Okay, question: What franchise started off with a movie that is an undisputed classic, was followed by a second and third that, while they didn’t equal the original, were still entertaining, a lame fourth chapter, and saw an actor reprising his signature role after roughly two decades?
You may be thinking Indiana Jones, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But to be honest, the franchise I am thinking of here is the “Psycho” movies.
Periodically, I’ll go to Best Buy and look for DVD bargains, and recently I found a good one — a two-disc package for the price of one DVD that includes the second through fourth films. (I already owned the first, needless to say.)
As a horror film buff, I felt the majority of the series was good enough to be worth the $14 and had not seen the sequels in years anyhow, so I decided a return visit to the Bates Motel was in order. (This was the same night I picked up a DVD copy of “The Black Hole” — maybe Anthony Perkins gets some sort of royalty payments in the afterlife from his movies and was psychically influencing my spending choices, or something.)
Enough has been said about Hitchcock’s original, by far more qualified critics than I, so I won’t get into it other than to point out that a fair number of people probably felt and maybe still feel that the idea of even one sequel, never mind three, was blasphemy. After all, they waited until Sir Alfred had gone the way of Marion Crane to even broach the idea of a sequel.
But, you know, “Psycho II” is actually surprisingly well done, considering the enormous shoes it has to fill. (I believe CHUD had it on their list of movies that deserve more love.)
Of course it is no equal of Hitchcock’s work; how could it be? But it actually does keep you guessing on first viewing, and it isn’t until the very last scene that you fully understand what has really been going on and who’s responsible for the murders.
And, without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it (I hope), the really interesting thing about it is that it’s a tragedy — not necessarily for the murder victims, who for the most part are not well enough defined characters for us to really care (the movie practically telegraphs that Dennis Franz will get his from the minute we first see his obnoxious leer), but for Norman Bates himself, if you consider his condition at the beginning of the film and then realize where the story has taken him by the time we get to the haunting, final shot of the movie.
While Richard Franklin was clearly no slouch as a director, it’s the surprisingly poignant performance by Anthony Perkins that holds this together. Being 23 years older gave him an even more haunted look, and Perkins has a surprising range in the role here, going from sympathetic to terrified to unbalanced and creepy. Since so many critics were, I’m sure, offended that someone would have the nerve to make a sequel to “Psycho,” I think the fact that this was a good movie in its own right got overlooked and consequently, Perkins never got the recognition he deserved for his work here.
For “Psycho III,” Perkins wore the hats of both actor and director. Again, a surprisingly good effort, considering that this was turning into a series stemming from an original film that hardly needed sequelizing. Not quite as good as the second film, but there are some effective scares, Perkins clearly knows how to use a camera effectively, and there are some nice visual homages to the original, including a sort of re-creation of the famous shower scene that actually culminates in a pretty unexpected plot twist. (And any movie with Jeff Fahey, one of the great character actors of the 1980s, can’t be all bad.)
To be honest, it should have ended there. “Psycho III” was a perfectly adequate finish to the series, like “Alien 3″ or “Last Crusade.” Of course, there was one more trip to the well.
“Psycho IV” was a made-for-cable movie, not even released theatrically. It smacks of beating a dead horse. I guess it’s interesting for those who really liked the series, but there was something sad about seeing Perkins — who by now had to be suffering from the illness that would claim his life two years later — trying so hard to elevate substandard material to even the journeyman level of the previous sequel. He gives the only performance worth watching.
The director was Mick Garris, and there’s a certain irony in that after following in Hitchcock’s footsteps, he would go on to give us a lukewarm retread of “The Shining,” which Stanley Kubrick had made into such a chilling, milestone horror film.
Overall, I think this was a franchise that never got its due. Maybe because the overwhelming feeling is that it never should have been a franchise in the first place. But for horror fans, there’s more material of interest here than in 10 films about Jason Voorhees, for instance (11 if you count the Freddy crossover). Perkins’ legacy will always be tied to one role, but he was able to revisit it and expand on it successfully, in defiance of the conventional wisdom that said no one could follow Hitchcock. That’s no small accomplishment.