Horror movies have spawned some of the most successful franchises in movie history. Popular series ranging from 'Friday the 13th' and 'Halloween' to 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' and 'The Final Destination' have generated billions of box office dollars over the years. Without question, sequels are lucrative endeavors, but not every horror movie needs a second, third, or fourth act. The great ones stand alone, and selling out a classic for financial gain is a reprehensible practice that almost always ends up tarnishing the original's reputation. Commerce, however, supersedes art in Hollywood, and studios often find it tough to turn their backs on an easy buck.
'Psycho' inspired every slasher film that came after it, and no movie in the cluttered genre deserved a sequel - let alone a franchise - less than Alfred Hitchcock's low-budget, supremely scary shocker. Yet when 'Psycho' author Robert Bloch penned a misguided follow-up to the work that made him a household name, Universal followed suit and began mulling over a film treatment that would continue the story of deeply disturbed serial killer Norman Bates. The studio, however, bypassed Bloch's novel and instead gave fledgling writer Tom Holland the unenviable task of crafting a fitting 'Psycho' sequel. Though Holland's script bears a striking resemblance to the 1963 Joan Crawford horror flick, 'Strait-Jacket' (also not-so-coincidentally written by Bloch), it works plausibly enough within the 'Psycho' framework. But the nagging question remains: Why bother?
The obvious answer is money, and 'Psycho II' made a bundle, capitalizing on the notoriety of the original and the morbid curiosity of filmgoers, myself included, who wanted to see what happened to its "hero." Yet the sequel also sought to attract the hoards of teens and young adults who were unfamiliar with Norman Bates, yet relished riding the wave of graphic slasher films flooding the theaters at that time. The resulting mishmash of elegant homage and utter tastelessness disrespects Hitchcock (who abhorred gratuitous violence) and all but ruins the original, unless you can truly divorce it from its iconic namesake.
And I can't. I remember walking into the theater to see 'Psycho II' in 1983 with a mixture of excitement and dread, unable to keep myself away, yet knowing what I was about to see would never in a million years come close to approaching the classic original. And it didn't. As I watched the movie unfold, I feared the worst, because 'Psycho II' not only continued the story of Norman (Anthony Perkins), but also Lila Crane (Vera Miles), the sister of the fateful shower victim and the woman who discovers the gruesome secret in the Bates fruit cellar. While Lila serves some purpose in the beginning of 'Psycho II' as a victim's rights activist vehemently petitioning against Norman's release from a mental institution - a brief cameo would have been acceptable, even fun - where the script leads her is truly frightening from a multitude of standpoints and totally unnecessary. Because of what happens to Lila and how Holland transforms this once intelligent, determined woman into an idiotic, vengeful harpy, 'Psycho II' now completely spoils 'Psycho' for me, as I can't help but think how these characters evolve - and devolve - two decades later.
First of all, in what universe would any jurisdiction release a wacko serial killer even if he completely regained his sanity? And would that same killer ever be returned to the scene of the crimes to quietly live out his life, especially without the aid of any supervising social worker to monitor him? (We're told "budget cutbacks" prevent Norman from receiving the care he deserves and society would demand.) But wait, there's more! The job Norman gets to help assimilate him into the mainstream is at a local diner, where he enjoys unfettered access to the implements that inflicted so much harm on his unsuspecting victims: c-c-c-c-cutlery. My reaction to all of this can be summed up by a single word: Really? (There's even another, more incongruous inconsistency regarding Lila, but to reveal it would spoil a key plot twist.)
I think part of the point (and irony) of 'Psycho II' is to put Norman in an environment where, astonishingly, he's the sanest character around. With a tenuous grip on his marbles, Norman - often poignantly - fights the demons conspiring to destroy him. He finds notes from his dead mother (who inspired the killings in the original film) in the strangest places, receives phone calls from someone claiming to be her, and when people around him start dying, all the evidence points to him. His only ally is Mary Samuels (Meg Tilly), a demure waitress at the diner who seeks to comfort Norman and bolster his confidence (the name is a nod to the alias Marion Crane used - Marie Samuels - when she checked into the Bates Motel in the original), yet soon even her motives become suspect.
What's really a shame is that if the main character in 'Psycho II' wasn't named Norman Bates, and if no one named Lila appeared in the picture, this taut thriller would stand nicely on its own. Intricately and methodically plotted (despite a few gaping holes), deliciously suspenseful, and smartly directed with a keen sense of Hitchcockian flair by Richard Franklin, 'Psycho II' knows what it's doing and does it well. Even as a Hitchcock homage, the film posts big scores. Franklin was a student of the Master of Suspense, and his ability to recreate Hitch's high angles, subjective camera movement, and fluid boom shots is quite admirable. Stylistically, 'Psycho II' is a worthy 'Psycho' sequel, and some of the inside jokes sprinkled throughout are both subtle and sly. I just don't like the narrative links to the original, especially those involving Lila. And the ending? Well, let's just say I don't care for that either. Sure, it's clever, but it bumps the original off its axis.
'Psycho II' features a stellar cast that fully commits to the grisly proceedings. Though at 50, Perkins has shed his boyish charm, he seems to relish his return to Norman-ia, filing a sensitive, sympathetic portrayal laced with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek humor. Watching the poor man struggle to maintain his modicum of sanity and cope with the myriad tricks played upon him is often heartbreaking, but Perkins doesn't wallow in pathos. Instead, he plays Norman on the precipice, always ready to relapse and awaiting the trigger that pushes him over the edge. The young Tilly complements him well, expressing a wide-eyed sincerity that becomes more genuine as the film progresses, and while it's a treat to see Miles on screen again (even if I vehemently object to her character's inclusion), her one-note performance wears thin over time. This Lila is simply a cardboard cutout, and even factoring in years of bitterness, doesn't jive with the one in the original. Robert Loggia and Dennis Franz also lend solid support as Norman's psychiatrist and a sleazy Bates Motel employee, respectively.
The original 'Psycho' was not a film of its time; it was an anomaly that blazed a trail. 'Psycho II,' however, is very much an '80s film, and the gratuitous violence turns what could have been a true Hitchcock homage into a run-of-the-mill genre entry. The movie's signature kill is way, way over the top (I cringe every time I think of it), and though it harkens back to a classic moment from the original, it succeeds in tarnishing that, too. The famous shower scene in 'Psycho' remains terrifying more than a half century later, and you never see the knife touch any flesh. Oh, if that were only true in 'Psycho II!'
All gripes aside, Franklin's film is not without merit, which makes a blanket assessment difficult. 'Psycho II' has guts, I'll give it that, and it will put you squarely on the edge of your seat. It's clever, well made, and finely acted. Some fans may even enjoy and respect the liberties Franklin and Holland take with the original. I'm just not one of them. At first, I was shocked the producers didn't use Bernard Herrmann's screeching all-string theme music for the sequel, but now I'm glad they didn't. I wouldn't want them to ruin that for me, too.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Psycho II' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve, with a collection of scene stills adorning the inside front and back covers. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (even though the packaging wrongly lists it as 4.0). Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A surprisingly bright and vibrant transfer makes 'Psycho II' a pleasure to watch. Though the enhanced clarity calls greater attention to matte shots and the film's studio look (the entire production, with the exception of one scene, was photographed on Universal's soundstages and backlot), excellent contrast and natural color tones lend the picture a welcome immediacy that heightens tension. A thin layer of grain is present throughout, though it's most noticeable in recessed areas of the frame, and while some errant specks and marks occasionally dot the print, the source material is predominantly clean and smooth. Background elements show up well (the crisp detail of the intricate wallpaper in the Bates house is easy to discern) and shadow delineation is quite good, even in the dark cellar and nocturnal scenes, but a few instances of crush still creep in from time to time. I noticed a bit of aliasing on Meg Tilly's fingernails as she applies eye makeup in the mirror, but no banding, noise, or other digital hindrances disrupt the overall elegant presentation.
Close-ups sport excellent levels of detail, especially when eyes peer through peepholes, and there's a striking shot of a reflection in a brass doorknob that's brilliantly clear. Colors, however, run the gamut from lush to wan, with greens and yellows a little on the pale side. (Thankfully, the blood looks natural and not like thick red paint.) Exterior scenes appear a tad washed out, but when proper lighting is employed, interiors come beautifully to life. Though the film can't escape its low-budget roots, there are moments when it looks quite classy, and this fine transfer exploits those instances well.
Though the packaging advertises a DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 track, what's included is a newly constructed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, as well as a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, which recreates the film's original theatrical soundscape. The 5.1 option is serviceable enough, but don't expect too much surround activity. Ambient effects seem to have been sweetened for impact - are there really that many chirping birds in the California desert? - but accents like creaking stairs and knives plunging into flesh are appropriately crisp and powerful. A fair degree of stereo separation up front provides an expansive feel, and Jerry Goldsmith's music score, aided by fine fidelity and tonal depth, nicely fills the room.
A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease, but the lack of much bass deprives the track of vital weight. Dialogue, however, is always clear and comprehendible, and no surface noise, hiss, or other imperfections muddy the audio waters. Though far from demo material, these tracks serve the film well and sound surprisingly spry, considering the movie's advanced age.
A few supplements spice up this notorious sequel.
If it wasn't a 'Psycho' sequel, 'Psycho II' would be a pretty good film, but some of the choices the movie makes as it continues the story of serial killer Norman Bates leave an oh-so-foul taste in this reviewer's mouth. Director Richard Franklin, however, at least respects the Hitchcock original and appropriately honors it, despite employing unnecessary gratuitous violence, and Tom Holland's screenplay is masterfully crafted, even if I don't agree with the arcs he constructed for certain characters. The Blu-ray from Shout Factory features above average video and audio transfers, as well as some interesting supplements, but whether you invest in this fearsome follow-up depends on how invested you are in the character of Norman Bates. Horror and 'Psycho' fanatics will surely want to pick this one up, but if you revere the original and don't want your view of it spoiled, then by all means steer clear of this clever but inferior sequel.