Thursday, October 30, 2014

Movie Trailer: Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)

Cult-Movie Review: Psycho III (1986)

Directed by Anthony Perkins, Psycho III (1986) is -- perhaps paradoxically -- both sleazier and more spiritual than its 1960 and 1983 predecessors were. 

The third film in the Psycho mythos explores a world of the fallen; a world of sex without love, and cynicism but no truth. Yet the film’s consistent use of religious symbolism suggests that Norman Bates can yet be redeemed, and yet navigate this mortal coil. He may, perhaps, even find forgiveness, and love.

Although Psycho III does not feature a tightly-structured mystery like the ones that dominated Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Franklin’s Psycho II (1982), the second sequel nonetheless thrives on its finely-developed sense of gallows humor, particularly in a scene involving a (bloody) ice machine. 

Also, Anthony Perkins’ unparalleled understanding of the Norman Bates character makes this film, perhaps, the most sentimental entry thus far, and Psycho III is the first film in the series that might genuinely be said to feature a happy ending, even if it is arrived at through tragedy. 

Although Psycho III’s loose narrative structure means that the story feels less urgent than it should, it also permits Perkins’ more breathing room, more freedom to excavate the character of Norman,  the “man boy.”  At least some critics would consider this a fair trade. I know I do, especially since Perkins still leans hard on crisp imagery and visual symbolism to express Norman’s tale.

On that point, the late Robert Ebert recounted in his review of Psycho III a scene in which Norman believes that he will come face-to-face with his (dead) mother. Ebert writes that though Perkins’ “facial expressions” -- in a long, unbroken shot of him walking the length of the motel front -- are not subtle, he isn’t over-acting, either.

Rather “he projects such turmoil that we almost sympathize with him.”  

This is Perkins’ modus operandi throughout Psycho III, making viewers see Norman as more than a murderous schizophrenic, and more than a pawn to be maneuvered on a chess board about like others of strong will (such as Mother, Emma Spool, or Lila Loomis). 

Although it was not a box office success in 1986, Psycho III gained (sometimes grudging) respect from many critics, in part because Perkins’ has charted such an intriguing path for Norman. In the past, Bates has seemed so confused, so directionless that redemption wasn’t necessarily even an option. In Psycho III, one can, for the first time, see his path towards that destination.

The result is a sequel that, in the words of horror film scholar Ken Hanke is “just short of being a little masterpiece.”

“You remind me of someone I knew once.”

A fallen nun named Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid) is responsible for the accidental death of a fellow nun at her convent following a suicide attempt.  Consumed with guilt and feeling faithless, Maureen leaves the church and her responsibilities.  She wanders the desert with only a suitcase of her belongings, until she is offered a ride by a sleazy guitar player, Duane (Jeff Fahey).

After Duane makes unwanted advances, Maureen ends up in the desert again, but she soon happens upon the town of Fairvale, home to Norman Bates and the Bates Motel.  Almost immediately, Norman is drawn to Maureen because she reminds him of Marion Crane (and even shares her initials and hair-cut). 

Growing closer to Maureen by the day, Norman hires Duane to manage his motel at the same time a nosy reporter, Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell) comes to town wishing to interview Bates regarding “the insanity defense.”

Norman saves Maureen when she attempts suicide again, slitting her wrists in bathtub, and Maureen resolves that she can save Norman too.

But Mother may have other ideas..

“The past is not really the past.”

From Psycho III’s opening blast -- Maureen’s sacrilegious shout that “There is no God!” -- the film treads deeply into a religious argument and symbolism. The film’s inaugural image is of the Virgin Mary, and not coincidentally, Mary looms as an important figure in the film when one thinks closely about Norman and his journey. 

For one thing, the Virgin Mary is a mother -- the mother of Jesus in particular, -- and we all know that a boy’s mother is his best friend, according to Bates own testimony.  For a franchise that obsesses on a Mother’s power over her family, it is appropriate that this Psycho sequel should choose the symbol of the Virgin Mary to explore.

More to the point, Norman boasts a long history of falling in love with women named Mary, women who can -- under the right circumstances -- “save” him from himself/Mother, if given the opportunity. Janet Leigh plays Marion Crane. Meg Tilly plays Mary Loomis. And Diana Scarwid, here, is Maureen.  All three are human versions of Mary, one could say, women who try to help Norman in some way.

The film’s first act also suggests, after a fashion, a story from Scripture: the expulsion from Paradise or the Garden of Eden.  We see Norman living a life alone at the motel, happily stuffing birds and never interfacing with people or the larger world.  This little tract of desert land is his paradise, away from the prying eyes of Fairvale, and it is a place where he gets to be…innocent. 

The events of the film soon compel Norman to leave that paradise, reckon with the real world, and finally, embrace a genuine human relationship

Early in the film, we see a plastic Jesus figure in Duane's car. Later in Psycho III we get a close-up of the Holy Bible, and finally, Maureen hallucinates that Norman in his Mother gear, brandishing a knife, is actually the Virgin Mary holding a crucifix, coming to save her from herself. 

Mother wears a dark blue dress, as always, and importantly, many art works from antiquity associate Mary with the color blue as well. 

One level, one could note that this is a wicked joke: a murdering, knife-wielding “Mother” as the Virgin Mary? 

On another level, however, Maureen’s hallucination of the Virgin Mary suggests the ultimate strength of her faith, and it is that faith which allows her to forgive Norman and help him seek his redemption.

Thus Psycho III suggests a weird symbiosis. By dressing as Mother and saving Maureen from death, Norman rekindles the nun’s belief that she deserves a second chance.  And by embracing that second chance, Maureen decides to spend it saving Norman, despite her full knowledge of his past wrong-doings.  They each help or complete the other.

Another figure known for love – Cupid – however, proves Norman’s undoing. Maureen falls on the staircase in the Bates house and her skull is speared by a Cupid sculpture, an act which precludes Norman and Maureen from finding happiness together. Yet, in a way, Maureen, by showing Norman love and acceptance, has already done her job.  By the end of the film, Norman turns his butcher knife on Mother and declares that he is finally “free” of her. 

Sure, he’s headed back to the looney bin, but Mother is no longer a monkey on his back. Norman has known love because of Maureen, and will no more be enslaved to his most peculiar form of Oedipal love.

Oddly enough, the sleazy aspects of Psycho III ultimately add to the film’s spiritual argument.

Duane puts the moves on Maureen and when she resists, quips that she could have been “coming” instead of “going.”  Nice.

Later, Duane is nasty and abusive to a woman he has bedded. He throws her out of his hotel room, leaving her stranded -- and topless -- in public.  

At another point, we see the drunk, horny revelers of Homecoming in the motel, and again there’s the feeling of a cynical, sleazy world. That Norman and Maureen find true love -- even for a brief, shining moment -- against this backdrop, is truly an accomplishment.  They not only forgive and accept one another, they love each other in a way that is not ugly or cynical, but sweet.

One of the best scenes in the film is a quiet one, wherein Norman, sitting in a diner, allows himself to be interviewed by the toxic, chain-smoking reporter, Tracy Venable. She asks him about the insanity defense, and Norman replies that his cure “could not cure the hurt” that his actions caused.  He furthermore explains that “the past is not really the past,” a viewpoint that suggests a highly developed form of Catholic guilt. 

Long-time readers of the blog may remember how I discussed Catholic guilt vis-à-vis Captain Kirk in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), but Catholic guilt could defined as a melancholy or world-weariness brought about by an examined life. It's the constant questioning and re-parsing of decisions and history (some call it Scrupulosity). Here, Norman shows the capacity to examine his life, and see it from a perspective that is not to his favor. His quest is to be forgiven for “the past that is not really the past.” Maureen helps him to do that, but the scene with Venable explores the fact that Norman is not some mindless lunatic (in sharp contrast to the other slashers of the 1980s), but a man who is fully aware of the “private trap” in which he is snared.

The greatest scene in Psycho III, however, is one that would have made Hitchcock proud, and which isn’t strictly speaking, a part of the film’s theme of forgiveness/redemption.  

Instead, it’s just a droll scene brilliantly shot, that fosters suspense. The scene involves Fairvale’s Sheriff Hunt at the Bates Motel. He has come to question Norman about a missing woman, and digs his hand into the outdoor ice machine to cool off.  

Right out of his view, is the body of that victim, buried under all the ice in the freezer.  Norman knows the corpse is there, but the Sheriff doesn’t. Perkins’ camera cuts to a close-up of the ice -- the bloody ice -- next to the Sheriff’s grasping hands.  The scene’s pay-off is a close-up of the sheriff’s face as he licks bloody ice water from his lips, but is no wiser to the game.   

This scene is brilliantly written, constructed, and executed and it gets to the core appeal of the Psycho films. Not surprisingly, that appeal is schizophrenic. On one hand, we want Norman Bates to get caught.  On the other hand, we want him to go free and find happiness. Those two ideas compete in the brain, and the result is a kind of unbearable suspense.

Perkins gets it, naturally, and as Jeff Strickler in the Star Tribune wrote, he “shows the same precision as a director that he demonstrates as an actor.”  Psycho III is a “cut above” most sequels horror sequels because of his involvement, and proof positive that the film series was still conjuring new and worthwhile stories for Norman Bates in the late 1980s.

Later today: Psycho IV (1990).

Movie Trailer: Psycho 3 (1986)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cult-TV Gallery: The Psycho House

Laredo (1965)

Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "A Question of Fear"

The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries: "The House on Possessed Hill."

Knight Rider: "Halloween Knight."

Fear Factor (2005)

Cult-Movie Review: Psycho II (1983)

“Jerry Goldsmith’s first main theme was melancholy and I persuaded him to go with something more innocent. The music he’d written for the stairway flashback…I played it to Tony [Perkins] and he cried.  [He] said he’d lived with Norman all those years and no one else had ever understood his innocence – ‘the boy man’ as Tony called him.”

-Psycho II (1983) director Richard Franklin, in an interview for my book Horror Films of the 1980s (2007). Page 351.

If Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) concerns the “private traps” that people often make for themselves, then its impressive 1983 sequel -- directed by Richard Franklin -- focuses on what happens when people won’t let go of those traps.

No matter what. 

Not coincidentally, Psycho II involves a generation gap of sorts, since two protagonists (Norman Bates and Mary Loomis) are compelled to join their wayward parents (Lila Loomis, Emma Spool) in those aforementioned traps, with dire results. 

In this case, the will of the older generation is imposed violently on the younger generation, and the cycle of violence and madness continues because of it.

In fact, that’s the image Psycho II leaves us with: madness re-asserted at the Bates Motel because the older generation can simply not live with the possibility of countenancing something new or different. Lila refuses to believe that Norman can be sane, and Spool succumbs to her madness to protect Norman, an act which re-awakens Norman’s own Mommy issues.

In short, both Lila Loomis (Vera Miles) and Emma Spool (Claudia Bryar) wish to stick rigorously to their long-standing biases and preconceived notions, and even take (violent or subversive) action to assure the outcome that validates their viewpoint and desires.

It is the children, however, who suffer for the sins of the mothers, and Psycho II is thus a story about the ways that families keep replaying the same dramas and reliving the same pathologies, one year to the next, one generation to the next.

This sub-text adds some meat to the bones of the film, which -- while not revolutionary like its storied predecessor -- is nonetheless an extremely well-made thriller. More than that, even, Psycho II is a compelling mystery featuring many effective and unexpected twists and turns.

Also, it seems impossible not to read “the generation gap” sub-text of Psycho II as a pre-emptive defense of this sequel.

Once more, we must consider historical context. The older, established movie intelligentsia was up in arms about a sequel being crafted to Hitchcock’s masterpiece in 1983. It argued, basically, that a sequel could only be more of the same: violent hijinks at the Bates Motel.

Psycho II’s very story, its narrative content, seems to suggest otherwise. Indeed, one aspect of Psycho II that remains quite beautiful is the one alluded to in the quote above, from Franklin.

This sequel beautifully expresses Norman’s tragic and innocent qualities. One spends the film wishing Norman some measure of happiness, but understanding that the cynical, caustic forces of the world will simply not let him have it.

I love and admire the original Psycho for all the reasons I enumerated yesterday. I love how it plays with structure and shatters decorum. And I admire how it splits our point of identification, the protagonist, into three individuals.

But Psycho II has its pleasures too, even if they are of a different, perhaps more grounded sort

Without resorting to gimmickry or cheap tricks, the sequel really reveals to us Norman Bates as a human being who is worthy of our sympathy, not just as a surprising boogeyman.

In so many ways, Norman really is like a lost “boy man” instead, and as this film points out, the world -- circa 1983 -- simply has no place for him.  He is now not only a man out of his mind, but a man out of time, out of step with the present.

The film’s serious, sincere attempt to excavate Norman’s identity (and plight) is the very thing that refutes those who say “you can’t make a sequel to Psycho, because it will just be a lame imitation.”

Psycho II opened the same day as another sequel, Return of the Jedi (1983), but nonetheless succeeded at the summer box office, and paved the way for additional sequels, all of which continue more or less in the vein of Franklin’s film, not Hitchcock’s. 

The Psycho sequels are, essentially, character studies of a “lost boy” in the modern world, and the ways that society continues to fail him.

I don’t believe, honestly, that the sequels would have succeeded to any creative degree if they had not adopted this grounded, character-based approach. Psycho II turns the gaze of the camera squarely on Norman and the world of the 1980s.

And in that view, it’s clear to audiences Norman Bates isn’t the only insane one. The world is “psychotoo (II).

“When he murders again, you will be directly responsible.”

After twenty-two years in asylum, murderer and former mad-man, Norman Bates (Perkins) is released.

At the hearing before his return to society, Lila Loomis (Miles) stands up and complains that the laws of the country protect the guilty, not the innocent, and that there is no justice for Norman’s victims.  She warns that he will very likely kill again, and that when Norman does so, the blood will be on the court’s hands.

Norman returns home to Fairvale with his psychiatrist, Dr. Raymond (Robert Loggia), and learns that the Bates Motel has been turned into an “adult” (pornographic) establishment by its manager, Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz).  After taking a job at a local diner with kindly old Mrs. Spool (Bryar), Norman fires Toomey and decides to run the motel himself.

Norman also takes in a waitress from the diner, Mary (Meg Tilly), who is having relationship troubles.  But the truth is that Mary is Lila’s daughter. Her mother has asked her to insinuate herself into Norman’s life and drive him crazy, wearing his old “Mother” garb, while Lila telephones him and claims to be the dead Mrs. Bates.

As Mary gets to know Norman, she sees how cruel her mother’s plans truly are, and begins to rebel against Lila and the strategy to de-stabilize Bates.

But all along, another figure lurks in the shadows, one who claims to be Norman’s “real” mother, and will commit murder to protect her beloved boy…

“I don’t kill people anymore, remember?”

At one point in Psycho II, Norman experiences a flashback of his mother, Norma Bates, while standing just outside her bedroom. In the brass door-knob (and over it, in the door itself) we can see a distorted reflection of Norman, but in that reflection, Norman is not a grown man, but rather a child.

That image, in many ways, is the key to appreciating this sequel.

Norman is developmentally arrested and a virgin to boot, as Anthony Perkins and Richard Franklin have both pointed out. He lived in a fantasy world before being caught in 1960. But since 1960, he has been frozen in time and living in a bubble of a different sort. While exorcising the ghost of his mother, he has actually learned nothing of life. Thus when Norman is released in 1983, he is a fish-out-of-water, a victim both of his mother, and of the society which incarcerated him but never taught him how to live, or how to succeed. Norman returns to “real life” rudderless and without direction, with few friends, and many enemies. 

This situation makes him incredibly vulnerable. That vulnerability is ruthlessly taken advantage of.

Mary Loomis is a victim in the same sense: a pawn in her mother’s twisted scheme to send Norman “over the edge.”  This plan puts Mary in mortal jeopardy, but it also requires her to be a liar and deceiver.  And it all must happen in the name of Mary’s aunt, the dead Marion Crane. Lila Loomis has been unable to forgive Norman for her murder, even after twenty-two years.

In fact, Lila has become a cruel, strident person railing at everybody, including the legal system, for failing her. Lila is so consumed with rage and anger that she dresses as Norman’s mother to vex him, and calls him on the telephone and pretends to be Norma. There can be no argument about the fact that she acts deplorably.  Never once does she allow for the possibility that Norman might be healed, or seeking some form of redemption.

Lila simply can’t get beyond the past, and about what she “knows” to be true. Everyone else -- the law, the psychiatrist, and even her own daughter -- are wrong for thinking otherwise. Lila is thus a dead-ender, a person willing to believe things which are not true so as to validate her own hatred and prejudices.  It’s a surprising and rewarding idea to turn our final protagonist in Psycho, Lila, into an antagonist in the film’s sequel, but is also speaks to a sad truth about people. They sometimes get brittle and inflexible with age.

Psycho 2’s cleverness comes about, in a sense, from our conflicted feelings for Norman. He is heart-breaking when he talks about his mother making him toasted cheese sandwiches, and being good to him, and yet, we also remember the weight of history. We know he has killed and that, as I wrote above, that Norman is vulnerable. 

In one well-directed scene, Norman cuts a sandwich for Mary and the scene is alive and electric with tension. Mary hands Norman a very large butcher knife, and, remembering the past, he doesn’t want to hold it or take it. 

Mary -- in on the plan to de-stabilize Norman -- realizes that by handing the knife to him, she is putting herself in danger.

And then, as audience members, we have to wonder about the moment too.  Mary is handing Norman the tool that could be used to murder her! 

Who, finally, is responsible, when someone knowingly hands a former murderer a knife?  Is Norman responsible for his actions? Or is it Mary?  And does the fact that Norman does not succumb to violence mean that he is, in fact, cured?

Psycho II asks us to consider all these ideas.

Another great scene occurs near the film’s climax.  Norman attempts to disarm Mary, but she is holding the knife.  He keeps approaching her, hands outstretched, and she stabs him, and cuts his hands. At this point, it is not Norman who is acting violently, but Mary, driven to rage by her mother’s death, who does the stabbing.  This is a neat inversion of typical horror movie tropes.  Here the “boogeyman” is unarmed and pleading, and the final girl, Mary, is losing her grip on sanity and drawing blood.

In terms of style, Franklin is a Hitchcock protégé, and so Psycho II features many moments as elegant and frisson-creating as those I enumerate above.  Some moments in the film are also downright shocking, even today.  Lila takes a knife to the mouth (and through the mouth), and the violence is, in its way, decorum shattering too.  Here a sweet old woman (and our former protagonist) isn’t just killed, but tactlessly butchered!

Before she dies, Franklin provides a close-up of Lila's mouth, screaming in horror, and the shot should look familiar from Psycho.  In this, in set design, and in fidelity to the characters, Psycho II seeks to honor its predecessor without slavishly imitating it.

I wrote about this some in Horror Films of the 1980s, but Psycho II is really about Norman making a choice. 

Should he choose the sanity that society prefers, or, finally, the love of a (psychotic) mother figure? 

On one hand, society makes it clear it doesn’t want Norman. Lila frames him. The sheriff suspects him of killing two teenagers. And Mary, even, betrays him. In broader terms, cut-backs in social services mean that Norman is never visited by a social worker, someone who can help assimilate him back into the mainstream. 

On the other hand, we have a woman, Emma Spool, who claims to be his biological mother, and would kill to protect him. “I’m the only one who truly loves you,” Mother says to Norman. “Only your mother truly loves you.” 

The great thing about Psycho II is that Mother’s comment -- while horrifying -- also happens to be absolutely true, given what we’ve seen of mainstream society in the film. If his only choice is between a world that hates him and a mother who is steadfast (but nutty…) then love wins out, every time.

Psycho II’s last moment is perfectly conceived and executed. The vacancy sign turns on at the hotel, storm clouds roil in the night sky above, and Norman stands in the shadow of that Gothic house, in the shadow, again, of his mother. 

For Norman, this is a return to madness, and some might even say it’s a reset of the Psycho franchise, taking us back to the world as it was before Marion’s visit in 1960.

But really, it’s the only logical destination for Norman, the lost “boy man.”  Another shot in the film goes even further in depicting his plight. We see Norman banging on the attic window of his house, locked in and unable to escape.  He sees the world outside, but can never quite get to it. That’s Norman in a nut-shell.

Norman’s just not getting out of the “private trap” the world has made for him.  But tragically – and quite unlike Lila or Emma – he really, really wants out.

Tomorrow morning: Psycho III (1986).

Movie Trailer: Psycho II (1983)

The Monster Game (Ideal)

Frankenstein Monster Costumes (Ben Cooper)

Remco Mini Monster Play Case (1980)

In 1980, Remco released a whole line of toys based on the classic Universal Monsters.  The line included figures of Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Karloff's Frankenstein Monster, the Wolfman, the Phantom of the Opera, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Karloff Mummy. 

Best of all, these small action figures were given a perfect home with this unique "Mini Monster Play case," a fold-up play-set that is a "monster mansion and portable storage case for all the mini movie monsters!"

This laminated play set with "glow in the dark features" came complete with a "flip-top mummy's tomb," a "carrying handle," a "creature cage," a "disappearing lab table with instrument panel," and a "spooky laboratory set with doorway." 

Unfortunately my old, battered Remco Play Case is missing Frankenstein's lab table, and I don't have any of the figures anymore, save for a very battered Count Dracula. 

Boy, do I wish I had kept track of those mini-monsters better back in 1980... 

By today's standards, this probably isn't the world's greatest or more accurate toy.  The scale of the "painted" laboratory on the rear wall is way off when compared to the actual action figures.  But still, I have such a love for these Universal Monsters that I find the Mini-Monster Play Case from Remco a jewel in my home office collection. 

I should add, these Mini-Monsters from Remco remain so popular that customized new monsters are today being created and sold on E-Bay.  These "new" monsters include Jack the Ripper, The Invisible Man, Dr. Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.

One of these days, when I have the cash to blow, I'm definitely going to buy a Remco Mummy and get him home in his tomb...

Frankenstein View-Master