Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘Psycho II’
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
There are very few films that are unquestionably considered cinematic classics. Productions that transcend genre and connect with all audiences. Some of these movies are beloved; others are infamous, and a rare few are considered both. Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho (1960) is one of these rare gems. But what happens when an unassailable classic becomes a franchise? Let’s check into The Bates Motel and find out how an out-of-the-way lodging was first franchised with Psycho II (1983)!
Psycho (1960) is widely considered a perfect picture. Or, for some folks such as myself, it’s nearly perfect. No matter your opinion of it, though, that original movie is a classic that was once considered to be untouchable. After all, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was a master filmmaker, and what he brought to the table as a director is still evident to audiences today. Thus, the notion of sequelizing Psycho — which, for better or worse, became Hitchcock’s most famous picture — seemed dubious at best. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about the film industry, nothing is sacred, particularly while living in our current age of franchisable intellectual property. Also, let’s face it, being part of the horror genre, Psycho has much more sequel potential.
Such was never more accurate than in the 1980s, a decade that was a Golden Age for horror. Moreover, the horror subgenre of the slasher was the equivalent of comic book movies today. Thus, it’s no surprise that Universal Studios wanted to bring Norman Bates and Psycho back to audiences. And who could blame them? Aside from many film critics of the time, of course. Universal knew a Psycho sequel would mean butts in seats. Even more, a follow-up would have major potential generational appeal. Baby boomers who saw Psycho back in ’60 would likely be curious. Meanwhile, teenagers would turn out for just about any slasher flick.
Or, at least, the studio would get people glued to their TV screens.
Even though the slashers reigned supreme at theaters in the 80s, this sequel was initially intended to be distributed by Universal Television as a made-for-cable TV movie. A logical distribution model considering the decade also saw the wide adoption of cable television. Such a revolution also bore the TV movie model, highly popular with major networks, and pay cable stations. So, after gaining approval from Hitch’s daughter, Patricia Hitchcock (1928-2021), producers Hilton A. Green (1929-2013), who served as assistant director on Hitchcock’s original, and Bernard Schwartz (1917-2003) began active pre-production with Universal Television. Unsurprisingly, when the author of Psycho (1959), Robert Bloch (1917-1994), learned a sequel was underway, he wanted to be involved.
Following the success of the film adaptation of Psycho in 1960, Bloch high-tailed it to Hollywood. There, he successfully wrote in novels, screenplays, and teleplays. Upon learning that Universal was sequelizing Psycho, Bloch pitched the studio on a screenplay for Psycho II that was more of a satire of the genre at the time than a horror movie. His idea for a sequel criticized the slasher subgenre that loomed prominently throughout the decade. From what I’ve about his pitch, it could be thematically compared to Scream 3 (2000).
Unsurprisingly, the studio rejected it because they wanted to bring Norman Bates into the slasher era instead of rebuking it. Nevertheless, the author’s rejected story would see the light of day in perhaps its most appropriate form: a novel also titled Psycho II, published by Whispers Press in 1982. Fittingly, the book hit shelves the year before the movie in review was released to theaters. After understandably turning down Psycho’s creator, producers brought in Tom Holland of Fright Night (1985) and Child’s Play (1988) fame to write the filmic version of this sequel. However, a director still needed to be found to bring what Holland put on the page to the screen. No doubt a hefty task considering that person would be in Hitchcock’s shadow to some degree.
It’s said that the first filmmaker approached to direct the film was none other than Brain De Palma (Body Double); an excellent choice as he greatly admired Hitch and has often been compared to his directorial style. De Palma declined to the opportunity. At the time, he was arguably at the peak of his career, so I couldn’t see him helming a TV movie. Today, talent can jump between film & television since they’re both now considered equally rich mediums. In the 80s, though, you either made movies or TV, never both.
Presumably, the producers of Psycho II would have continued to offer this sequel with a legacy preceding it to seasoned filmmakers. But they just so happened to stumble upon a novice director who fit the bill of what they were seeking. Richard Franklin (1948-2007) was inspired to become a director after seeing Psycho at the age of twelve. (Ironically, the same age I saw it.) Up to this point in his filmography, Franklin had made a softcore porn comedies and a few schlocky B-pictures, so he didn’t exactly scream “obvious choice.” But Franklin was chosen to direct Psycho II after producers saw Road Games (1981), and drew stylistic parallels between it and Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Unlike his predecessor, Franklin is a much more workmanlike helmer. However, it’s worth noting that Franklin spent some time with Hitchcock during his time at USC and on the set of Topaz (1969)
With a writer and director in place, the producers decided to swing for the fences. They offered Anthony Perkins (1932-1992) the opportunity to reprise the role that defined his career (for better or worse); so much so that the actor never could get out of the ominous shadow of the character. Perkins was initially very hesitant to reprise Norman Bates, for he had become iconic. At one point, it appeared the actor’s ambivalence (at best) towards returning to the role would result in a refusal. During this time, Christopher Walken (The Outlaws, Severance) was supposedly considered to take over the part. Walken would have been a little young to play a forty-something Norman, but the timeline would’ve been altered if Walken had stepped in for Perkins. Undoubtedly, Walken would’ve delivered a very different, but interesting performance. Although, such a turn of events would have proven that this character belongs to Anthony Perkins. A fact Vince Vaugn (Freaky) would go to solidify in the 1999 remake.
Bates was no doubt a double-edged butcher’s knife for Perkins. As an actor, I suppose he was just so tired of being thought of as the titular Psycho by mass audiences at this point in his life and career — one that, pre-1960, Perkins saw going in a much different direction. Early on, Perkins was considered a heartthrob. He even parlayed that status into recording a quartet of albums between 1957 and 1964. After Psycho, audiences could never disassociate him from Norman. Believe it or not, though, Perkins did not get pigeonholed in the industry. On the contrary, he worked consistently post-Psycho in a variety of roles.
Often any work is good work for an actor. But, slowly going from top-billed to supporting roles can sting. And by the time Psycho II was in pre-production, Perkins was booking supporting parts in smaller-and-smaller films. Perhaps this is why he finally chose to be Norman Bates again. Although, Perkins never outright stated why he decided to return. Personally, though, I’d imagine it’s because Perkins wanted to see what it would be like to play Norman again two decades later. Upon agreeing to return, Universal decided to make it a theatrical venture. (Interestingly enough, though, this franchise would eventually go into that exact territory with Psycho IV: The Beginning, which aired on the uncensored cable network Showtime in 1990.)
Despite whatever resentment Perkins might’ve held about reprising his infamous role, he did show up to work. Although, it’s well known that he brought some baggage with him in doing so. The person most aware of this fact was his co-star, Meg Tilly (Chucky), who made her name role feature film debut as the film’s leading heroine, Mary. Tilly has openly expressed that Perkins and Franklin were difficult. While not going into detail about her director, the she has said that Perkins was “mean” and “played actor tricks” on her constantly. Thankfully, it wasn’t for anything as deplorable as we’re sadly accustomed to hearing out of Hollywood today. Perkins would get in his co-star’s head, make her flub lines, etc. According to Tilly, Perkins was great the first few days on set. But, after word came down that some cast and crew members found Perkins to be a little stiff in dailies, Tilly maintained the actor became very hard to work with. Psycho II was such a trying production for her that Tilly considered quitting the profession and did not attend the film’s premiere.
Despite the problematic production, none of the behind-the-scenes drama shows on screen as the story unfolds. Psycho II picks up 23 years after the events of the original film, with Norman Bates (Perkins) being released from a psychiatric institution on the grounds that his temporary insanity has abated. Try as she might, not even the sister of the late Marion Crane, Lila Loomis (played by a returning Vera Miles), could not convince the courts that Norman is still a danger. Still so quiet all these years later, Norman makes his best effort to re-enter a free society. Unfortunately, the only place he has to return to is the old home he and his mother shared.
Upon returning there, Norman finds that the former Bates Motel has become a very unreputable business where sex and drugs are perpetually peddled. Norman can’t take over as proprietor from the motel’s new owner, so he finds himself a job as a short-order cook. While working at this sweaty choke-and-puke diner, Norman befriends a young waitress named Mary (Tilly). Rehabilitated life is going well for the first few days until Norman starts receiving notes from “Mother” and people start turning up dead. As the new world around him rapidly unravels, Norman begins to doubt his sanity.
As I mentioned earlier, Perkins was dubbed “stiff” by some. Well, that’s somewhat true, as there are some moments where he is a bit hokey in his reprisal. Then again, there are just silly aspects of this sequel, as Erik Amaya can attest to in his coverage of Psycho II for his Your Weekend Cheesy Movie column. For the most part, though, Perkins brings us a familiar yet different portrayal of Norman Bates. By nature, Norman is timid, but in middle age, he has also come to some acceptance of himself, despite his psychotically homicidal flaws. Along with the new layers Perkins brings to Norman, the chemistry between him and Tilly’s empathetic Mary is quite interesting.
I remember introducing one of my best friends to the original Psycho, only to have him prefer this sequel while I largely disregarded it. In rewatching the film for this review, I realized that, at that time, I didn’t want nor fully understand what Psycho II is. This sequel does not have an atmosphere similar to its predecessor. Stylistically, it is a cheap, straightforward endeavor where the oppression and, occasionally, the sweat of the environment can be felt. At the same time, though, Psycho II is not the slasher some folks might assume it to be.
This sequel is a character study of Norman Bates more than anything else. One underscored in an unexpectedly tender fashion by Jerry Goldsmith (1929-2004). The horror and the murder mystery of it all are genuinely secondary, making Psycho II a Franchise Expansion. For two-thirds of this story, we see how Norman handles re-entering society, surrounded by Mary and a charismatic cast of supporting characters. (A real highlight is Robert Loggia (1930-2015) playing altogether against type as Norman’s therapist, Dr. Raymond.)
Then, we see how the string of homicides impacts Norman’s grip on his sanity. In my estimation, Psycho II doesn’t even truly take a turn into horror until its final act. What’s more, the horror aspects largely align with those of its predecessor. While Universal may have marketed Psycho II as a slasher flick, it’s undoubtedly a reserved one by the standards of the era in which it was released. A quality that only makes the film stronger and quite charming.
While Psycho II was tamer than its contemporaries, audiences did respond positively. In its theatrical run, the film grossed nearly $34.7 million on a production budget of $5 million, which I imagine even surprised Universal. June 3rd of this year will mark the 40th anniversary of this sequel, and since its theatrical release, audiences regularly discover what an underrated follow-up it is — myself included! If you haven’t seen Psycho II or weren’t too keen on it the first time, like myself, I implore you to give it another chance. I’m glad I did, even if I loathed the film’s ending twist.
Psycho II is available on Digital HD, Blu-Ray & DVD.
Next time, I’ll return for a stay at the Bates Motel with Psycho III (1986)!
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