Review Date: October 17, 2011
Released by: Universal
Release date: September 13, 2005
Widescreen 1.85 | 16x9: Yes
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
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.
When Universal licensed the rights to the Psycho sequels out to Goodtimes, they released II in full frame only and III in non-anamorphic widescreen. When the license ran out and the rights reverted back to Universal, they decided to release their own versions. Now, Psycho II
is finally presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85.
The image is clean, but soft. A lot of scenes in Psycho II
seem shot through soft focus filters or in rooms with an omnipresent haze. Detail in these scenes is lacking, although it’s fairly crisp in well-lit scenes (especially outdoor scenes). The color palette is muted throughout. I’m not sure if this is due to the filters. Contrast is not consistent and it looks like certain scenes might have been culled from different master prints. There is an awful lot of jagginess and stair stepping throughout (I paused one scene and the butcher knife looked like a serrated steak knife). This is by far the best Psycho II
has looked on home video, but the quality still leaves a lot to be desired.
The English Dolby 4.0 mix, while not as showy as some newer mixes, is effective nonetheless. The sound is divided between three front channels that handle the majority of the mix: the center channel handles the dialogue while the front surrounds are reserved for the score and most of the sound effects and a rear channel that is sparingly used for sound effects. Everything is well mixed and despite not having five channels to play with, all the elements are well balanced. The fact that the audio doesn’t rely heavily on surrounds actually works to its advantage; when there are effects coming from the rear, it takes you by surprise. There’s a really effective moment when Norman is woken from sleep by the sound of his mother’s voice, and the first whisper of his name comes from the rear channel before the effects shift to the front channels. It’s supremely creepy and effective moment. Good stuff.
The only extra included is a short teaser trailer (though it’s just listed as a trailer). It mostly consists of footage from the original, a title card and then a cool shot that’s reminiscent of the ending of Psycho II
, but was probably shot just for the teaser.
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.
is a fantastic sequel to a classic. In fact, I think it’s a classic in its own right - witty, scary, suspenseful and even a bit touching. Anthony Perkins gives a fantastic performance. Even if the rest of the film were utter garbage, Psycho II
would still be worth watching just to see him stumble over the world “cutlery.” Richard Franklin is respectful to Hitchcock’s legacy without feeling chained to it.
Though lacking in presentation and not the special edition that fans would like or that the film deserves, you won’t find a better home video presentation anywhere. Psycho II
is a must own movie. It gets my highest possible recommendation.
Movie - A+
Image Quality - C
Sound - B+
Supplements - D
- Running time - 1 hour and 53 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 4.0
- Spanish 5.1
- English SDH subtitles
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles