Sunday, September 25, 2016
Psycho IV: The Quest for Peace
The big attraction of this movie is Joseph Stefano, screenwriter of the original film, returning. Stefano didn't care for what the previous sequels did, so he ignores them, which is bad-ass. There's nothing to outright make the sequels obsolete, you can still fit them in if you choose, but this movie wanted to be and CAN be viewed as a direct follow-up to the original. There's only brief inconsistencies, including with the original, but no worse than the ones II and III created. These inconsistencies are really just a mark of what happens when sequels spiral out of control and you make sequels so far after the original.
Psycho IV is simple, but effective: Norman -- seen living in a nice house and shown to be married -- calls into a radio show, whose topic is matricide, to recount his story. Before I go further, I have to say that if you're watching these movies one after the other and take II and III into consideration, it's unintentionally hilarious just how many chances Norman's been given, despite proving he shouldn't be on the streets. But if Stefano intended for this to be like a Psycho II instead, a direct follow-up to the original, that's not an issue.
Norman calling into this radio show is a bit of a lazy way to frame the flashback scenes, and that's basically what the entirety of this movie is. I'm of the opinion that it's probably best to never depict Norman's past on screen, to leave it a mystery, to leave that ambiguity about the character. (So I have no idea how A&E's Bates Motel show has milked this exact set-up for four seasons now.)
I think probably the strongest part of the movie is the early hint that Norman's wife is pregnant and his confession to the radio host that he has no choice but to kill again, meaning his wife. So it becomes a bit of a tense stand-off, this radio host trying to keep him on the line and trying to prevent him from going through with it. I think this would have made a really good short story, and it's a more interesting part of the movie than the mystery-shattering origin story which is filmed in a corny way, as per the Mick Garris norm. Because this also brings back the sympathy for Norman that was obliterated in II and not even a part of III -- Norman fears he'll pass along his mental problems to his kid. His wife went against his wishes to not have kids and stopped trying to prevent it, so he's upset with her, and feels there's no way out but to kill her. After phoning it in for the last movie, Perkins' performance during this part is effective; there's pain and fear there.
I don't know if this is just something that happens in retrospect or if it was known and intended, but there's a sense of sorrow and finality hanging over the movie. I don't know if this movie was intended to be the end because of diminishing returns or if it might have had to do with Perkins' health, but there's certainly a sense that this is the final Norman Bates story, not only by having him relive his life, but ending with him burning down the Bates residence to be rid of his past. This adds another layer to Perkins' performance, and makes Norman's fear for his offspring, Norman's reluctance to kill again and Norman's all around skittishness and terror more haunting. The other sequels had these moments of "Fuck, yeah! Norman's back" when he gets up to old tricks again, but here in this movie he's terrified. He doesn't like what he was, and could still be. He doesn't feel like he can truly be cured, but he doesn't want to be a killer. II and III are outlandish, but here Norman feels like a person again.
The movie's not exactly scary or suspenseful, but I feel like story is more of its goal than being scary or suspenseful. It's certainly not suspenseful in the sense that most of the movie is devoted to the past, so there's no real stakes or danger -- you know Norman's going to kill, you know he'll get away. And the scenes set in the past are done in a bit of a hokey way -- while this movie makes the wise choice of bringing back Bernard Hermann's classic music from the original, it uses it in predictable, eye-rolling ways. (Norman's first kill? Accompanied by the classic music that screeches when Janet Leigh's Marion is killed. A lightweight mistake.)
I've said before that I'm not really a fan of director Mick Garris. His movies have a plainness to them, and his scare scenes play lighthearted to me, like a Tales From the Crypt episode or something. This movie succeeds on the script and most of its performances, from Perkins to Olivia Hussey, and CCH Pounder to Warren Frost.
Olivia Hussey's work here is overlooked. I think she does a great job in this movie, but it's become cool to trash her in favor of Vera Farmiga from A&E's TV series. I'm going to risk pissing off a lot of people, but "Mother" has always been kind of cheesily depicted to me. She always has that bad Aunt May wig, the overly large floral dress. Virginia Gregg's voice-over performance is a little too cartoonish. (I know I'm always going on about how I like the subtlety of the original, but I'm always surprised a sequel never had Norman actually wear Mother's corpse. That would have been grisly and over-the-top, perhaps, but creepy. Probably not something you could get away with in 1960. The sequels adhered too close to the original, right down to keeping the EXACT Mother look, which didn't age well and doesn't play in color. Try not to laugh when Henry Thomas is dressed like Mother, dubbed in a woman's voice saying stuff like "Drive, whore!" I don't think you're meant to laugh. There's a reason Hitchcock kept "her" in the shadows, and you only saw Norman dressed as her briefly at the very end.)
So here with this movie, and Hussey's performance, Norma feels like a full character, an unstable character who can be threatening in her fits of rage, but also at turns charming. So you can see, in a more believable way, that Norman inherited her illness as well as being effected by her abuse.
Norman's wife, Connie, was a nurse at the institution Norman was at. She knew all about him, and thought he was husband material? What's wrong with this woman? Also: super professional of you! But the actress is good and likable, so you worry about her at the end there, when Norman takes her to the Bates house, where he plans to kill her. She convinces him not to, to give their kid a chance, and he listens, before going back to the house and burning it down. Throughout the scene, he starts seeing phantoms throughout the house -- Norma, her boyfriend, the first girl he killed -- this was an interesting idea, one that probably read better than it plays. And *if* they knew it would be the last Psycho movie, wouldn't it have been neat to throw in something of Norman's most famous kill, and have a Janet Leigh look-alike?
I think a strong end to this movie would be for Norman to have listened to Connie and sent her away as he burned down the house, but he just stays at the house and lets himself die. Maybe they were hopeful Perkins would have been able to do more? Before the credits roll, they play a sound effect of a baby crying, so they were probably planning to at least pick up and do a "Son of Psycho" thing, which...thankfully they didn't end up doing.
The movie could have used a stronger director, but it's all in all not as weak as I remembered it. I'd probably rank the series like this:
2) Psycho IV
3) Psycho 2
4) Psycho 3