Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Psycho — following the deadly legacy of the Bates Motel and its primary caretaker, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The series launched with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 landmark adaptation of author Robert Bloch’s novel of the same name, and spawned over the next 38 years three sequels, a failed TV series that was converted into a failed TV movie, and the most infamous remake in recent cinema history. We shall be checking in over night on all six Psycho installments.
The Installment: Bates Motel (1987)
So Psycho II and III never happened. Deal with it. Norman Bates got arrested after killing Marion Crane and Arbogast and was tossed in the booby hatch. Shortly thereafter a little boy, Alex West (Harold and Maude‘s Bud Cort), is tossed in the same booby hatch after he super murdered his abusive stepfather by shoving him into a dry-cleaning machine. Wait, why did they institutionalize the kid? If the step-father was abusive, what was so crazy about killing him? Anyway, the doctors at this booby hatch are pretty chill about stuff like child endangerment and such, so they decide to pair Alex with Norman for some male role model bonding. No harm could come of this! And… it doesn’t! Alex grows up loving Norman and everything is totally normal. Then Norman dies and leaves Alex the Bates Motel in his will. So Alex moves to Fairvale where he befriends an obnoxious runaway chick named Willie (Lori Petty) who has been squatting in the Bates house, and Henry Watson (Moses Gunn), an older gentleman who I believe used to work for the Bates family, or something. Together they reopen the Bates Motel! Meanwhile, Alex is being haunted by Mrs. Bates. Then a sad writer named Barbara Peters (Kerrie Keane) checks into the motel to kill herself, but she is interrupted by a ghost who time travels – or whatever – her back to the 50’s where she falls in love maybe with a young man named Tony (a young Jason Bateman). So then she learns something and time ghost travels back to the present and doesn’t kill herself and then leaves. Awww. Then Alex and the gang learn that their banker, Tom Fuller (the underloved Gregg Henry), was pulling a Psycho II on them — trying to get them to think the property is haunted by dressing up as Mrs. Bates, so he could acquire the valuable land. So the Bates Motel wasn’t haunted after all! Except for the time travel ghost stuff. So it totally is haunted. The end!
Psycho II was a box office hit. Psycho III was not. But Universal still had dollar signs over their eyeballs, and they were struck by the same nonsensical epiphany that the owners of the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm St franchises had around this exact same time — turn the franchise into a TV anthology series! Naturally. The series was going to kick off with an extended pilot, but Universal ultimately decided to scrap the project and just air the pilot as a TV movie on NBC. And here we are. So, to be fair to Bates Motel, this context should be to be taken into account while discussing it.
If Bates Motel had been an original concept, I think it might have been picked up as a series and likely would have been an off-kilter cult hit — canceled after one or two seasons, but fondly remembered by the kids who got into its goofy tone at the time. Based on what we see in the pilot, structurally the show would have been like The Love Boat or Fantasy Island - with each episode focusing on a new guest, and our central cast simply popping in and out of the story as needed – but with a Scooby Doo tinge of family-friendly macabre. It has a light, cheesy tone that verges on near-parody at times (I mean, Robert Picardo runs the mental institute, that should tell you something), and Bud Cort makes for a good wide-eyed fish out of water. I can imagine having liked this hypothetical TV show as an elementary schooler in the late-80’s. In this sense, Bates Motel works.
What Doesn’t Work:
Of course, Bates Motel never became a TV show. So that’s all just speculation. It is a TV movie, and an installment in the Psycho franchise. In these contexts it is a miserable failure.
Any installment in a franchise has two pretty basic options when it comes to the franchise’s mythology:
1) Run with the ball. Take what has already been established and play in that sandbox, hopefully trying not to repeat what we’ve seen before too egregiously. Psycho III did this.
2) Add something new. Dig deeper, expand. Maybe even do some retcon if you’re feeling ballsy. Psycho II did this.
What isn’t an option is ignoring the mythology. If we’re starting over from scratch with a reboot or doing another adaptation of the source material from which the franchise sprang, then sure, but otherwise the only time disregarding existing storylines is an acceptable idea is if something has gone terribly awry — a misfire installment that has fucked everything up. Psycho II and III were not misfires. And a lot of people saw and liked II. So the core conceit of Bates Motel is impressively moronic, one of those money-grab ideas that seems aimed at no one in particular. One has to wonder how those creatively driving this project would answer a simple question like, oh I don’t know, “What do you think people like about the Psycho franchise?” Bates Motel would have been a cute idea for an anthology show that has nothing to do with Norman Bates or his backstory, but it is a terrible idea for a Psycho TV series.
Here in 1987 I think it is safe to say that Anthony Perkins is a huge part of what audiences like about this franchise. But let’s just pretend that isn’t the case, that people are really into the character of Norman Bates and would be perfectly happy to see a series of different actors cycle through the role just so they can get more delightful Norman Bates stories. I could see fudging with the existing storyline, recasting Norman and telling an alternate version of Psycho II as a TV series. But in Bates Motel Norman is only seen ever-so briefly in a flashback getting into a police car (where he’s played by Kurt Paul, Anthony Perkin’s stunt double on II and III). He has no dialogue. So why blot out the previous sequels at all? Why involve Norman at all when Bates Motel has no regard for the story elements already in play? They even toss Hitchcock under the bus, adding a wrinkle to the backstory that Mrs. Bates’ body was never found (so a construction crew can dig it up). Come on, you can’t ignore one of the most famous climax reveals in film history, guys. This is bordering on disrespectful now. And, obviously, these poor decisions get compounded by the fact that the pilot was forced to become a stand alone TV movie. I won’t bother to bag on the storyline, as it is appropriately structured for the first episode of a TV series, but it doesn’t do Bates Motel any favors as a Psycho movie when the entire second half of the already questionable story is consumed by the time travelish Barbara Peters subplot. And tonally things are way off here, even when taking into consideration the restrictions of prime time television in the 1980’s. Psycho films are sexy slasher flicks. Now we’re dealing with supernatural forces. And not even violent or malevolent supernatural forces. Helpful ghosts (or whatever) and romantic melodrama don’t feel in keeping with shower stabbings or Jeff Fahey’s crotch-based lamp show. There are zero deaths in Bates Motel. It would seem that the answer to my previous question would be, “Audiences love the setting of the Bates Motel. Doesn’t matter who is running it or what is happening there. Location, location, location. That’s what viewers are after.”
Lori Petty is awful here. Her New York-esque accent and attitude, complete with an inauthentic tomboy slouch and prerequisite leather jacket, are embarrassing and instantly grating. I’m sure there are many reasons why Bates Motel didn’t get picked up, but I would be surprised to learn that Petty wasn’t one of them. And as much as I like Bud Cort, at this point in his career he was not an ideal leading man. Like Mark Hamill, his boyish looks were fucked by a nasty accident that required a lot of facial surgery, and his previously pleasant round face thinned and elongated with age, which made him look like a weak-chinned alien. Unfortunately this makes Alex the inverse of Norman. Anthony Perkins lent his handsome and trustworthy face to a creepy and untrustworthy character. Bud Cort is lending his creepy face to a trustworthy and kindhearted character. If Bates Motel were a legitimate movie, I don’t believe this would be a huge problem – as Cort is a top-notch performer – but I also have to assume execs and test audiences couldn’t get excited about the prospect of staring at Cort week after week.
Body Count: 0
Best Kill: Not applicable.
Best Norman Line That Really Should Have Tipped Someone Off: Not applicable.
Best Mother Line: Not applicable.
Stupidest Line: After getting de-masked by our plucky heroes, Scooby Doo style. Tom Fuller: “Very clever, you two. Very clever.” Wait. What was clever about them tackling Mrs. Bates’ ghost and then discovering that it was Fuller wearing a costume? I feel like I’m missing something.
Does the Twist Ending Hold Water: Sure. Tom Fuller wanted Alex to sell the land. So he pretended it was haunted.
Should There Be a Sequel: The illogic of this project definitely highlights how much legroom there is in the franchise. Not much. It’s more Norman Bates or nothing at this point.
Up Next: Psycho IV: The Beginning