“Look at yourself,” she says, “that’s not who you are anymore.”
Dedicated to Joseph Stefano (1922-2006)
and Anthony Perkins (1932-1992)
Anthony Perkins was dying. On March 27, 1990, The National Enquirer reported that the Psycho star had contracted the deadly HIV virus. Perkins, of course, denied the story, but secretly he knew better . . .
“You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps — clamped in them — and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
Those lines were written — with Perkins in mind — by Joseph Stefano as part of his 1960 Psycho screenplay. (They do not appear in Robert Bloch’s source novel.) When, shortly after the Enquirer article appeared, MCA Television Entertainment offered Perkins the lead in Psycho IV: The Beginning, with Hilton Green (Psycho‘s assistant director) producing, and Stefano providing the screenplay (his first connection with a Psycho project since the original), Perkins leapt at the opportunity to interpret Norman Bates one last time.
Naturally, Perkins wanted to direct, as he had done on the financially unsuccessfulPsycho III, but the studio refused, assigning the job instead to the relatively inexperienced Mick Garris (producer of Showtime’s current Masters of Horror series). Still, with Perkins starring, Green producing, and Perkins’ friend Stefano acting as both writer and “Executive Production Consultant” (reflecting his role as writer/producer of The Outer Limits), Perkins would retain a great deal of control over the project.
The first Psycho is both a vindication of the auteur theory (inconceivable without Hitchcock’s genius) and an annihilation of it. Psycho and the character who dominates it, Norman Bates, are so clearly a joint creation, originating with Bloch’s novel, radically reimagined by Hitchcock and Stefano in their screen adaptation, realized in an intensely personal way by Anthony Perkins, and (not least) deepened and illuminated by Bernard Herrmann’s score, one of the finest ever written. Thirty years later, the narrative of Psycho IV would dramatize Norman’s final struggle with the spirit of his dead mother for possession of his soul. As meta-narrative, Psycho IV would be the final attempt of two of Norman’s creators — Perkins and Stefano — to make Norman fully theirs, freeing him from the deterministic cages constructed by co-creators Hitchcock and Bloch.
The first Psycho is one of the darkest works ever committed to celluloid, and much of its darkness derives from Bloch’s novel. It was Bloch who conceived the horrifying murder in the shower coming on the heels of “Mary” Crane’s decision to return the money she had stolen. Bloch also provided Hitchcock with the film’s ending, Norman Bates catatonic in a jail cell, his personality completely submerged under that of the mother he killed, an old lady who “wouldn’t harm a fly.”
But Bloch’s book is melodrama, a cosmic joke. It was the combination of Hitchcock, Stefano, and Perkins who transformed Bloch’s melodrama into classical tragedy by reimagining Norman as a sympathetic, sensitive, young man (unlike the pudgy, middle-aged creep in Bloch’s book) with a potential for something more than a series of senseless sex crimes. That potential is never clearer than in the parlor scene quoted at the beginning of this article. There, thanks to the superb performances of Perkins and Leigh — and to Stefano’s dialogue — we get a poignant sense of two lost souls nearly connecting and thereby (almost) escaping from their “private traps.”
However, it was not in Hitchcock’s nature to set his characters free. Hitchcock’s directorial attitude is best exemplified by those impassive stone gods — the pagan idol in the British Museum in Blackmail, the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur, the carved presidents of Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest — from which his characters dangle helplessly. Similarly, the “Master of Suspense” was himself suspended between two views of reality: one in which people do have some control over their lives and may to some degree escape the traumas of their past (as in Spellbound or Marnie), and the darker, more pessimistic view reflected in the no-exit fatalism of Vertigo and Psycho.
Which is one of many reasons why Norman Bates ultimately proved too large to be contained within Hitchcock’s universe. Norman’s potential for growth, the sense we all felt that under the right circumstances he could be “normal” (whatever that means), became the explicit subject of the three Psycho sequels.
The central idea of the first sequel, Psycho II (1983), is a good one: Norman Bates, 23 years older, has been “cured” and is set free to manage the Bates Motel once more. Alas, the world to which he returns is madder than he was, and conspires to drag him back down to its level. As in Psycho, the potential for health is embodied in a female character (Meg Tilly), representing the possibility of reconciliation with Norman’s “inner feminine” (a positive anima to balance the negative anima of “Mother”). With her black hair and intense good looks, Tilly’s character is Norman’s perfect feminine double — too perfect, as it turns out, because, like Norman, she also is dominated by the personality of a homicidal mother (Vera Miles, reprising her role as Lila Crane). If Psycho II had stuck to this simple plot outline, it could have been great. Unfortunately, the film is further and unnecessarily complicated by the ridiculous “Mrs. Spool” subplot.
Part of the fun and most of the resonance of Psycho II derives from the way Anthony Perkins and Norman Bates had become so closely identified. Perkins himself took pains to point out the parallels in an interview published in People to coincide with the film’s release. Like Norman, Perkins had a father who died when he was five years old, leaving him in the care of a neurotic mother. Like Mrs. Bates, Perkin’s mother was sometimes overly attentive, at other times coldly distant and domineering. As a result of this relationship, Perkins, like Norman, had been afraid of women: “I’d had homosexual encounters, but that kind of sex always felt unreal to me and unsatisfying. And I had never had sex with a woman — the very thought of it terrified me.” Paralleling Norman’s experience in the mental institution, Perkins had gone through years of psychoanalysis and had finally reached a level of stability, happily married (so he claimed) to a woman he loved. Anyone who believes that acting is a shallow or parasitic art form should reexamine the way Perkins mined his own deepest levels to create Norman, and then used the character over three decades to work out his personal conflicts and, by extension, enlighten and heal the rest of us.
Psycho III (1986) essentially reiterates the plot-line of Psycho II but without deepening it. Once again, troubled Norman strives for health in the form of a relationship with an equally troubled young woman (this time played by Mommie Dearest‘s Diana Scarwid), and once again he is thwarted by the malice of characters considered by the rest of the world to be “normal” (notably, Jeff Fahey’s Duane). Psycho III‘s primary interest lies in the fact that it not only stars Anthony Perkins but is directed by him (Good Norman/Bad Norman now watched over by a third character, Norman the Director/Observer). At this point in his career, Perkins had become a true actor/auteur — the films he starred in were remarkably similar to one another not only in theme but in visual style. Thus, “the seamiest, most perverse and discomforting action and imagery” that Steve Johnson, writing in Delirious, identified in Psycho III is equally present in Crimes of Passion (directed by Ken Russell) and Edge of Sanity(directed by Gerard Kikoine). All three of these ’80s Perkins-starring films share a penchant for sexual aberration, expressionistic camera angles, and lurid lighting.
If the studio-dictated ending of Psycho III feels like a cheat to Johnson, me, and practically everyone else who’s ever seen it, it’s because it is a cheat. The drive toward health implicit in Psycho I and explicit in Psycho’s II and III could no longer logically be denied, no matter how many times the dead hand of Mother/Bloch/Hitchcock reached out of the past (that same dead hand held in Norman’s lap in Psycho III‘s concluding shot).
“Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all, most unbearable to the son who commits it.” So says Dr. Richmond, the psychiatrist, at the end of the first Psycho. And any good psychoanalyst will tell you that we heal ourselves by facing those things in our past that are most difficult to confront. When Hitchcock made his Psycho in 1960, he could not even show the knife penetrating Marion Crane’s body, much less depict in graphic detail the primal murder, the matricide, from which all the subsequent killings flowed. To engineer Norman’s final cure in Psycho IV: The Beginning, Perkins and Stefano decided to show their Norman facing everything that Hitchcock’s Norman (and his director) could not.
Reflecting the split in Norman’s character, Stefano conceived a split screenplay. Half of the film shows a 58-year-old Norman dealing with a present-time crisis (his pregnant wife!). The other half is a series of flashbacks showing the key events that precede the original Psycho and centered around the one character whom Hitchcock never showed except as a stuffed cadaver, Mrs. Norma Bates. The device that ties the two halves together is an Oprah Winfrey-like radio talk show hostess discussing the topic, “Boys Who Kill Their Mothers.” Norman calls into this program — anonymously — and is challenged by the contrasting attitudes of the hostess (compassion, free will) and her guest, the first Psycho‘s Dr. Richmond (cold, unforgiving determinism).
The young, beautiful Mrs. Bates we see in flashbacks (Olivia Hussey) is also split, sometimes loving and sensual, at other times puritanical, capricious, and cruel, the spiritual ugliness of her abusive side to be reflected eventually (Dorian Gray-like) by her mummified corpse. We first meet her at the funeral of Norman’s dad, grotesquely stung to death by bees (multiple bee sting penetrations foreshadowing the multiple stab wounds of Marion in the shower). Wearing the face of a stern and grieving widow, Mrs. Bates pretends to listen to the preacher’s eulogy while furtively tickling the five-year-old son sitting beside her (the height of eroticism to a small child). When her tickling forces little Norman to laugh out loud, she slaps him abruptly — initiating a lifelong pattern of arousal followed by punishment, of sex associated with death. In the tenderest of Norman’s memories, she carresses him with her long, black hair. In one of the most disturbing flashbacks, we see 15-year-old Norman (played by E.T.‘s Henry Thomas) peering through his office peephole into Cabin No. 1. Remembering earlier Psychos, we expect to see something erotic. Instead, we see the young Mrs. Bates tearing up the room in a psychotic frenzy.
This scene of madness is the key to 58-year-old Norman’s present-time crisis. Believing his own madness to be a genetic inheritance from his mother, he is horrified that his new wife (a psychologist he met at the institute) has gotten herself pregnant by him without his knowledge or consent. He feels the child is genetically predetermined, like him, to be “a monster.” Waiting for his wife to come home, he confesses to the talk show hostess his intention to murder both wife and unborn child in order “to protect the world from this aging bad seed known as Norman Bates.” Countering this Hitchcockian fatalism, the talk show hostess and, later, Norman’s wife (two aspects of the same positive anima) will argue that the malignant influences of the past can be overcome by and through love.
As Norman discusses his crisis with the radio hostess, we move ever closer in flashback to the primal matricide. We see Norman, possessed by Mrs. Bates’ persona, murdering his/her first two victims, a sexy young girl and a randy “older woman.” We see scenes of Norman’s arousal, followed by pain and humiliation, at the hands of his schizoid mother (at one point, she throws a dress on him, smears lipstick on his face, and locks him in a closet — a deliberate reference, no doubt, to Perkins’ pre-marriage real life as a “closeted” gay). It is suggested — by Dr. Richmond — that Norman derived a certain sadomasochistic pleasure from the mother/son relationship, as long as it was just him and her. Then Mrs. Bates commits the ultimate sin; she brings home a boyfriend. The boyfriend is a smug, macho jerk, everything that Norman is not. Prior to the matricide, we see another of the images Hitchcock could only suggest without showing — Norman sewing up his mother’s corpse after stuffing it with sawdust. The previously unconfrontable matricide is shown in excruciating detail, the mother and her boyfriend dying slowly, painfully, repeatedly vomitting forth the strychnine they have been unwittingly fed. The sequence ends with Norman tenderly resting his dying mother’s body on the rocking chair in the house’s fruit cellar.
Having confronted the unconfrontable, Norman is primed for a cathartic recovery. He hangs up on the talk show and telephones his wife, asking her to meet him at his mother’s house. She arrives. He is about to stab her to death when he sees his reflection (another split image) in the blade of the butcher knife. “Look at yourself,” she says, “that’s not who you are anymore.” Instead of murdering his wife, he (as in Roger Corman’s Poe films) sets fire to the house, the symbol of his clinging past. He has to fight past hallucinations of his young mother, her boyfriend, his first two victims, and his mother again as a withered corpse before he bursts out of that fruit cellar/unconscious into the open air.
Norman Bates is one of the movies’ great characters, a 20th-century answer to Hamlet and Oedipus, an icon as recognizable within popular culture as Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes. Is it any wonder then that Perkins and Stefano grew protective of their creation, determined to rescue him from the private hell to which he had been consigned by Hitchcock and Bloch? (Norman’s redemption is not without precedent. Wolfman Larry Talbot was similarly redeemed after suffering through The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula.) By forgiving Norman, Stefano and Perkins were able to forgive themselves for all of their real or imagined sins. Given Perkins’ knowledge of his own impending death, I find it particularly moving when, at the end of Psycho IV, Norman turns to his wife (an obvious stand-in for real-life wife Berry Berenson) and says with genuine conviction, “I’m free.”