Note: Large portions of this review have been taken from my review of the previous Universal DVD release. Some editorial changes have made.
It’s hard to believe that, upon its initial release, Psycho II was dismissed as a crass attempt to cash in on the slasher craze of the early 80’s. Paramount had a reliable cash cow with Friday the 13th and almost every other studio was trying to birth its own low cost, high profit franchise. In this context, the negative reaction the announcement of Psycho II garnered is understandable. Upon its release Psycho II was a box office hit: it debuted in the #2 spot (behind juggernaut Return of the Jedi) and went on to out-gross all the Friday and Halloween sequels to that point. Despite it connecting with audiences, critics couldn’t seem to get past the idea of sequelizing a classic of Psycho’s stature and, at best, it garnered backhanded praise and at worst, downright condemnation. Even now when Psycho II comes up in conversation people still tend to talk of it dismissively. That’s really too bad because Psycho II is one of the best sequels to come out of the sequel crazy 80’s, a worthy follow up to the Hitchcock classic and an excellent thriller in its own right.
It makes me mad when it doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but then we all go a little mad sometimes.
In 1960, after the murders at the Bates Motel were discovered, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) was tried for murder and found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (a verdict I’m not sure stands up to the McNaughton rules, but whatever). Placed in the care of the state and remanded to an institution, his home and hotel are kept in trust until such time that he is judged restored to sanity. Under the care of the kindly Dr. Bill Raymond (Robert Loggia) Norman is able to overcome his illness and, as the film opens 22 years after he committed his crimes, is judged restored to sanity and immediately released from custody.
This doesn’t sit well for Lila Loomis (Vera Miles), sister of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). At Norman’s hearing she begs the court to hear her petition against Norma’s release, but she has no legal recourse in the matter. As she leaves the courtroom she confronts Norman and Dr. Raymond warning that it was only a matter of time before Norman killed again, and that Raymond would have to bear the responsibility for that.
Back at his home, Norman returns to an empty house, a hotel that’s being run by a state appointed manager, and part time job as a prep cook at a local diner. At the diner he meets the gruff but kindhearted Mr. Statler (Robert Alan Browne), the spacey Mary (Meg Tilley) and elderly hostess Emma Spool (Claudia Bryar). He takes an immediate liking to Mary, though we’re not sure the exact nature of his interest in her, and after her boyfriend kicks her out of their apartment over the phone, Norman offers her a place to stay: at his motel. Free of charge of course.
They return to the motel to find that the man hired by the state to run the Bates Motel in Norman’s absence is a foul mouthed sleazebag named Warren Toomey (DePalma staple Dennis Franz) who has turned the Bates Motel into a pay by the hour flophouse and has no compunctions about looking the other way while the customers shoot up in the rooms. Norman fires Toomey on the spot and the next day Toomey turns up at the diner while Norman is working to harass him and Mary. Somebody slips Norman a note on the order wheel and Norman confronts Toomey in a tense moment where it looks like Norman is going to come unfurled. He doesn’t and Toomey backs off. When Toomey returns to the Motel later that night to get the rest of his things, he is murdered by a mysterious figure in a long black dress.
Norman quits his job at the diner to work at restoring the Motel. In this isolated environment, with constant reminders of his past troubles all around him, he is easy prey for Lila and her daughter, Mary, to try and drive him to the brink of insanity and then push him back over. They slip him notes signed “Mother” and dress up in her clothes and peer out the windows at Norman. There is a rift between the two, however, when Mary starts to feel sympathy for Norman and wants to stop. The body count begins to mount and the question then becomes: is Norman back to his old self, has Lila flipped her lid or has someone else taken up the mantle of “Mother?”
What makes Psycho II so good is that, while it does contain a lot of the same mystery elements of the original, it is anchored at its center by Anthony Perkins in a wonderful performance of a fully realized character. In returning home from the asylum after so many years, Perkins is able to convey a profound sense of sadness. He may be sane, but at least when he was still mad he was never alone. It’s not surprising that he clings so quickly to Mary, a girl he barely knows. He’s been institutionalized for twenty-two years and has little idea how to interact with the world now. He needs to draw Mary into his world to stem the crushing tide of loneliness, which makes her betrayal all the more tragic.
Almost everything we know, or everything we think we know, about the character of Norman Bates we learn the sequels. To get a sense of context, we need to go back to before the release of Psycho II, ignore all the other sequels and just look at the character of Norman in Hitchcock’s original. What we’re shown throughout the film is largely a façade. We only get to peer beneath the veneer in the final scenes, with the laborious explanation given by the psychiatrist. But is it accurate? Since we’re told and not actually shown these revelations, they’re up for debate. At the end of the film, Norman remains a cipher. I’m sure Hitchcock was never really interested in delving into the psyche of Norman Bates anyway; in making Psycho Hitch seemed more interested in using directorial technique to manipulate the audience than he did with developing the characters. Every moment in the film is a hint of what’s to come, or misdirection. There are no spare moments for character development.
There’s a quiet moment late in this film, and it’s one of my favorite moments, that is a mini masterpiece in its own right. In it, Norman is losing his grip on reality and has barricaded him and Mary in her bedroom, fearing that his mother is outside. Norman stands vigil while Mary reluctantly goes to sleep. When she wakes in the middle of the night, Norman is standing over her with a knife. This leads to a tender moment where Norman recognizes that he’s slipping back into insanity and shares with Mary the only remaining nice memories he has of his mother. Mary comforts him as he breaks down and cries. This moment right there tells us more about Norman’s character than the entire first movie did. It enriches our understanding of the first film and isn’t that what a good sequel should do?
Critics complained about the seamier elements in Psycho II. The scenes with Toomey are sleazy in the extreme, which may be distasteful for fans of the original. If you look back in a historical context, however, you find that the original Psycho contained elements that were more lascivious for their time and similar elements in Psycho II are about equal in that context. Relatively speaking, Janet Leigh sneaking off to lay around a cheap hotel room in her underwear with her boyfriend is no worse than Dennis Franz running a rent-by-the-hour establishment. The violence, too, while more graphic than the original is actually restrained compared to its contemporaries, whereas Psycho pushed the boundaries of acceptability. Blood oozing out of a toilet was not as scandalous in the 80’s as chocolate sauce swirling down the drain was in the 60’s. Go figure.
The score by Jerry Goldsmith reflects the change in tone. While Bernard Herrmann’s’ discordant music suggested a fragmented mind, Goldsmith’s gentler score suggests a psyche on the mend, struggling with inner torment. Other than the opening flashback, Goldsmith bravely and wisely doesn’t reprise Herrmann’s iconic theme, opting to create a new score out of whole cloth. He does a fantastic job of it and, while Goldsmith’s score lacks any single cues as iconic as Herrmann’s, overall it is just as strong.
Australian director Richard Franklin was hired to direct Psycho II on the strength of Road Games, a deliberate exercise in Hitchcockian tradition from 1981. He does a good job working in the Hitchcock style without self-consciously emulating it or feeling bound to it. Despite the nods, Psycho II still has a supremely contemporary feel. It must’ve have been both exciting and daunting to be offered the chance to direct Psycho II. On one hand, the opportunity to play around in that world which a character as fascinating as Norman Bates (especially as envisioned by Tom Holland) would be too good to pass up while, on the other, the critical reaction and knowing that no matter how much care or craft you put into the film it’s never going to get a fair shake. To his credit, while Psycho II is not objectively as good a film as the original – Hitchcock’s sophisticated compositions and subtexts are largely absent here- it doesn’t collapse under direct comparison, either.
The only area where Psycho II seriously missteps is in its ending. By now, I’m sure everybody’s familiar with Mrs. Spool’s eleventh hour revelation and how Norman poisons her tea and then cold cocks her with a shovel, just for good measure. Aside from the poor staging and intentional, but inappropriate, comedy of the scene as a part of the narrative, it raises more questions than it answers. Even if we allow that she’s physically capable of doing what she claims, logistically how could she possibly accomplish it? The ending exists purely for the purpose of resetting the clock back to before the original film, where Norman was mad and mother is controlling him, so that the series can continue. To be fair, the film bounces back after that mistake with an iconic and haunting final shot and my favorite hard cut to black, ever.
Stunning. A huge improvement over the Universal DVD I reviewed last year. The source material is clean with only the faintest of nicks or scratches present. A lot of Psycho II has the characteristic 80’s haze due to the soft filters so common during this period, but colors are strong and blacks are solid. Grain reproduction is fantastic and there’s a lot more detail revealed in this transfer than ever before: check out the texture of the wallpaper, stitching on sweaters or wallpaper. Background text is perfectly legible and Dennis Franz’s riotous shirt no longer looks like an optical illusion.
While the package lists a 4.0 DTS-HD track, it’s actually a 5.1 track. At least, in the sense that all five of the speakers are utilized. It’s not really a discrete mix but more of a 5-channel stereo mix. There’s a bit of a delay or echo in the dialogue between the front and back channels in a few scenes, which can be distracting if you’re sitting near one of the rear speakers. I’d stick with the 2.0 DTS-HD stereo track and just throw on some receiver surround effects if you really need to fill the back speakers in your home theatre set up.
There are regular English subtitles, but no alternate language or subtitle tracks.
In my original review of the DVD, I stated: “I would have loved a full-on special edition of Psycho II, but with Anthony Perkins and Richard Franklin dead it’s unlikely that will ever come to pass.” Scream Factory hasn’t quite made a liar of me but I was still pleasantly surprised by the modest supplemental package included on this disc.
While the original Psycho is arguably the most analyzed film in the history of the medium, there’s been very little in the way of analysis or discussion of the sequels. That ends now. The audio commentary with screenwriter Tom Holland and moderated by Robert Galluzzo (director of The Psycho Legacy documentary) does a fantastic job of riding the line between being entertaining as well as informative. Both participants are loaded with interesting tidbits of information (including a peek at what Psycho II was original envisioned as: a cable TV movie starring Christopher Walken as Norman Bates). Galluzzo does a great job of keeping the discussion organized and on track without making the commentary feel too regimented; some of the best moments are when Holland abandons the topic of discussion for a tangent, and Galluzzo does a great job of bringing him back to finish the thought he digressed from. This is the most fun I’ve had listening to a commentary in a long, long while.
The Vintage Cast & Crew Interviews (35:21) are a bit of a mixed bag. They’re culled from what looks like an electronic press kit and sourced from a VHS master (complete with tracking errors and audio glitches). Beginning with the entire theatrical trailer and then intercutting interviews with footage from the film and a bit of behind-the-scenes footage. There’s a fair bit of overlap in the interview clips, but every moment with departed cast and crew members can only be counted as a treasure. There’s also the unusual option to watch the feature with the audio from the interviews playing as commentary over the feature. Cool!
The teaser and full theatrical trailer (3:43) are included. I’m happy to have them, but they are unfortunately sourced from VHS and presented in 4:3, standard definition, as are the collection of 30-second TV Spots (2:01).
Finally, there’s a Still Gallery (6:37) that you can page through or let play as a slide show. I’m usually not a big fan of these types of features, but given the dearth of material on the Psycho sequels, I’ll take what I can get.
I considered Psycho II a must-buy title even in its barebones DVD incarnation, and now that it’s been given the Scream Factory treatment, it’s an even stronger must-buy. The video is breathtaking, and the collection of supplements, though small is nonetheless impressive. If I had minor misgivings about the quality of the 5.1 remix, that should not in any way count as a black mark against this release. You’d have to be mad not to add this to your collection.
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