The Best Movie Critic + review

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Psycho II

The way I see it, there are two basic approaches to making a sequel. You can try to recapture enough of the tone and magic of the original that people will feel as if they’re revisiting old friends. This approach worked well for The Empire Strikes Back, and not so well for Iron Man 2. Or you can throw caution to the wind, aim for the bleachers, and reinvent your entire franchise from the ground up. This is a dicey move, and even if you end up making a good movie you run the risk that audiences still won’t like it because it’s too different from the original. Though this approach often leads to failure in the eyes of many, in my mind it also generally leads to more interesting – if less perfect – movies. I will take Temple of Doom over Last Crusade any day. And though it has its fair share of problems, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is insanely creative. Now, Psycho II is much more subdued than either of those Part 2s, but it still fits into the reinvention category. Richard Franklin’s movie is a whole different story than Hitchcock’s classic, and the sooner you can stop comparing them the better time you’ll have here. Psycho II isn’t perfect, but it is very, very good.
Decades after the first movie’s killing spree, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins reprising his role and perhaps surpassing his performance in the original) is released on parole, and returns to the old mansion. After years of psychotherapy he is supposedly a changed man, but he seems just as nervous as anyone about returning home and is open about his fears of relapse. We are informed that due to state budget cuts, there aren’t enough resources to send a social worker to check up on Bates, so he’s on his own. Must have been a Republican in office… Norman gets a job as a prep cook at a local diner, and meets Mary (Meg Tilly), who moves in with Norman after getting into a fight with her boyfriend. It’s not long before Norman starts to receive strange phone calls and messages from “Mother.” His "real mother." Norman understands that he’s not the most mentally stable guy on the planet and immediately assumes that his old madness is rearing its ugly head. Then again, there are some who might go to extreme lengths to see Norman behind bars again. What’s more, it’s possible that a few dark secrets from Norman’s past that weren’t made clear even after the first movie are coming back to haunt him.
Though he was apparently a handful to work with, Anthony Perkins' performance as Norman Bates is Psycho II's shining light. Pity, fear, dread, affection, disgust. I feel all of these things from Norman. It's a tricky job to pull off. Many of the movie's mysteries are not external, but rather trapped in Norman's subconscious. Perkins is key to making it work. The other acting is a mixed bag. Meg Tilly's (Jennifer Tilly's sister) performance is interesting if not amazing. She presents a compelling persona, but flounders in quieter moments. Dennis Franz and the rest of the supporting cast know what kind of movie this is, and the hammy acting only adds to the madhouse atmosphere.

There is one major, immediate hurdle to fully enjoying Psycho II. Franklin makes the worst conceivable choice by opening his movie with a two minute long clip of the most infamous sequence in Hitchcock’s career, the shower scene from Psycho. Franklin would have had a hard enough time getting his movie to stand on its own legs without viscerally reminding his audience of the original’s beautiful black and white cinematography, textbook editing, and brilliant score right at the get go. The success of Richard Franklin’s sequel has nothing to do with these elements, and it’s baffling why he would draw the comparison that would so obviously leave his movie with the losing hand. This is only driven home as Bernard Hermann’s classic, brilliant Psycho theme fades out and it replaced by Jerry Goldsmith’s mediocre keyboard score for the opening credits. Despite the sequel’s blatant invitation to draw comparisons with the original, Psycho II can only be enjoyed by approaching it discretely.
Psycho II succeeds specifically by being the opposite of its antecedent. Rather than Psycho's slow, horrifying reveal, Psycho II puts us in Norman's head, making it much closer to some of Hitchcock's other more paranoia-inclined classics than Psycho itself. Director Richard Franklin, who came out of the 1970s Aussiesploitation scene, idolized Hitchcock. He directed one of my personal favorite movies, Road Games, which pays tribute to his hero. Road Games is basically Rear Window on wheels, but it’s so much more than that. The story follows a truck driver traveling from Sydney to Perth who suspects that another driver on the highway is up to some foul play. Add a little voyeurism, a little neurosis and paranoia, season to taste, and you’ve got a classic on your hands. It’s a brilliant movie, and the Hitchcock-love is in all the right places and doses that it never overwhelms the movie’s own singular merits. Road Games borrows liberally from Hitch, but also contains within its running time beautiful cinematography, spitfire chemistry between the actors, a wicked sense of humor, bizarre bits of Australian cultural ephemera, and a breathless pace that all reflect Franklin’s own personality as much as Hitch’s.

Richard Franklin deserves credit for an exceptional amount of hubris for attempting not just to pay homage to the master of suspense, but to helm a sequel to his most infamous and lasting effort. Psycho is a giant even amongst Hitch’s movies, and looms impossibly large in the cultural zeitgeist. Not only that, Psycho is a very different movie from Hitch’s others. I could see Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest all existing in the same fictional universe, but Psycho takes place in a much more sinister world. Fear, paranoia, and neuroses were always in Hitchcock’s bag of tricks; out and out psychotic episodes, that was something entirely different. Strangely, then, the structure and style of Franklin’s story more closely resemble some of Hitch’s other efforts than the original Psycho itself. Casting Norman Bates as the protagonist this time around allows us to feel his mounting paranoia and anxiety right there along with him. All of Norman’s cards are tipped this time. It is the other players’ hands that leave us in suspense for a reveal that’s slow to come.
Psycho II is simultaneously totally predictable and totally unpredictable. Screenwriter Tom Holland (who went on to write and direct Fright Night and Child's Play) deserves a lot of credit for Psycho II's success, as his script cleverly satisfies every possible solution to the mystery here without undercutting any of the others. This is a wicked little movie that doesn't get the attention it deserves. It's not Richard Franklin's best. It's not the best Psycho. But it is a compelling puzzle of a movie that gathers steam until it explodes in a bizarre, twisty finale.

Magic Moment: The house set from Hitchcock's Psycho was either rebuilt or reinhabited for Psycho II. It looks just as good if not better than it did in the original, and watching familiar shots and angles play out in color works much better than expected, thanks to Franklin and cinematographer Dean Cundey's deft atmospheric control.

-Ben

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