The only thing more amazing than the fact that there are three sequels to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—an untouchable classic that defies sequelization—is the fact that all three sequels are surprisingly good. This is a horror franchise that never should have existed, and yet it is one of the few horror franchises without a single stinker in the bunch… that is, until we get to the 1987 made-for-TV spinoff movie Bates Motel and Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake in 1998. For our purposes, let’s just stick to the original series of Psycho films starring Anthony Perkins. Anything without the original Norman Bates just ain’t Psycho.
Having never seen the 1990 made-for-cable sequel/prequel Psycho IV: The Beginning prior to Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release, I was sure this would be the entry in the Psycho series that dropped the ball—the one that looked like what I have always expected a bad Psycho sequel to look like. But, no, I should have put my trust in director Mick Garris, screenwriter Joseph Stefano (who also wrote the Hitchcock classic), and star Anthony Perkins, here picking up the kitchen knife for a fourth and final time. While not up to the original’s quality level—something to which few horror films can lay claim—Psycho IV offers a compelling look back at Norman’s youth and what little closure will ever be possible for the character.
More or less ignoring the events of both Psycho II and Psycho III (a decision made early on by Stefano, who claimed to be no fan of the previous two sequels), Psycho IV finds present-day Norman Bates married and with his first child on the way, a fact that causes him no small amount of fear that his madness will be passed along to another generation. One night, he calls into a radio show (hosted by CCH Pounder’s Fran Ambrose) during an episode dedicated to matricide and begins to share the story of his own experience with that particular crime; cut to the past, where young Norman (a well-cast Henry Thomas) and his mother, Norma (Olivia Hussey), play out a bizarre psychosexual relationship that we already know can only end one way.
Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by Psycho IV: The Beginning in 2016 is that the A&E series Bates Motel, soon to enter its fifth and final season, has covered similar territory in a longer format, making Psycho IV feel a little like the CliffsNotes version. Yes, Garris and Stefano got there 20 years earlier, but anyone discovering the movie on Scream Factory’s Blu-ray may feel it covers common ground. By going back to Norman’s early life, the movie is also up against Prequel Syndrome, filling in already familiar background details. We know that Norman and his mother had an unusual relationship, just as we know he killed both her and her lover. Seeing those events dramatized isn’t enough to justify an entire feature film.
But Psycho IV has enough going for it that it’s able to overcome these obstacles. Despite knowing where things are going the whole time, Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey give strong enough performances to remain compelling throughout; Hussey, in particular, embraces the Oedipal subtext of their dynamic with animalistic ferocity. The present-day sequences relegate Anthony Perkins to mostly talking on the phone, but he inhabits the skin of Norman Bates as only he can, and I like that this time out he’s tortured not by his own desires, but by his fears of what could happen should his bloodline continue.
The best thing about Psycho IV, though, is the direction from Mick Garris, a fantastic genre director whose contributions to horror as a creator, writer, and producer are always valued, but whose talents as a filmmaker have always been underrated. Garris does his best to adopt Hitchcock’s style and aesthetic while still bringing the film into the ’90s. He handles the jumps between time periods well—it’s never as jarring as it would have been in the hands of a lesser talent—and even goes for broke with a finale that satisfies beyond what we know is in store for Norman and Norma. It’s an impressive piece of work.
Designed for broadcast on Showtime in the US but theatrically elsewhere in the world upon its initial release, Psycho IV: The Beginning receives a Blu-ray treatment from Scream Factory that features a full 1080p HD transfer in its native aspect ratio of 1.78:1 widescreen. The transfer stumbles in a few spots with fluctuating softness and some darker scenes succumb to crush issues, but overall the high-def presentation is solid.
The bonus features include an archival behind-the-scenes featurette, as well as a second archival piece on scoring the movie with composer Graeme Revell adopting Bernard Herrmann’s classic strings. A photo gallery and a brand new and fairly lengthy interview with special effects designer Tony Gardner are also included. The best bonus feature, though, is a commentary with director Garris and stars Thomas and Hussey. Mick Garris is someone I could listen to talk about movies any day; his passion and enthusiasm always come through and he’s open about the challenges of working with such an iconic property. It’s a fun and informative listen.
While Psycho IV: The Beginning will never be my favorite of the Psycho sequels (#PsychoII4life), I give it a lot of credit for more or less sticking the landing and giving star Anthony Perkins a graceful exit for Norman Bates, one of the most iconic characters in all of horror. Those who don’t have the patience for five seasons of Bates Motel, but are still interested in exploring the relationship between Norman and his mother would be wise to check this one out, as should any self-respecting fan of the unlikely Psycho franchise. This fourth movie in a series that shouldn’t have been a series has no business working as well as it does.
Movie Score: 3/5, Disc score: 3/5