Eric's Time Capsule: Psycho II (June 3, 1983)

About once a week, a Hollywood studio announces it will remake a beloved film, reboot an old franchise, or produce a sequel or prequel to a popular movie. The news is usually met with delight if the followup will be made by the same people as the original, horror and outrage if it's entirely different people. In the latter case, it's often considered blasphemy. According to the Internet forums, sometimes a sequel or reboot actually goes back in time and ruins the original film, and even the fan's entire childhood.

The term "fanboy" didn't exist in 1983, and I don't know if Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho had fanboys anyway. But I know the movie had devout admirers, and I can't imagine they were happy to hear that someone was making a sequel to the immortal suspense classic. (It was released 26 years ago this week, on June 3, 1983.) The very idea reeks of shallow desperation, a scent fans are accustomed to in 2009 (Fox just announced they're making a prequel to Alien) but had much less exposure to in 1983. Sequels had become commonplace in recent years, but a sequel to a movie from 23 years earlier? That just sounds lame.

As it happens, Robert Bloch, the author of the 1959 novel on which Psycho was based, wrote a sequel in 1982, also called Psycho II. In it, Norman Bates escapes from his asylum and heads for Hollywood, where his previous crimes are being made into a movie. Bloch intended it as a critique of Hollywood's new slasher-movie craze (I wouldn't be surprised if he was annoyed that Norman Bates had spawned one-dimensional monsters like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees), but Universal hated the book and made its own Psycho II, with an entirely different plot. And, of course, trends being what they are, they made it look a lot like the slasher movies of the day. You know, the ones Bloch was criticizing in his novel. Stay classy, Universal!

The studio made the obvious choice of approaching the original psychopath, Anthony Perkins, to return as Norman, but balked at his $1 million price tag. According to Charles Winecoff's Perkins biography, Split Image, Perkins was at this point paying the bills by doing aftershave commercials in Japan, so he was in no position to play hardball. Plus, he overestimated his indispensability: Universal was ready to replace him with Christopher Walken anyway. Faced with that fact, Perkins reduced his asking price and got the part, and the world will never know what a Christopher-Walken-as-Norman-Bates movie would have looked like.

(Another tidbit: Universal wanted Jamie Lee Curtis to play the role that eventually went to Meg Tilly. Curtis, star of the Psycho-inspired Halloween films, was the daughter of Janet Leigh, whose shower was famously interrupted by Norman Bates in 1960. Casting Curtis would have been a neat stunt, and Curtis would certainly have done a better job than the dull, expressionless Tilly.)

Psycho IIPsycho II is set in the present, some 22 years after Norman went to prison for his murders. (The movie says seven, but only six are accounted for in the original film: His mother, her lover, Marion Crane, Arbogast the detective, and two little girls mentioned at the end.) Having been found not guilty by reason of insanity, he's eligible to be released once he's sane again, which his psychiatrist (Robert Loggia) believes is now. Somewhat improbably, Norman is permitted to move back into his old house on the hill behind the Bates Motel (which he still legally owns), even though this is where all the trouble occurred. Also improbably, considering he poisoned his mother and her lover and stabbed the others, he's given a job as an assistant cook in a diner, where he'll have access to knives and people's food.

The question on everyone's mind is whether he's really cured or if he'll soon be back to his old lady-stabbin', dead-mother-conversing-with ways. One person who doesn't trust him for a minute is Lila Crane Loomis (Vera Miles, reprising her role from the original), the sister of Norman's shower victim. (She apparently went on to marry her dead sister's boyfriend, Sam Loomis, so she couldn't have been too broken up about it.) Lila is the obvious suspect when Norman starts getting phone calls from "Mother" and finding notes written to him by her.

Meanwhile, Norman makes a friend at the diner, a waitress named Mary (Meg Tilly) who needs a place to stay and accepts Norman's offer to crash in the guest room at the Bates home. (The hotel is unsuitable because the new manager, played by Dennis Franz, has turned it into a sleazy "adult motel.") You wonder why Mary is so trusting of a man she's just met, who she knows just returned from spending some time "away."

It's not a terrible movie, only a terrible idea for one. Nonetheless, it got mostly decent reviews at the time, often with the caveat (as from Roger Ebert) that you forget the original and treat this as a standalone. Nothing was going to compare to the original Psycho, though that didn't stop them from trying. Tom Holland's screenplay (he would later write and direct Child's Play and Fright Night) is rife with quotes from the older film, and director Richard Franklin (who'd made several erotic thrillers and the Rear Window-inspired Roadgames) was clearly a Hitchcock aficionado. Brian De Palma has made an entire career out of imitating Hitch, but Franklin did a pretty solid job himself in Psycho II, duplicating the master's camera angles and general visual style in many instances.

Where Franklin and Hitchcock parted ways was in matters of explicitness. This was 1983, and slasher films were all the rage. So this time, when the heroine takes a shower, you're actually going to SEE her naked parts, not just have them implied. And when someone is stabbed? You better believe you're gonna see the knife go right through the victim's head. One of the reasons Hitchcock shot Psycho in black-and-white was to avoid filling the screen with too much Technicolor blood (the other reason was to save money); Franklin obviously had no such compunction. And since the whole point of the sequel was to cash in on the slasher craze, more decorum on Franklin's part would have defeated the purpose anyway.

Two more sequels followed, neither with Franklin but both with Perkins, who even directed Psycho III in addition to starring in it. Inevitably, Norman Bates becomes a bit of a joke by the end -- as all the slasher franchises have demonstrated, there's nothing like over-familiarity to turn a terrifying psychopath into a buffoon. Making any sequel, let alone three of them, to Psycho was madness. But, as Norman once said, we all go a little mad sometimes, don't we?

FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When Psycho II was released, 26 years ago this week, on June 3, 1983...

Return of the Jedi• It opened in second place at the box office, behind Return of the Jedi, which had opened a week earlier. Coming out the same day were WarGames and The Man with Two Brains, which also performed well at the box office. Psycho II would eventually gross $34.7 million, or about $79.1 million in today's dollars -- a sizable, respectable hit.

• On TV, Laverne & Shirley had just aired its last episode. The most popular primetime shows of the day were 60 Minutes, Dallas, and M*A*S*H (which had finished its run a few months earlier).

• On the radio, you couldn't go anywhere without hearing "Flashdance ... What a Feeling," by Irene Cara. It was the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and would be for another few weeks, when it would be overtaken by The Police's "Every Breath You Take."




• Margaret Thatcher was just a few days from being the first woman elected prime minister of the United Kingdom. A week later, Sally Ride would become the first American woman in space, on the space shuttle Challenger.

• Athletes Channing Frye and Matt Leinart were less than a month old. Actress Leelee Sobieski was about to be born. Choreographer George Balanchine and actress Gloria Swanson (Sunset Blvd.) had both recently died.

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"Eric's Time Capsule" appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website, where the showers are now peephole-free!