By the time 1990 came around, the powers that be decreed that for it’s 30th anniversary, Hitchcock’s seminal, shower slasher deserved a special celebration – and what could be more special than a direct-to-TV movie directed by the man responsible for Critters 2?
I joke of course (Or do I?), but anyone worried that the flawless sheen of the original classic would further be tarnished by yet another sequel (the third since 1983) would hardly be calmed at the thought of Norman Bates once again flying spectacularly off his rocker.
However, Psycho IV: The Beginning had a few tricks up it’s sleeve and in a twist worthy of old Hitch himself, turned out to be an oddly decent closer to the entire series that was in danger of lurching into self-parody… which finally, actually happened thanks to the 90’s remake. Oh well…
We revisit Noman Bates as he’s apparently hitting another sanity speed bump on the road to mental illness; which is a shame as he seems to have finally knitted both his life and his fractured psyche into something approaching normal. He’s out of the mental institution and has actually settled down and married a psychiatrist who fully aware of his stabby past (brave woman) – but an inner turmoil is boiling within Norman, a murderous anxiety that has stirred up due to the news his wife is pregnant. Far from overjoyed at the thought of being a parent, Bates is terrified that his mental illness will be passed on to his child like a heirloom which forces you to murder young women and does the only thing anyone in his situation could do – he rings up a radio chat show whose theme that night is matricide and spills out all of his problems live on air. Obvious, really!
As radio presenter Fran Ambrose desperately tries to keep him on the air while striving to find out his identity, Norman starts monopolising the entire show with stories of his twisted past that involves tales of the abuse from his mother and even his first couple of murder victims as his already fragile sanity started to disintegrate like an over-dunked biscuit.
As listeners presumably sit at home with a cup of coffee presumably mouthing “what the fuck” while listening to a convicted murderer casually relating his crimes all before ten o’clock, he reveals his plan to end the Bates bloodline by severing it via a butcher knife once his blissfully unaware wife finishes work – can Fran talk manage to talk him down before Norman wilfully resorts to his old tricks or will he manage to finally break all the links to his traumatic past?
Far better than a TV movie of a third sequel to one of the greatest thrillers ever made has any damn right to be, Psycho IV: The Beginning nevertheless is still loaded with flaws mostly thanks to a patchy script (written by original Psycho scripter Joseph Stefano no less) and the obvious limits of the medium it was made for. However, director Mick Garris – who went on to adapt countless Stephen King miniseries that no one actually asked for – keeps things ticking along nicely as the past of one of cinema’s notorious killers is laid bare and despite the fact that any past notion of holding up a magnifying glass to the sordid past of Noman Bates has essentially been undone by five whole seasons of Bates Motel. But the film is shot cleanly and Garris shoots requisite amounts of close ups of Anthony Perkins from a low angle while he delivers lines in sync with lightning that suspiciously flares up every time he delivers a sinister line – so that’s nice.
But while Perkins turns in a vintage Bates performance (both a good and bad thing if I’m truly being honest), he’s surrounded by a suprisingly good cast that’s headed by future Mike Flanagan regular Henry Thomas and it turns out to be an appropriately creepy decision -after all watching the kid from E.T. got a full-chub while indulging in a play fight with his mother makes an already uncomfortable set-up even far more untenable (in fact the film tackles the implied incestual feelings that Norman and his mother suprisingly head-on for a 90’s TV movie). Black Christmas veteran Oliva Hussey goes from dodging deranged serial killers to “creating” one as messed up matriarch Norma, but the movie doesn’t really get under her skin much and just chooses to portray her as an unpredictable, bipolar “bitch” that doesn’t exactly treat mental illness with any degree of delicacy. The most surprising appearance it that of the awesome CCH Pounder who makes her phone based two handers with Perkins work far better than they probably looked on the page. Oh, and I feel I should bring up that for some reason, American Werewolf and Blue Brothers director John Landis has a supporting role which just might signify the first of Garris’ trademark horror director cameos.
While the script often trips up on matters like dialogue and overly convenient plotting (If only all mental illnesses could be as easily cured with a spot of arson and a near-death experience) the movie resides to wisely omit any reference to the over complicated subplot concerning his “fake mother” Emma Spool that unravelled (or “unSpooled” if you will) over the last two movies, however the film nevertheless defiantly sticks to the established franchise timeline (Norman mentions he last killed four years ago which ties into Psycho III being released in 1986).
It also sneaks in some nice little homages here and there, Norman uses the fake name “Ed” which is a sizable nod to real life people stuffer Ed Gein who influenced the character in the first place and a protracted strangulation is highly reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rope.
While hardly setting the franchise alight, Psycho IV does what is says on the tin and that’s to be a part of an anniversary for a far better movie and if nothing else, at least it has an ending – something extraordinarily rare for a serial killer franchise, but it’s also sadly noticable for being Perkins’ final Psycho movie as he succumbed to HIV related pneumonia only two years later.
A sweetly passable stab at increasingly familiar material.