece, its three sequels and a remake.
- Psycho (1960 – Alfred Hitchcock)
Easily one of the finest films ever made, Psycho single-handedly creates the modern horror film.
Opening with the closing, the film’s weakest moment comes in its explanation of Norman Bates’ behaviour, one that is quite deliberately dreadful. Hitchcock knew that there were no easy answers for a psychopath, and any explanations offered by experts are designed to appease a society frightened of its darkest corners. The truest moment of horror in the film comes when Bates views Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) through a hole in the wall… and feels absolutely nothing. He does not murder her for sex, he is clearly quite ambivalent over the matter, he murders her for reasons we will never understand, despite our endless rewatches.
Marion Crane flees from the comfort/discomfort of heteronormativity (proposed marriage with a man/oppressive leering from a customer) into the blankness of the Bates Motel. It is there that regains control over her senses. Anthony Perkins’ bird-like performance is continually unsettling, evoking primal contrasting emotions of sympathy and fear within us. It is only when a queer force of equal strength enters the film, found in Vera Miles’ Lila Crane – clearly coded and disinterested in men (indeed, she does not react when sex is mentioned in the films closing moments) – that Bates can be overwhelmed.
There is a perception of the second half of the film dragging – a perception that Hitchcock disciple Brian De Palma was able to overcome in his own switching protagonist features (Sisters (1973) and Dressed to Kill (1980) are immaculately designed to ensure that the protagonist of the second half of his film witnesses the murder of the protagonist of the first half.) But Martin Balsam’s performance (deeply masculine – and therefore disposably murdered) and an utterly terrifying second death mean that we are kept involved as the film moves towards its conclusion.
Hitchcock chooses to keep his framing delicate, ensuring that the quick cuts of the shower scene slice deeper than any wielded knife. Deliberate and confrontational… Psycho is one of the greatest films of all time.
- Psycho II (1983 – Richard Franklin)
Psycho II belongs to that rather old-fashioned group of sequels made many years after the original whose appeal depended on a returning cast. Remarkable, given modern cinema’s obsession with remaking/remodelling films every couple of years.
Wisely choosing to dispose with any pretentions of redoing its progenitor, Psycho II is a puzzle-piece of a film. Even after several viewings, I am not sure who commits each of the murders within the film. As an audience, we are deliberately misled as to Norman Bates’ character – is he murdering again? Is he being manipulated (and if so, by how many people – including himself)? Has Mother returned? The explanation offered in the closing moments is just as unsatisfying as the original film’s as the clues just don’t add up. Rare it is that we have seen such an unnervingly likeable psychopath on screen.
Shot by Hitchcock acolyte Richard Franklin, who wisely chooses when to frame his shots with deliberate reference to the original film and when not, the movie features some extraordinary wince-inducing kills, and a typically sleazy supporting performance from Dennis Franz.
- Psycho III (1986 – Anthony Perkins)
Directed by Perkins himself, Psycho III moves explicitly into visual homages to Hitchcock. Opening with a variation on Vertigo (1958), it’s as if Perkins is wrestling with the man who made him such an icon, given that it was difficult for him ever to escape that legacy. The film takes a genuinely sympathetic approach to Bates, exploring the guilt and regret that comes with a lifetime of murder, and the constant temptation to slip into old habits.
- Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990 – Mick Garris)
Daftly attempting to ignore the continuity of its two predecessors – an… interesting choice given the film has a ‘IV’ in its title, Psycho IV is a curiously static affair. Like all movies that seek to explain a psychopath (see Rob Zombie’s 2007 version of Halloween) its explanations ring false in the face of our own imaginings. Norman Bates was always best when he was a blank slate. Casting the original ‘final girl’, Olivia Hussey, as Norma Bates is appealing, but she is smothered in the cod-psychology of Oedipal longings. By this stage, all asexuality is abandoned. After all, heteronormativity will always seek to deny queer identity.
- Psycho (1998 – Gus Van Sant)
Often inaccurately described as a shot-for-shot remake, Gus Van Sant’s cover version of the original film makes many notable changes. Opening with a realisation of a shot abandoned by Hitchcock (the opening soar through the Phoenix – an explicit short of Marion after her murder is also realised), Van Sant lulls the viewer into thinking they are seeing some cheap imitation. But he is deliberately disregarding the queerness of the original film. Never more notably than when Norman Bates (played disconcertingly by Vince Vaughn – not with any deliberation on his part, it’s just odd to see him in a straight role) masturbates as he watches Marion Crane shower. Whilst this actively limits the voyeuristic tendencies of the audience, it moves the horrific murders into more heteronormative fixtures (more indicative of the real world perhaps?) The closing explanation is reduced – quite sensibly – as we are all clear as to why the murders occur… sex. Other small changes throw us off the scent; the insertion of fragments of blue sky into the meticulously choreographed shower murder scene underline the cinematic legacy of the legendary cuts.
Further viewing is recommended in PSYCHOS, Steven Soderbergh’s 2014 mash-up of this and the original’s text found at http://extension765.com/sdr/15-psychos