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Psycho III – film review

February 6, 2014


Norman finds love … Mom wigs out.

Mother - PsychoI III

Directed by Anthony Perkins. Written by Charles Edward Pogue. Starring Anthony Perkins, Diana Scarwid, Jeff Fahey, Roberta Maxwell and Hugh Gillin. Year of release: 1986. Running time: 90 minutes.

A suicidal nun who has renounced her faith arrives at the Bates Motel, captures the heart of Norman Bates and inflames the ire of his homicidal Mother.

When we last saw Norman (after 22 years of successful psychiatric rehab) he had been driven insane again thanks to the malicious and dispicable manipulation wrought by the vengeful sister of Marion Crane – Lila Loomis (Vera Miles). With Psycho III set one month after these events, Norman is well and truly off his rocker from the get-go – as tormented as he had been by Mother when we first met him in the original film. As the movie opens, we meet Maureen Coyle; a naive young sister of the cloth who finds herself staying at the Bates Motel; having fled from a nearby convent, after     her attempted suicide inadvertently results in the accidental death of a fellow sister. Norman takes an immediate shine to Maureen and the two begin a sweet, if uneasy courtship – which has the potential to heal them both, if not for the murderous jealousy of Norman’s Mother. Further complications arise when Norman naively employs an untrustworthy drifter named Duane Duke (“Just call me Duke.”) – to help him run the motel. This hayseed, sleazebag, wannabe musician – as played to the hilt by Jeff Fahey (Body Parts, The Lawnmower Man) is such a despicable excuse     for a human being that we can’t help but hope for his ultimate demise.

While undoubtedly a modern-day Gothic horror, Psycho III is also fundamentaly, at     its core – a love story between Norman and Maureen. As actress Diana Scarwid said of her character back in 1986, “She’s too full of fear and pain like Norman to function in the world. Through Norman, Maureen finds a special peace within herself. They accept each other’s sadness and sensitivity like little children. Through innocence and their vast capacity for love, they help each other.” It’s telling here that Scarwid mentions a child-like innocence between the two, as this is very much in evidence     in their scenes together – particularly during their first official date, followed by an attempted session of cute, if clumsy fumbling back at the motel. We really do want these two to get together – and it pains us when Mother threatens to intervene.

psycho 3 - norman and maureen

Psycho III is the directorial debut of Anthony Perkins and he proves himself here     to have talent as much behind the camera as in front. He felt immediately compelled to direct the movie himself after reading Charles Edward Pogue’s screenplay and after Psycho II director Richard Franklin was unable to return due to scheduling conflicts with his killer chimp movie Link. Screenwriter Pogue garnered the attention of Universal production boss Frank Price; after penning the initial draft of the 1986 remake of The Fly for Fox – prior to David Cronenberg’s involvement and subsequent rewrite – and was charged with coming up with a new story which would continue the Psycho franchise. As Perkins related back in 1986, “Psycho III was sent to me as an acting job and it’s as tight as any script I’ve ever read. It was the script, the strength of it and its eloquence, that even gave me the courage to take on this daunting assignment. As I put the last page down, I said ‘I want to direct this.’ It was my admiration for what had been writen, rather than my aspirations as a director.”

Following in the footsteps of such visually savvy fimmakers as Hitchcock and Franklin; one might be forgiven for assuming some aspects of their visual aesthetic would naturally find their way into Perkin’s directorial style. Despite Perkins’ self-effacing pronouncement that he was merely (and diligently) following what Pogue had written on the page – without consciously pursuing any particular aesthetic; there are plenty of visual and directorial flourishes which are clever and highly original here.

One beautifully-timed and fluidly-paced transitional sequence stands out in particular: it begins with a scene in a bar where Duke’s failed attempt at chatting up a woman prompts him to retort, “Well, you’re about as warm as a cry for help.” The shot closes in on an image on a TV set behind the bar; an image from an old movie showing desperate people crying out as they are swept away by torrential flood waters. The shot then transitions seamlessly to the exact same image on a TV set in the motel office – where Norman begins to hear a chorus of tormented voices crying out from     a framed painting on the wall (a medieval-style depiction of a naked nymph molested by demons). Norman lifts the painting to reveal the infamous peep hole; puts his eye to the hole and spies Maureen next door; naked and preparing a bath.

Perkins’ prior experience directing theatre is demonstrated in another scene; with a startling use of stage-craft; where Norman exits a door from a hospital room where Maureen is recuperating after a second suicide attempt – entering directly into his Mother’s room back at the house. A real-life impossibility – but an audacious use     of stage technique; more often employed in theatre production.

And finally – in a cleverly-choreographed dialogue exchange between Norman and his Mother, Perkins ensures that we never get to see a clear look at his face when he speaks as Mother – by having him turn away from camera at just the right moment     or having his face obscured by his hands when he speaks using her voice (Norma Bates, incidently, is again voiced by Virginia Gregg; the uncredited actress who also voiced Mother in both the original Psycho and Psycho II). This attention to detail in Perkins’ direction is evident throughout the entire film, with Perkins having observed first-hand Hitchcock’s meticulous planning and use of storyboards (although, unlike Hitchcock, Perkins storyboarded pretty much the entire movie). Sadly, Perkins only got the chance to direct one other movie prior to his untimely passing – a little-seen comedy from the writer of The Naked Gun released in 1989 entitled Lucky Stiff.

psycho III - norman bates

The Psycho franchise is perhaps that rarest example in the slasher genre of being     a series which maintains quality and integrity throughout – without devolving into shameless re-hashing or worse: self parody. This has much to do with Norman being such a fascinating and compelling character – as it does with there being a respectful reverence for the movie which began the series. In terms of complexity and the Shakespearean tragedy inherent in the part, it comes as no surprise the role of Norman Bates has often been described as ‘The Hamlet of horror roles’ by film scholars. One of the key aspects which makes Norman so compelling a character is his duality. Much like Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde – Norman is essentially two distinct personalities contained within the one person. As revealed by the psychiatrist at the end of Psycho – Norman is completely unaware that he himself is responsible for the murders he commits. And, as these movies are essentially told from Norman’s perspective – he is, in effect, both protagonist and antagonist at the same time. Ultimately, Norman is as much of a victim of his Mother’s wrath – as those he knifes to death while under her murderous control. As Perkins said of Norman back in 1986, “Norman wants to behave himself. He’s a highly complex character that you just get behind. I don’t think you could perpetuate a character like Norman if you thought of him as bad. Norman’s not like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. You couldn’t wait to be rid of that character. You rooted for Shelley Duvall to connect with that baseball bat. With Norman you don’t feel that. Ambivalent hardly covers it. Sympathetic isn’t right either. You want people to understand Norman and to perhaps leave him alone.” The main development with Norman in this movie is that he is beginning to fight back against his Mother persona, Perkins again, “He’s a fighter, especially in this one. Because he’s spinning out of Psycho II, he’s more or less smart about himself and his own situation, which he wasn’t in the first one. He’s just trying to keep it together, which he also tried to do in Psycho II. If he had been left alone and ignored, I think     he would have had an easy time of rehabilitating himself.” Mother issues aside; Norman is a relatively decent person; with a functioning moral compass (peep hole notwithstanding) – quite unlike those who deliberately set out to antagonize or exploit him. In fact, it could easily be argued here that Duane Duke himself is more of a psycho than Norman Bates – particularly considering his rampant narcissism, lack     of compassion and systematic mistreatment of women. I would also go so far as to suggest that Lila Loomis also demonstrates psychopathic tendencies in her irrational pursuit of payback against Norman in the previous installment.

Having watched all three Psycho films back-to-back for the purpose of this review; it is fascinating to realize just how many references and call-backs to the previous films Pogue has sprinkled throughout his script. There are the more obvious ones of course – like the hard-driving rain pelting down against the wildly-swinging windscreen wipers of Duke’s car (incidently, a visual reference also replicated in the Coen brothers’ neo-noir Blood Simple). Or Mary Loomis’ weathered copy of the Jack Abbott book ‘In The Belly Of The Beast’ – left discarded near the bird bath outside the Bates home (Mary was seen reading this book in Psycho II before she was killed). Then there are little bits of dialogue which are more subtle references, for example: a line spoken by Duane Duke in the motel office, “You’re my first customer for the day” – is a direct call-back to a line spoken by a used car salesman selling a vehicle to Marion Crane in the original Psycho. Another of Duke’s lines, “Somebody’ll rob you blind” (Duke referring to a till left open in the office) – is a direct call-back to a line spoken by         a deputy sheriff in Psycho II – telling Norman to padlock his cellar shutters after       a teenage couple sneak inside.

psycho III - bates motel

Utilization of the original Universal backlot set – comprising the iconic Psycho house and Bates Motel – also creates an authentic continuity with the previous installments. And it is no coincidence the bell tower scene which opens the film is a call-back to     a similar scene in Vertigo – as the art director on Psycho III, Henry Bumstead, had worked on several of Hitchcock’s films, including Vertigo.

The cinematography by Bruce Surtees (Clint Eastwood’s resident lenser) is very reminiscent of the films of Mario Bava in some instances; especially in the use of lurid colors in particular scenes. And perhaps Perkins chose Surtees based on his experience lensing movies directed by Eastwood; which Eastwood also starred in. Perhaps he felt Surtees would be familiar with this very specific on-set actor/director dynamic and would be perfectly placed to offer honest feedback on Perkins’ performance in scenes in which Norman appeared. It is no secret Perkins actively sought and encouraged comment and feedback from just about everyone on the crew.

Resident composer on virtually all of the Coen brothers movies, Carter Burwell, again supplies another of his eclectic and uniformly brilliant scores for Psycho III – only     his second-ever movie score. Perkins hired the still relatively unknown Burwell to compose and oversee the score; having arranged a crew screening of Blood Simple prior to filming Psycho III. Much like Burwell’s next score (for Raising Arizona – released the year following Perkins’ movie) – his score for Psycho III also features different incarnations of a central theme which runs throughout the film – even including a scene where Perkins (himself an accomplished pianist) performs a moving rendition of the piece on-screen. As with Jerry Goldsmith before him, Burwell wisely chose not to emulate Bernard Hermann’s iconic music from Psycho – pursuing instead his own take on the material.

While Hitchcock’s Psycho sits in a class of its own and Richard Franklin’s follow-up is a worthy successor, Psycho III is undoubtedly the best of the sequels – especially in the way it perfectly captures the perversely dark sense of humor inherent in the original. The scene where an oblivious Sheriff Hunt (Hugh Gillin) greedily sucks on a bloody cube of ice from an ice chest – concealing one of Mother’s victims – while a horrified Norman looks on; is a darkly funny moment and one which Hitchcock would undoubtedly have approved.

With the combined elements of a sharp and witty screenplay, meticulous direction and pitch-perfect performances, Psycho III is testament to the fact that follow-ups     to iconic movies don’t necessarily have to be mindlessly exploitative grabs for cash. Indeed if they are made with a certain degree of passion and respect, they can be considered worthy films in their own right.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


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