Tuesday, 23 February 2010
There's something special about Psycho. It has been written about perhaps more than any other film and a morbid curiosity has overtaken many a film-maker, inspiring them to try and grasp its beating heart. In 1998 Gus Van Sant released a fascinating experiment, an almost shot for shot remake of the 1960 original in which he seemed to pose the question : where lies Psycho's soul? In 1993 Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho slowed the film down so that it would take a day to play, trying perhaps to capture flickers of genius between the frames. These films, however, do not dare build on the sacred ground, they dare not write another chapter to a story deemed complete and completely brilliant. In 1983 Director Richard Franklin, working from a script by Child's Play's devilishly clever writer Tom Holland, did dare.
Suppose we have another look at the place? What harm can it do? Is it unnecessary, is it sacrilege to go back? Psycho is revered as a masterpiece of horror and there are people who, quite understandably, don't want to go back. They don't want those memories to be sullied. But Norman Bates doesn't want to go back either. The last thing he wants is a sequel. He doesn't want to give those voices and those urges a chance to lead him into the temptations of the old, old ways...
That any conflicted feelings an audience might have correspond so closely with Norman's own trepidation forges an important bond between the film and us.
It is mighty rare for a direct sequel to be made 22 years after the original and even rarer for it to be set 22 years later. Seeing Norman Bates again comes as a shock. That gaunt and gauche boyish young man has got older. He has wrinkles and a greater air of maturity that comes with age; but there is still something of the boy about him. He has never really grown up or grown away from his childhood trauma, something alluded to in Psycho III by a breakfast spread tin labelled 'Peter Pan'. There is a sadness underneath the tics that spreads its inkblot stain.
This time Norman is the protagonist from start to finish. The gaze of the film is keener. It is both more forensic and more sympathetic. Newly released from prison, exonerated 'by reason of insanity', he decides to go home. He is wary but confident that he has at last gained control over himself. He is scared and much of the success of Psycho II lies in making us scared for him more than we are scared by him. He is scared of going back to that house, scared of being alone, or rather of suddenly not being alone. He knows it's not going to be easy but he's determined to have a stab at it...
Psychological therapy has made Norman more self-aware than ever. It may be counter-intuitive but, precisely because of this, he is that much more in danger. He is that much more at the mercy of paranoia. Into this potent mix comes Mary, a young woman who works at a diner where Norman has been placed as part of his rehabilitation. He invites her to stay at his home and she accepts. All in good time it will be revealed that Mary is as much manipulated by a domineering mother as he is. Her mother is Lila Loomis, the sister of Norman's / Mother's first victim and Mary is being used as bait to tease out Norman's insanity and drive him towards renewed incarceration. They place telephone calls purporting to be from his mother and appear at the window dressed in her old clothes. Soon the fear bubbles, the blood begins to flow once again and the finger of suspicion is pointed unerringly in Norman's direction.
The film is distressingly and grossly unfair on Norman in the relentless persecution visited on him by its characters. Tragedy is never far away from the surface.
Mary, grown more fond of Norman and more guilty of her involvement in his distress, refuses to continue the charade, attempting to pacify Norman and lullaby his fears to sleep. Their relationship glows with much tenderness and much sadness ("What if I told you I needed you to stay"), one never completely trusting the other but clinging to each other as if surrogate mother and son. The glimmer of hope he holds that she may 'like' him is monumentally heartbreaking and skin-crawling all at once.
However, the murders and the calls continue and soon it is impossible to tell who is doing what, who is killing who and the extent to which Norman is falling or is being pushed. Or maybe, just maybe, he has leapt willingly feet first into 'madness'.
Psycho II takes the more cut and dried, cool, procedural nature of the original and brings out more refinement in its cavalcade of psychos: psychotic, psychopathic, psychosexual, psychosomatic. In this Psycho story there is a new sorrow in the eyes of a cornered man, new affection in the embrace of a lodger, new chills in that anxious frame, new horrors in the churning blood.
Psycho II is receptive to wider emotional frequencies than its predecessor.
It is very enjoyable, knotted tight with baffling twists and cul-de-sacs. Be it in the slicing of a cheese sandwich or the slow pan across and into the wallpaper of a shower-room, the tension is held high, inches shy of fever pitch. The Freudian serial-killer sub-genre is oftentimes overly delirious or baroque but Psycho II only very rarely allows itself to be held hostage to such excesses. In fact it manages to retain much of the original's understatement.
Franklin meticulously adopts elements of the 'master's' signature style* - a sudden switch to a high angle, a bird's eye view, a dolly zoom. He even contrives one last Hitchcock cameo by casting that all too recognisable podgy silhouette onto a cupboard door. Nevertheless, he is his own man and he offers himself his own Hitchcockian cameo standing by a videogame machine.
With Psycho II Franklin acknowledges that this is Hitchcock's world but proceeds reverently and imaginatively to create his own myth beside it and within it.
Franklin uses a soupcon more gothic and a pinch more sensation, taking his own route and locating his Bates Motel on the road from Hitchcock to Argento.
There are even murmurings of the ghostly turned supernatural in Jerry Goldsmith's terrifically poignant score. With no little panache and elan, Franklin masterminds compositions all his own, on one occasion sliding us out of an attic window, shrouded in darkness, into the blinding sunlight of the next day. There is a style and a verve here.
The performance of Anthony Perkins, though, is the sine qua non of a successful Psycho and it is the most impressive aspect of this film. Tormented or tormentor, his expressions switch effortlessly between the registers. Whether he is the innocent, awkward and eager to please Norman or the nervous, torn and vindictive Norman, Perkins concocts and shapes the apotheosis of the kindly beast. Look at the way he nonchalantly moves the phone from his right hand into his left hand to indicate the presence of 'Mother' and lets that unsettling vacant wonderment pass over his face with the quietness of a shadow.
Meg Tilly as Mary is less convincing. Her delivery can be a little blank but her unassuming and likeable presence contrasts well with Perkins'.
In the end the machinations are unfurled as the machinators fall one by one. Nothing is truly solved. We do not know if Norman is more lost than ever or merely at the controls of a new and more hideous form of evil. In the penultimate scene do we see in his eyes a perfect clarity as if the sane and the insane sides of him had overlapped to act in unison? At the beginning of the film Norman didn't want a sequel. By the end he is hungry for a couple more.
And so the threads are untied and with one final blow the film is unspooled.
I think Psycho II deserves to be remembered as more than just a surprisingly good sequel. I think Psycho II deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as its forerunner. It is more tense, more horrifying, more emotionally involved and involving. It is a fine creative achievement and, for me, the best Psycho film bar none.
*Franklin was a Hitchcock obsessive. The two became good friends following Franklin's attempts to have Rope screened at USC. Subsequently Franklin was invited onto the set during the production of Topaz.
Posted by Stephen Russell-Gebbett at 12:50