The Curious Case of ‘Psycho II’
In 1983, an unlikely sequel returned Norman Bates to the Bates Motel and foreshadowed an IP-driven future.
At the end of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, we get a chilling final glimpse of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, except it’s not really Norman at all. Whatever made him Norman, the gentle, lonely motel proprietor who consoled the wayward Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in her moment of need, has fallen away for good, leaving only the murderous imprinted personality of Norman’s mother. It’s a perfect ending and the last we need to see of Norman.
But it wasn’t. In June 1983, Psycho was followed by Psycho II. And before going any further, let’s attempt a thought exercise and consider how strange an idea a sequel to Psycho would have seemed at the time. Nothing about the original called out for more. Hitchcock died in 1980 leaving no suggestion that he had anything else to say about the lonely world of the Bates Motel, and the habit of simply slapping a Roman numeral at the end of a familiar title wasn’t yet standard Hollywood practice.
The Reveal is a reader-supported newsletter dedicated to bringing you great essays, reviews and conversation about movies. While both free and paid subscriptions are available, please consider a paid subscription to support our long-term sustainability
But Hollywood was learning it could be. Psycho II is largely the result of two converging trends, one in marketing and one in public taste. Though Francis Ford Coppola had to overcome skepticism to add a “Part II” to The Godfather in 1974, by the end of the ’70s this sort of naming practice had been both normalized and streamlined. How do you follow Jaws? Jaws 2, no “part” required. In retrospect, 1979’s Rocky II looks like a turning point. Here was a story that not only didn’t cry out for a sequel, its beautifully bittersweet ending would likely suffer from being continued, no matter how solid the sequel. (And Rocky II is nothing if not perfectly solid.) But if audiences would show up for a second Rocky, why not give it to them with a title that minimizes any confusion about what they would be getting? Some other films to play alongside Psycho II in 1983: Superman III, Porky’s II: The Next Day, Jaws 3-D, and The Sting II.
Also playing: a lot of horror films that might not have existed without Psycho. Though the slasher trend of the late-’70s and early-’80s had waned by 1983, it’s easy to imagine Universal, which owned the rights to Psycho, considering how to get a piece of the action. If Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and countless other slasher bad guys could bring in crowds, why not bring back the OG?
Still, Universal wasn’t trying that hard. “We had faith in the attraction of the property,” Psycho II screenwriter Tom Holland recalled 30 years later on an audio commentary recorded by Scream Factory for the film’s Blu-ray release. “But Universal didn’t. The major corporations have no idea about their catalog or the value of the catalog or the relative value of the different movies within it.” When the studio first entertained the idea, it was to make a Psycho sequel as a direct-to-cable production (the same sort of half-in/half-out commitment that Disney would employ with direct-to-video efforts like Cinderella II: Dreams Come True decades later).
It was, as the phrase goes, a different time, one in which a creative team had to argue with a studio to put money into a non-original idea with name recognition. Universal eventually came around, however, and original stars Vera Miles and Anthony Perkins joined the cast of a film helmed by Richard Franklin, an Australian director who trained at USC. Director of Photography Dean Cundey (who’d worked with one of Franklin’s USC classmates, John Carpenter, and would soon work with another, Robert Zemeckis), composer Jerry Goldsmith, and co-stars Robert Loggia, Dennis Franz, and Meg Tilly all signed up as well. What began as an afterthought was now an A-list production.
That didn’t, however, solve the film’s fundamental problem: it had no compelling creative reason to exist. Not that others hadn’t tried. In a 1982 piece from the New York Times News Service, Miles alludes to rejecting previous sequel scripts but signing onto this one because it was “trying tastefully to go back to the Hitchcock style — to put terror in the mind of the audience, not in the eye of the viewer.” (Without spoiling anything, it’s highly likely that Miles was disappointed when she saw the final film.) Robert Bloch, author of the original Psycho novel, published his own sequel in 1982 with an intriguing Scream-before-Scream premise in which Norman (possibly) terrorized the set of a slasher film version of the Bates family story, but that diverged wildly from the tone of Hitchcock’s film and Universal had no interest in making it. (The necrophilia and nun murder probably didn’t help.)
Psycho II never really solves that problem. But it also plays like the best possible answer to an impossible question. Picking up 22 years after the events of Psycho, the sequel opens with Norman being declared of sound mind and receiving a release from the mental institution where he’s spent the past two decades, provided he finds a way to make an honest living and periodically checks in with Dr. Raymond (Loggia), his sympathetic psychiatrist. His release is met with howls of protest from Lila Loomis née Crane (Miles), who’s still understandably angry that Norman killed her sister Marion.
It’s not hard to understand why she’s upset, but even if Norman is reformed, the state’s plan of letting him return to the seemingly untouched-in-years creepy Victorian overlooking the Bates Motel, now a dive managed by Warren Toomey (Franz, in full ’80s sleazebag mode) doesn’t seem like a great idea. What could go right? Still, Norman does the best he can, taking a job at a nearby diner and befriending Mary (Tilly), a co-worker who finds herself in need of a place to stay (and a hot shower).
Twists and turns follow, some more clever than others — the final revelation is a real groaner — but it’s all so skillfully done that it scarcely matters. After his USC stint, Franklin had returned to Australia, where he worked his way up in the film industry, graduating from ’70s softcore films to the cult horror classic Patrick to Roadgames, an excellent highway thriller starring Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of original Psycho star Janet Leigh). Franklin worshiped at the altar of Hitchcock and it shows— he fillsthe film with swooping camerawork inspired by the Master and knowing nods to the original film (what we’d now call Easter eggs), like an early scene in which a suitcase tumbles down the stairs of the Bates house in a shot-by-shot quotation of Martin Balsam’s descent down the same staircase in Psycho. Perkins is similarly locked-in as Norman, emphasizing his sincere effort to live a non-murderous life while letting the cracks in his psyche show.
It is, by and large, a good time. It’s also a completely pointless dilution of the original film. In 2022, we’ve gotten used to holding these seemingly contradictory ways of looking at entertainment at the same time. In 1983 it was a bit more confusing. In the Washington Post, Rita Kempley opened her review by calling Psycho II “an amusing, suspenseful sequel” but concluded by calling it “only a shadow of the master, a technical scare without the original's life-long grip on the subconscious. It fades as soon as the house lights go up.” In the LA Weekly, F.X. Feeney rightly notes the effectiveness of an unexpectedly poignant scene between Norman and Mary, a moment alien to anything in the Hitchcock filmography, before noting that “Holland and Franklin have unwittingly imitated Norman Bates — they dug Hitchcock out of his grave and stuffed him, talking to themselves in his voice. Psycho II isn’t a film; it’s a work of morbid taxidermy.”
Have we simply learned to live in a world of morbid taxidermy? Maybe, but the answer doesn’t seem that simple. Sometimes the normalized practice of constantly recycling produces something truly memorable, however much it owes to its source material. (I always think of Creed and FX’s Fargo TV series.) Other times it’s a situation in which creators find ways to express themselves by twisting corpses into new forms. (Love them or hate them, and I mostly don’t care for them, David Gordon Green’s Halloween entries aren’t just imitations of Carpenter’s original film or its sequels.) But it’s also true that all these taxidermy creations can make the air feel a bit stuffy.
At once better than it has any right to be and completely unnecessary, Psycho II now looks like both product and prophecy. It’s a vision of the 21st century entertainment industry made years before studios started to think of any piece of intellectual property, no matter how unlikely, as a potential franchise and decades-later legacyquel that arrived in theaters over 30 years before ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer coined the term. Psycho ended with a period that studio economics turned into an ellipsis.
The 62 years since Hitchcock’s original film have produced three direct sequels, one TV movie intended as a pilot to an ongoing series, a remake, and a prequel TV series that ran for five seasons. Right now, someone somewhere is undoubtedly concocting a new angle on Norman’s world and, hey, maybe it will be good. Who knows? But it’s worth considering what new stories aren’t being told with every effort made to breathe life into old ones. The Bates house casts a long shadow, but some properties, having served their purpose, should be condemned.
I can definitely say I enjoyed this when I caught it on cable a couple of decades back. As a fan of Tom Holland’s Fright Night, I was interested in his earlier work as a screenwriter, and this similarly led me to seek out Richard Franklin’s Roadgames. I did not, however, continue on to Psycho III, in spite of Anthony Perkins’s place in the director’s chair. That always seemed a bridge too far.
From the recent Harper's Index:
Percentage of the top twenty-five box office hits of 1981 that were sequels, spin-offs, or remakes : 16
Of 2019 : 80