Director: Richard Franklin
Screenplay: Tom Holland
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia, Dennis Franz, Hugh Gillin
Running Time: 113 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Hollywood likes to turn any successful film into a franchise these days (or ‘extended universe’) and have been doing so since the 80s. Sequels existed long before then, but not with the same frequency or zeal (other than the Bond franchise and a few others). Back in the 80s and 90s, horror films seemed to be the chief inspiration for production line sequels, with the Friday the 13th, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street films leading the way in spawning an endless stream of cash-ins. However, some films seem untouchable. Either the ending is tied up too neatly to continue the story or a film is deemed too much of an outright classic for anyone to dare make a second installment. I and many others thought the latter would be the case for Alfred Hitchcock’s hugely influential 1960 film, Psycho, but, over twenty years later, Universal Pictures decided they would ride the wave of success being enjoyed by the horror genre and gave young Tom Holland’s script for Psycho II to Australian horror director Richard Franklin. It seemed like a terrible idea, but the film actually did very well at the box office and spawned another two sequels and two TV series. Being a huge fan of the original film and not taking box office success as any measure of quality, I was still sceptical, but curiousity got the better of me, so I gave Arrow Video’s new Blu-Ray re-release of Psycho II a whirl.
The film is set 22 years after the events of the first film. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has been released from psychiatric care, back to his home overlooking the Bates Motel. He’s keen to return to normality, but being back home brings back ghosts from the past and presents him with temptations to drift back into old habits. As ‘Mrs. Bates’ begins to strike again, it seems like Norman should have been kept in hospital, but is it really him committing the crimes? The only person who seems to believe in Norman and support his well being is his work colleague and eventual lodger, Mary (Meg Tilly). As the story twists and turns however, nobody knows who to trust and the bodies begin to pile up.
Well this was a pleasant surprise. In my mind, a sequel to Psycho could never hope to be anything other than a pale, cheap imitation, but Psycho II is actually pretty damn good. Granted, it doesn’t reach the heights of the original, but it’s a more-than-solid psychological thriller in its own right.
Most impressive is Holland’s script. It sensibly avoids copying or parodying the original, instead letting the concept touch on the then topical issues surrounding the ‘insanity plea’. The film looks at whether the criminally insane can really be cured and what dangers may still lurk within. It’s not a dry examination of criminal law or psychology though, it’s an entertaining thriller with blackly comic elements. Much of the latter comes in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) nods to the first film, but these never get in the way of the gripping central story. I found the narrative genuinely surprising and hard to second guess. There’s perhaps one twist too many by the end and a final coda wasn’t necessary in my eyes. If it had finished before this, it would have been refreshingly open-ended. Instead it feels like it’s ushering in less intelligent sequels. This is a minor quibble in an otherwise brilliantly scripted film though.
Perkins is another major reason why the film works as well as it does. He’s brilliant in the first film and doesn’t look to be merely cashing it in the second time around. He verges on hamming it up at times, but never quite gets there. This helps the audience feel he’s still a little unhinged (or more than a little by the end), but he portrays a sensitivity and vulnerability too that allows you to feel sympathy for him and stay on his side, even when you think he might be butchering people. This sympathy is aided by having a couple of the film’s victims act despicably, particularly the Bates Motel manager Warren Toomey. Dennis Franz is fantastic in this small but vital role.
There are some enjoyably stylish flourishes in the film too. It’s not mind-blowingly well shot for the most part, but there are a couple of sequences that impress. In particular, there’s an impressively long crane shot that moves from inside an upper level room, to outside the house and down to ground level where some kids are breaking into the basement. There’s some nice use of light and shadow too, creating a nicely gothic feel inside the Bates’ creepy old house.
The set-pieces never reach the heights of Hitchcock’s legendary shower scene, but a couple of the murders are well staged and creepy enough. I wouldn’t say the film ever particularly scared me though. It works best as a psychological thriller, rather than an out-and-out horror film. It’s intruiging and gripping throughout and is a lot better than it ever had any right to be. If you’re a fan of the original and think it’s sacrilege to follow it up, swallow your pride and give it a shot. You won’t regret it.
Psycho II is out on 31st July on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Arrow Video. The picture and sound quality is excellent.
There are plenty of special features included too. Here’s the list:
– Audio commentary with writer Tom Holland
– New interview with Tom Holland and Mick Garris (director of Psycho IV) about the Psycho franchise
– Never-before-heard audio interview with director Richard Franklin
– Archive Interview with star Anthony Perkins
– Vintage EPK material featuring interviews with cast and crew
– Trailers & TV Spots
– Still Gallery
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Adam Rabalais
I haven’t had chance to listen to the commentary yet, but the other features are decent and will keep you occupied for close to a couple of hours. The Holland and Garris piece and the Franklin audio interview are particularly insightful and enjoyable.