This month marks the one-year anniversary of Catalog from the Beyond! I thank those of you who have followed along with my inane babbling for the last twelve months, and to celebrate, I’ve decided to do an extra large edition featuring not one, but two movies that I’ve been circling since I started this column. I’ve said before that I was a latecomer to the Psycho franchise, with my rationale being that the movie was so ingrained in pop culture that I assumed I knew what it had to offer without needing to actually watch it. Now, of course, I know that I was very wrong. But after finally coming to my senses, I subsequently noticed a sizable portion of the horror community that also sings the praises of the two sequels that it spawned in 1983 and 1986.
What intrigued me about these two movies is that although I’d heard many people discuss the films, they did such a good job at avoiding spoilers that I got to go into both films with minimal knowledge about the plot points. Alas, I am not as talented as them, so I have to warn you that this will be a very spoilerific entry of the Catalog, as much of what intrigues me about these movies falls into plot twist territory. Plus, from what I can tell, I’m late to the game on these movies anyway (as always), so most of you will just be comparing your own notes on these flicks while reading.
First, let’s see how much synopsis from both films I can cram into a couple of paragraphs. Psycho 2 picks up twenty-two years after the original, with Norman being released from a mental facility at the recommendation of his doctor (Robert Loggia) and allowed to return to his former home at the Bates Motel. Of course, murderous hijinks ensue, but surprisingly we’ve got to question who is actually committing the murders. Is Norman up to his old tricks? Is he being set up by a vengeful Lila Loomis (Vera Miles) and her daughter Mary (Meg Tilly)? Nope. Local woman Emma Spool (Claudia Bryar), who suffers delusions similar to Norman’s, believes herself to be his real mother and took it upon herself to kill anyone she believed to be a threat to Norman. Naturally, he bashes in her head with a shovel for her trouble.
Psycho 3 picks up with Norman living with Spool’s corpse serving as the new proxy for “Mother” as he continues to struggle with her urging him to murder any woman unlucky enough to stop at Bates Motel. One such girl, Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid), is about to get the shower stab treatment until Norman realizes that she’s already tried to do the job for him in an attempted suicide. Seeing her as an opportunity for redemption, he helps her and eventually they fall in love. Alas, his struggle with Mother leads to Maureen’s accidental death, ultimately leading Norman to destroy Spool’s corpse, finally “killing” Mother and freeing his mind even while his body is being hauled off to jail (but not without Mother’s hand as a keepsake).
Perhaps the most satisfying aspects of both Psycho II and III is that they truly embody the definition of a trilogy. Most horror sequels serve simply as a continuation of the previous movies, using familiar characters to tell any old story and often to cash in on a payday. But the Psycho trilogy plays as one should, with each movie representing a beginning, middle, and end of one long story (I’m ignoring Psycho IV: The Beginning since it’s a quasi-prequel).
However, while the subsequent sequels complete the overarching story, what also makes them so compelling is that each one has a very different tone. While the original Psycho set the standard for straightforward suspense, Psycho II takes the mystery element and adds a healthy dash of the surreal as we follow the story more from Norman’s point of view and delve into his insanity. What’s more, Tom Holland’s writing and Richard Franklin’s direction indicate they knew what a huge shadow loomed over them in the form of the original Psycho. We get nods to the infamous shower scene as well as an array of other meta tidbits from characters who acknowledge what a huge impact the events of the first movie had, which by extension reminds us of how much of an impact the movie itself had.
Psycho III skips the suspense and the surreal to leap headlong into batshit crazy territory. Anthony Perkins himself took over directorial duties this time around, and it seems as though he was going for a balls-out grindhouse flick with lapsed nuns running from troubled pasts, lecherous drifters, and all manner of B-movie-style violence and nudity. Had this been a direct follow-up to the original Psycho, I doubt it would have worked. But the transitional tone of Psycho II glides you into this entry just enough so as not to make it too jarring.
Of course, the one thread connecting these starkly different tones is Norman himself. What impressed me so much about both of these sequels was their ability to make me continue to root for Norman. And I don’t mean that in the “let’s all clap for the villain as they butcher annoying teenagers” way, either. Norman is a killer, make no mistake about it. But the films find a delicate balance where we can continue to hope for some kind of a happy ending while still acknowledging that he’s a very dangerous individual.
One key factor in this is Perkins’ ability to portray Norman with that old-fashioned “aw shucks” charm. Take away all of the murder and Norman is just a kind, generous rube who always likes to use antiquated hotel jargon (“You can stay at my hotel. F.O.C., of course... free of charge!”). He plays like what would happen if Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith went off the deep end instead of to Washington.
In addition to Perkins’ performance, the writers also seem to be deliberately steering us into Norman’s corner. One trick to pull this off is to surround Norman with some decidedly awful people. In Psycho II, Dennis Franz plays right in his sleazy wheelhouse as a drunken, drug-pushing hotel manager. Holland also makes a very interesting decision to bring back Vera Miles’ Mrs. Loomis with such a singularly vengeful mission to get Norman thrown back into the mental hospital that even her own daughter begins to think she may be pushing the lines of decency. Of course, in Psycho III, we get Jeff Fahey’s Duane Duke, a.k.a. Misogyny in a Canadian Tuxedo. None of these people are the type we can get behind, and we’re not very sad to see any of them get bumped off, in pretty brutal ways I might add (chef’s knife through the mouth, anyone?).
But we’re also not simply meant to side with Norman just because he’s not one of the previously mentioned awful people. Psycho II and III serve as tragedy and redemption tales, respectively. After all, in part 2 it turns out Norman wasn’t killing anyone, and it was only the revelation that Spool had been the one all along that finally pushed him back over the edge. And even in part 3, there’s a clear distinction that Norman is in “Mother” mode when he kills. This battle with his own insanity is present in both films, epitomized by the eerie yet sympathetic line in the second film when Norman, exhausted, claims with genuine fear that “it’s starting again.” Norman knows he’s insane, and unlike so many of our favorite villains, he doesn’t revel in it. So even though part 3 ends with Norman being led to prison, his exclamation that he’s finally free of Mother’s control is really a happy ending of sorts.
If, like me, you’re one of the few who have held out on Psycho II and III for whatever reason, I highly recommend you stop by the old motel in the near future. Both movies avoid the pitfalls of attempting to reach the heights of Hitchcock’s masterpiece while instead serving as really fine companion pieces to it with their own personality and charm. While I rarely have the attention span for franchise marathons, this is actually a series that lends itself to binging, as the shifts in tone and style from movie to movie provide enough variety to keep from getting repetitive while also maintaining the integrity of the overall story. Call me crazy, but I think that makes for a pretty damn good trilogy.