There are many landmark films and filmmakers that have changed the course of cinema; The Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa, Les Diaboliques (1955) by Henri-Georges Clouzot, M (1931) by Fritz Lang and certainly, Psycho (1960) by Alfred Hitchcock are a few of each that come to mind.
As a filmmaker and student of great (and also not-so-great) cinematic language I (naturally) gravitate to the masterworks and their creators like a fly to honey. Therefore, I (like most cinephiles) love Alfred Hitchcock. In an era of languid pacing and restrained narrative Hitchcock pushed the boundaries of cinema with fast editing, stylish camera work and the showing of greater levels of violence, sexuality and subtext. Hitch’s filmic expansion moved briskly onward and upward for thirty years until he truly pushed every button just right and created(what many consider his last true masterpiece) Psycho in 1960.
Widely considered one of the major stepping stones, if not the birth of “the next generation of cinema,” Psycho started off the decade that would become the most controversial and influential of all upon film with a blood curdling bang. For modern viewers the film may seem tame and antiquated, but at the time it was a shocking revelation. The film gave us unmarried sex, the first toilet shown flushing on screen and the topped billed star (Janet Leigh) is killed (in the most famous murder scene in cinema history) less than halfway through the movie. And that is just on the surface (the film oozes with psychological and dramatic subtext, also the likes of which had not been seen at the time.)
Psycho is truly and rightfully a masterpiece as most say it is. It’s one of those few perfectly acted, written, shot, edited and directed films that deserves every bit of respect it’s been given over the years…
However, and I realize I’m in the minority, I enjoy it’s sequel, made 22 years later, during the height of the “slasher film” craze, better.
Most sequels to classic films are terrible. There are a few exceptions of course, Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens. But for the most part, sequels, especially ones made many years after the original and even more so to HORROR films, are a mixed bag of “It’s alright” (Jaws 2) to bland mediocrity (Halloween 2) to wretched, soul numbing awfulness (The Rage: Carrie 2.) Psycho II is one of the most sad cases of all, woefully underrated and un-respected, it isn’t a mere sequel, it’s a companion piece. And in my humble opinion, equal to and if not slightly more enjoyable than it’s classic predecessor.
As I mentioned above Psycho II was released in a time period when it wasn’t exactly respectable to be a horror film, much less a sequel. Psycho II came out in 1983, surrounded by Halloween 2, Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D, Friday the 13th 3-D, etc, etc. While I love all of those films (and countless other “bad 80’s horror films”) I’ve always known Psycho II was not one of them. It’s too bad critics during it’s release didn’t see things that way, or it might have a bit more of the classic status it so rightfully warrants.
The plot (seemingly neglected by most horror filmmakers of the time, and certainly, almost any crafters of cinema today) of Psycho II is the most important and nearly the most wonderful aspect of the film, as it brings a warmth, humanity and depth to the titular “psycho.” It allows you side with a “homicidal maniac” and see the evil that lurks in the “normal” people all around us, and not feel guilty about it.
Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has been in a mental institution for 22 years, for the vicious crimes he committed in the original Psycho, and is now being released back into society, deemed cured and sane. There is a bit of a snag however, as Lila Loomis (Vivian Leigh), the sister of his most famous victim Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), wants Norman never again to see the light of day (or worse) and will stop at nothing to see him recommitted or killed… Including driving the man back to insanity herself.
As a truly healed Norman tries to adjust to life back out in the world he starts getting notes, phone calls and messages from his long dead mother… and people around him start getting brutally murdered by “a large woman dressed in black.” Slowly Norman begins to think he’s back to his old tricks (even though certain people in the film who KNOW without a doubt otherwise tell him he’s not) and he starts going crazy again.
Tension, mystery and painful psychological trauma after painful psychological trauma stack up (along with the bodies) as the film builds to a truly magnificent twist ending that you’ll never see coming and wont soon forget.
I know my synopsis leaves a lot to the imagination but really, that’s how you should go into the film (or any thriller for that matter.)
As I said above the plot/script by genre favorite Tom Holland is NEARLY the best thing about the film, but the masterful direction by Richard Franklin is the true stealer of the show. Franklin (who was quite obsessed with Hitchcock) pulls out all the stops to make Psycho II a gorgeous successor to the original. From a couple jaw dropping crane shots, eerie back projection effects, skillful editing and deliciously wicked “throwbacks” to the first film Franklin proves that he knows what he’s doing and that he can do it quite well.
In addition to the script and direction, the production design is top notch and the camerawork from John Carpenter regular Dean Cundey casts the film in a timeless, shadowy world of instant visual tension and atmosphere. Another major standout is the score by Jerry Goldsmith. The music of the film alternates between somber/soulful and nerve wrangling/creepy with a fluid brilliance that only someone with Goldsmith’s flexibility could achieve.
Lastly, but certainly not least, all of the acting in the film is exquisite and the casting superb. Vera Miles shines in her bitchy villainous role, yet doesn’t devolve into camp. Dennis Franz does well, doing very much what he was doing in several Brian DePalma films of the time, in a brief role as a seedy motel manager. And, Meg Tilly delivers what should have been a star making turn as Norman’s would be “love interest” and mystery woman. Tilly is witty, charming, soulful and when need be, brash and domineering, it’s a perfect performance.
One would think after spending the 22 years since the original Psycho playing variants of his almost patented “creepy, twitchy, kind of off, psychopath,” Anthony Perkins would be stale in his return to Norman Bates, but this is not the case in any way. Perkins gives what I consider the finest performance of his career (and I’m a BIG fan) in the film. Perkins makes you care for Norman, side with him, hell he almost makes you want to give Bates a hug. Yet, Perkins still manages to un-nerve as well, the slightest glance or change in vocal pitch and he can always send shivers down the spine.
So, if you hadn’t guessed by now, I want you to run out and track down a copy of Psycho II… before it’s too late…
Also, check out the film’s lovely trailer, here:
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