The Universal franchise takes bold swings that keeps it consistently finding new audiences.
Crafting a sequel to one of the most beloved films of all-time is always a challenge. As good as films like 2010: The Year We Made Contact or Blade Runner 2049 are, they are always going to be compared to the original classics that inspired them. Initially, it seemed like making a sequel to Alfred Hitchock’s acclaimed classic Psycho was sacrilegious. Psycho is easily one of the most influential films of its era, and it ends on a pitch perfect note. Was there any story left to tell?
Psycho II came a full 23 years after the original, and continued the story of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) following his release from a mental institution. It was followed by two additional sequels, and a controversial remake from Academy Award nominated filmmaker Gus Van Sant. While other horror franchises like Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm Street have several sequels that are largely indistinguishable from each other, each film within the Psycho franchise is totally different. It’s an unusual franchise that has given different storytellers the chance to play within the lore.
The Psycho series understood that it was playing with a delicate legacy. Psycho inspired many of the slasher films that followed it, and Hitchcock’s insistence on strict theater screening procedures changed film marketing campaigns forever. Instead of relying purely on the iconography of the shower scene, the Psycho series sought to turn Norman Bates into a franchise lead. Norman isn’t a crazed killer like Jason or Freddy; he’s a mentally disturbed young man who is struggling to deal with his childhood trauma.
Psycho II Recontextualizes the Original Movie’s Themes
The sequels do more than just pit Norman against a new batch of victims. Perkins gives a remarkably sensitive performance as a man struggling with the sins of his past as he inherits the infamous Bates Motel. Instead of relying on nostalgic iconography, the sequels recontextualized the themes of the original. Norman is both a victim and villain, and the audience is forced to contemplate whether he’s worthy of redemption.
‘Psycho II’ Is Stylistically Very Different
Stylistically, Psycho II couldn’t have been any more different from its predecessor. It’s shot in bold color photography and features more graphic violence and sexual content than the relativley tame first film. However, it’s hard to even call Psycho II a “slasher movie.” It’s a relatively low key psychological thriller that shows Mary Loomis (Meg Tilly) and her mother Lila (Vera Miles) trying to force Norman to go insane. It’s heartbreaking to see Norman tempted with romance before he’s haunted by his mother’s voice once more. Who would have thought that one of scariest movie villains of all-time could also be one of the most tragic?
‘Psycho III’ Veers Into Full-on Camp
If Psycho II director Richard Franklin tried to turn the series into a more dramatic entity, Perkins went full-on camp when he got the chance to helm Psycho III. While it picks up in the aftermath of Emma Spool’s (Claudia Bryar) murder at the end of Psycho II, the third installment in the series features Normal on the prowl once more. The original film was so influential because it kept cutting away from the most graphic moments, but Psycho III has a series of outrageous kills, including a particularly memorable toilet death.
However, Psycho III isn’t just another generic grindhouse flick with the name of a famous franchise attached. Perkins turns in yet another extraordinary performance as Norman finds himself relating to someone for the first time. As he falls in love with the suicidal nun Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid), Norman attempts to block the influence of his mother’s voice. It’s a unique film that makes Norman’s issues compelling, yet indulges in the pulpy roots of the mythology.
‘Psycho IV: The Beginning’ Takes the Franchise Back to Its Roots
If Psycho III paved a fascinating new direction for the series, Psycho IV: The Beginning took it back to its roots. Directed by Mark Grattis, the made-for-television films takes a The Godfather: Part II approach by acting as both a sequel and prequel. Who is Norman Bates? Psycho IV delved into his past by showing flashbacks to his mother Norma (played by a terrifying Olivia Hussey) for the first time. While this plays a little bit like soap opera, it’s interesting to see Norman’s childhood explored in detail. It plays like a supervillain origin story with its earnest emotional quality.
Psycho IV boasts impressive production values for a TV film, but it’s also the most tongue-in-cheek installment in the saga. There’s even an amusing jump scare when the blood on Norman’s thumb mirrors the original shower kill. It’s a love letter to the entire series and Perkins himself, who passed away two years after its release. When Norman declares “I’m free,” it feels like the curse of the Bates Motel has finally ended.
The 1998 Remake Even Has Its Merits
Even the 1998 shot-by-shot remake is an interesting thought experiment in its own right. By inserting color, graphic violence, and surreal imagery into a nearly exact replication of the original film, Gus Van Sant examined why Hitchcock’s film is so effective. Adding color to Psycho made it less thrilling, adding blood was not scary, and the metaphorical images were simply confusing. 1998’s Psycho isn’t effective, but it’s such a failure that it reinforces why the original is so perfect. While the film was decried at the same time for replicating a beloved classic, we’ve seen Disney do the same exact thing recently with their live-action adaptations of animated films.
With ‘Bates Motel’ the Franchise Keeps Finding New Audiences
The Psycho saga expands well beyond the films themselves. After a Bates Motel television film debuted to abysmal reviews in 1987, A&E developed a contemporary prequel that cast Freddie Highmore as a younger Norman. Who thought that we needed a Psycho series for the Ryan Murphy era? While it’s no “prestige television,” Bates Motel may have inspired some younger viewers to check out the original films in the series. There aren’t a lot of franchises over 50 years old that keep introducing themselves to new audiences.
Psycho is unlike any other horror franchise. It’s a series that has taken bold swings and revised its continuity several times. It’s remarkable that such a simple concept developed into a haunting study on mental illness, childhood trauma, and the sins of societal violence. The Psycho saga isn’t perfect, but it never made the same film twice.