Crafting a sequel to any successful film is a daunting task. Fan expectations can be high, bizarre and even unreasonable. This is a weight that a creator must ignore to a certain extent in order to produce something of value. Perhaps the key to a good sequel is taking the established world and then throwing something unexpected at it. Think The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight. Both take their prequels and throw a few more wrenches into the works. Respect is maintained for the previous work but the audience is provided with a more complex narrative created by both films, or as many as the line maintains. In the best case scenario, you end up with work that shatters the perception of the original and improves on it. Creating a sequel to a great film, which doesn’t necessarily have room for improvement, must be even harder.
Though Alfred Hitchcock is known for many projects, there is perhaps none more popular than Psycho. The 1960 smash hit opened the door not only for a new wave of horror films but broke barriers in casting, promotion and sexuality across the industry. Even when viewed by contemporary audiences, the film is so finely crafted that its effect remains, though some of the impact of specific imagery is lost. But let’s get to the point here. The film ends with its big reveal, a secret closely guarded at the time, and Norman Bates is hauled off by the authorities. The film uses horrific moments, but would ultimately be classified as more of a thriller. There’s no paranormal involvement and while we don’t quite know Bates’ motivations, the type of psychosis he suffers from can be inferred. Hitchcock really doesn’t leave any loose ends and, for 20 years, most people probably never gave a second thought to ultimate fate of the story’s titular murderer. But that didn’t stop Universal Studios.
Horror was on the rise in the early eighties as the slasher genre began to truly cement itself in film. It seemed Norman Bates was to be revitalized as a slasher icon himself. I guess it isn’t a stretch to say that Bates fit the mold. His M.O. included a weird costume and, for its time, his kills were a spectacle. All films, great or mediocre, tend to derive into a few fleeting images in the mind of the public anyway. The only problem was what I mentioned before, Hitchcock completed an arc masterfully and there was no real direction for the story to go. The twist WAS the end of the narrative.
But Tom Holland had a movie to write.
I’m certainly not the first to write about it, but that’s because Psycho II has intrigued horror fans and writers for years. What makes Psycho II so interesting is that Holland really took a step back from the situation and doesn’t craft a slasher film at all. If anything, it’s sort of an anti-slasher. If the basis of Psycho is that Bates is a terribly damaged person, and not some vessel of evil, he can’t really be cast as such a pure villain in the first place. Bates may have some sinister urge to kill but there is an intellect behind it and a present desire to not be caught. Psycho II‘s Bates is a man seemingly on the road back from his illness and one whose problems faded in the years we did not see. As Norman begins to see and hear things around his home and motel, and the body count begins to rise, the audience is compelled to doubt his recovery. This itself is an interesting commentary on the role perception plays in the real world. Once someone has acted in evil, can they ever be trusted again? By film’s end, it is relatively clear that Bates was being framed…at least partially. We’ll come back to the final sequences in a bit. But, the driving force of Psycho II ‘s plot is uncertainty. The characters surrounding the Bates Motel are concerned with whether Norman has recovered, as is the audience. Things are happening, but who is to blame? The “who” is bigger than just one killer though, it is in part the world’s unwillingness to accept the man he has become. Holland and Director Richard Franklin (F/X 2) do a wonderful job utilizing this plot element to the extent that it becomes a commentary not only on the original film, but on the audiences who took it all in. Now, I’ll preface this with the fact that even I am not totally convinced these allegories are intentional. Psycho II‘s weakest moments are found in how willing it is to throw in some tricks to keep things moving. That said, themes always help a narrative function and their appearance is evidence of why this one does. Intentional or not, they’re something to dissect (sorry). Lila Crane Loomis serves as the most obvious allegory. She cannot accept that Bates is no longer the killer she once saw and first devotes her energy to frame and quickly dismiss him. Lila parallels the original viewers, likely to dismiss the new iteration but becoming obsessed with it in the process. Mary Samuels, who we eventually find out is in cahoots with her mother Lila, parallels the young audience. She is brought into the situation by her parent, with little first hand knowledge (or opinion) about Norman. She eventually moves away from her mother’s plot and accepts Bates as the man he is trying to be and, for most of the film, pretty much is. The weakest antagonist is Emma Spool, though she might be most essential to completing the Anti-Slasher concept. Spool is ultimately revealed as the actual killer, presumably the mysterious caller and Norman’s “real” mother as the film moves toward its conclusion. It is sort of a bizarre and abrupt twist and any audience member would be hard pressed to have called it. What it can be is sort of an analogy for Psycho II‘s existence. The film exists from a decision, not from an artistic yearning. Spool is the embodiment of this and of the slasher genre. A vicious turn without a well conceived motivation. The simple desire to turn Bates into nothing more than a psycho. Bates poisons her, as he did his previous mother and then pummels her with a shovel. Of course, Norman doesn’t dispose of the body. He uses his taxidermist skills and makes himself a whole new mother to kill for, his “real” mother. At film’s end, Norman is finally the slasher the world (or studio) forced him to be.
The further stories contain an interesting reaction to this. As the film did pretty well, it was followed by two numbered sequels. Neither of these actually cast Bates as the remorseless killer he certainly could have been at the end of II and never exhibit a slasher version of Bates. In fact, Psycho IV serves to shift Bates back to the man he was at II’s start while mostly focusing on Norman’s life with his mother and dismissing Spool’s claim. Norman’s mother was always who we thought she was. The second film, while it will never be as well regarded as the first, ultimately does something pretty big. It preserved the image of Bates, and encouraged that going forward. Now that’s something to go Psycho over (sorry, again).