The best thing about 'Psycho III' is that it cleans up the mess 'Psycho II' left behind, righting a key wrong and properly aligning the wayward story. It also nicely ties in elements from the original 'Psycho' that the first sequel ignored, and injects the idea of salvation into the gruesome tale. Yet despite an interesting scenario, some good performances, and a fair amount of black humor, this third installment in the 'Psycho' franchise only ranks marginally higher than a typical slasher flick.
Don't blame star Anthony Perkins, who also makes his directorial debut here, or screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue, both of whom intended 'Psycho III' to feature the type of non-graphic killings favored by Alfred Hitchcock in the first movie. Much like Mother, who forces Norman to commit horrible acts against his will, the front office brass at Universal Studios demanded Perkins increase the film's level of violence to compete with the ever-more-brutal acts of mayhem depicted in competing thrillers. 'Psycho' and even 'Psycho II' never introduced characters for the sole purpose of killing them, but unfortunately, 'Psycho III' does, and as soon as these nubile babes meet Norman and stoke his sensitive libido, they're dead meat.
Just like its predecessor, 'Psycho III' has a lot going for it in theory, but it's the execution (pun intended) that brings the movie down and relegates it to generic status. Governed by the dictates of a society hungry for sex and violence, the film lacks subtlety and grace. Taut pacing and, at times, agonizing suspense (especially during the climactic scene) distinguish the picture, and some clever lines supply necessary comic relief, but none of that is enough to hoist 'Psycho III' out of the gutter and up to the level to which it aspires.
Though produced three years after 'Psycho II,' the third installment of the 'Psycho' saga takes place only weeks after the second chapter's conclusion. Norman continues to run the Bates Motel, but the arrival of a grungy musician (Jeff Fahey) and emotionally disturbed former nun (Diana Scarwid) interrupt his quiet existence and rile up his splintered personality. Though damaged goods himself, Norman takes a genuine interest in the fragile ex-Sister Maureen (who reminds him of Marion Crane) and tries to help her, despite a burgeoning attraction he knows will displease his domineering mother. Soon, bodies begin piling up once again, and a nosy reporter (Roberta Maxwell) picks up the scent and seeks to unravel the web of mysteries tangled around Norman, especially the one concerning the disappearance of a kindly old lady who previously worked with Norman at the local diner...and who just might be propped up in a rocking chair on the second floor of the Bates home.
Once the table is set, there's not a lot of plot in 'Psycho III,' despite all the violence. The killer's identity is no secret, and, for the most part, the victims don't contribute much to the story. As in most slasher films, one by one the lambs dutifully proceed to the slaughter (usually in some state of undress), and they're murdered in a variety of provocative ways. Though this 'Psycho' film, more than the others, is presented as a character study, the continual slayings largely overshadow any cerebral tendencies.
Tension, however, runs high. Make no mistake, 'Psycho III' may well be the scariest 'Psycho' of them all. It's certainly the most graphic. In addition to slit throats, wrists, and other knife penetrations, there's a lot of T-and-A on display, which continues and expands the degenerate trend the first sequel spawned. I hold 'Psycho' to a higher standard than other horror franchises, and despite the sexual deviance driving the core story, the gratuitous nudity here - in addition to the gratuitous violence - lends 'III' an unnecessarily sleazy feel.
As a director, however, Perkins tries his best, and nicely infuses the film with identifiable references to the original, as well as other Hitchcock classics. The opening scene tips its hat to 'Vertigo,' while the horrific attack in a glassed-in phone booth not only acts as another cramped, claustrophobic murder site á la the shower, but also recalls Tippi Hedren enduring a frightening ornithological assault in 'The Birds.' Yet it's the numerous 'Psycho' nods that Perkins really seems to relish, and they bring a knowing smile to anyone familiar with the 1960 film. Resuscitated lines include "Oh God, Mother! Blood!" and "Everyone goes a little mad sometimes." Perkins also recreates shots from the original, such as Norman covering his mouth and recoiling in abject horror after discovering a dead body in a bathroom, as well as the low angle shot of Norman sitting beneath a huge stuffed bird in the motel office's back room. That parlor went unused in 'Psycho II,' and Norman's interest in taxidermy was also ignored, but Perkins brings both back into play in 'Psycho III.' (Interestingly, the famous fruit cellar, which figured prominently in 'II' is completely shut off in 'III.')
Perhaps the stress of directing 'Psycho III' took a toll on Perkins, because his performance seems a bit off kilter. Oh, he's still the same old Norman, and the role takes on added psychological complexity in this installment, but with no objective eye on hand to evaluate his work, it often feels as if Perkins is on autopilot. Scarwid, however, is a riveting presence, and her intense, heartbreaking portrayal of the desperate, disturbed Maureen adds vital emotional gravity to this gruesome slash-fest. Without her, 'Psycho III' would have no soul, just a bleeding heart.
I like the ending of 'Psycho III,' although I wish Universal hadn't exerted pressure on Perkins to "Brian De Palma-ize" it. (Without studio interference, who knows how good this picture could have been?) Had 'Psycho' been a trilogy instead of a quartet, it would have been a fitting conclusion. Reminiscent of the denouement of 'Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte,' it's both cathartic and ironic, and brings the story full circle. The studio-mandated last shot, however, confuses the issue and nullifies the impact of the final line, once again taking 'Psycho' where it shouldn't go. Sure, it harkens back to the original, but in this case, it's a cheesy cop-out.
In a perfect world, there would be no 'Psycho' sequels, but nothing in life is perfect, and we have to live with the legacy whether we like it or not. Both 'Psycho II' and 'Psycho III' possess fine qualities and make fatal mistakes. In their own way, they're fun and intriguing, maddening and revolting. I remembered 'II' from my youth, and even though I saw 'III' when it first premiered, I didn't remember it at all when I recently popped it into my Blu-ray player. And that, I believe, is significant. 'Psycho III' is entertaining while it lasts, but not memorable, and considering it rides the coattails of one of the greatest thrillers of all time, that's a crime.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Psycho III' 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. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer for 'Psycho III' ranks a hair below Shout Factory's 'Psycho II' effort, but still offers up a sharp, clean picture with good contrast and a fair amount of depth. Grain is a bit heavy at first, but soon relaxes, supplying appropriate texture and a seamless film-like feel without impacting clarity. Exteriors lean toward the bright side, but accurately reflect the dusty, blistering desert environment, while nocturnal and low-lit scenes sport inky black levels and fine shadow delineation. Crush is kept to a minimum, and no digital noise disrupts the purity of the image. The only blemishes on the source material are a few specks and errant marks that crop up from time to time, but only eagle eyes will catch them.
Colors look natural, but earth tones predominate. Scarwid's yellow dress flaunts a sunny look, as does the sweater of the phone booth victim, but only sporadic uses of bold hues (red blood, for one) perk up the frame. Fleshtones remain stable and true throughout, and background elements and close-ups possess good amounts of detail. Close-ups are crisp, too, though they're used sparingly, and no digital enhancements or defects distract from the on-screen action.
Like 'Psycho II,' the low budget nature of 'Psycho III' might lead one to expect a shabby picture, but this solid transfer never fails to impress, and should very much please fans of this popular franchise.
From the opening cry of "There is no God!" to the creepy strains of Carter Burwell's ominous music score, the newly constructed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track delivers strong sound throughout the course of 'Psycho III.' (A DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is also included for those who wish to honor the film's original soundscape.) As with the 5.1 track in 'Psycho II,' surround activity is limited here, with ambient effects even less noticeable than in the sister film, but more palpable bass and tonal depth allow the audio to better permeate the room and provide an enveloping experience. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease, and distinct stereo separation across the front channels adds a lively touch to the track.
Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand, and distinct accents ramp up the fright quotient in the murder scenes. No hiss or surface noise disrupts the eerie quiet during tense moments, and no distortion destroys the integrity of the numerous screams. Though it won't rip the covers off your speakers, the 'Psycho III' track is clean and serviceable, and enhances the film's omnipresent sense of dread well.
A surprisingly strong supplemental package lends some much-needed gravitas to 'Psycho III,' and the material is well worth checking out.
'Psycho III' returns Norman Bates to his homicidal roots and gives plenty of nods to Hitchcock's original, but this third installment of the venerable franchise, despite another interesting plot, shucks the elegant tone that distinguishes its sister films in favor of a more gratuitous approach, and the result is a disjointed effort that more closely resembles 'Halloween' and 'Friday the 13th' than the spine-tingling Hitchcock classic. 'Psycho III' sits squarely in the slasher genre, populated by cardboard characters with little depth, but if you can look past all the sex and gore, the story possesses enough emotion and insight, as well as dark humor, to make it a worthwhile view. Norman Bates is way more fascinating than Freddy and Jason, and it's his magnetism and complex story that keep us coming back for more. Shout Factory's Blu-ray presentation features good video and audio and quite a nice supplemental package, but only the most diehard 'Psycho'-tics will want to make this one a keeper.