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Why Psycho is the best horror franchise

Why Psycho is the best horror franchise

There's a good chance you read the title of this article and thought "There's more than one Psycho movie?" as even the most die hard horror fans that I know don't seem to be aware of the three sequels to Hitchcock's original (though everyone seems to be aware of Gus Van Sant's ill-advised remake). I have to admit that before embarking on a journey to watch and discuss all five of the Psycho movies on my podcast, I Like To Movie Movie, I wasn't aware of them either. And even if you are aware of them, you'd be forgiven for assuming they're not worth your time, as I myself questioned my co-host, fellow Cinema76'er Dan Scully, when he pitched the idea of doing a series on them for our podcast.

Given what most of us know about long running horror franchises, that they're often diminishing returns at best, and the fact that no one ever talks about these sequels when they're discussing their favorite horror franchises, it seemed a forgone conclusion that these movies wouldn't be worthy of discussion, let alone belong in the pantheon of great slasher series like Halloween, Friday the 13th, or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Not to mention the fact that Hitchcock's original is considered, not just one of the great horror movies, but one of the best movies ever made, currently sitting at #14 on AFI's 100 GREATEST AMERICAN FILMS OF ALL TIME list (if you're into that sort of thing). How could a sequel to something that had such a profound impact on American culture and film be any good? What would it even be about? Having spent the past month watching the entire Psycho series, I am here to tell you that we are all so very wrong about these assumptions.

Following the success of John Carpenter's Halloween in 1978 were a slew of slasher knock-offs, including the aforementioned Friday the 13th, which director Sean Cunningham has admitted was indeed meant to capitalize on the success of Carpenter's work. The 80's would become a glut of slasher franchises, birthing famous characters like Freddy Krueger and Chucky, the possessed "Good Guys" doll, in the process. As these films spawned sequels and continued to prove to be lucrative endeavors, enterprising producers were all looking to kick-start their own slasher franchises and get these big-bad's to face off with one another at the box office. Thus, in 1983, 23 years after Hitchcock's original Psycho changed the face of cinema with its unconventional narrative and shots of flushing toilets, Anthony Perkins returned to the role of Norman Bates in Richard Franklin's Psycho II. Written by Child’s Play director and Fright Night writer/director Tom Holland, Psycho II picks up Norman's story 22 years later as he's being released from psychiatric care back into the world. Vera Miles also returns in her role as Lila, Marion Crane's sister that becomes a focal point of Hitchcock's original, to question the sanity of both Bates and the courts that are allowing him to return to everyday life.

The film starts innocuously enough, finding Norman returning to his childhood home and the motel he used to run, but at his doctor's advice taking a more menial job at the local diner (referenced in a brief dialogue exchange in the original). There he meets Mary Samuels, a young waitress that has only been on the job for a few days and is in need of some financial help as she's just been kicked out of her boyfriend's place. Norman offers to put her up in one of the motel rooms, and we are left to assume we're about to watch a movie in which the exact beats of the original are repeated, as often happens in sequels to movies that don't need one. In fact, the movie takes its time and really lets you sink into its rhythm and that feeling that you're watching a tired retread of the original - but this is only to the film's ultimate benefit.

Much like Hitchcock's original pulls the rug out from under the viewer about 40 minutes into its runtime, offing the character that you assumed to be the protagonist, Holland finds a way to pull a similar magic trick here. I'm going to refrain from spoiling this film and its subsequent sequels as it seems the reason this movie is so underrated is that it's simply under-seen, but I assure you this movie will astound you in its ability to continue to surprise you the way Hitchcock did in the original. It's far more graphic and violent than Hitchcock's film, it's in color rather than the exquisitely designed black-and-white Hitchcock chose to make his movie in - it quite literally breaks every rule that critics have spent years claiming make the original the masterpiece that it is. And yet it feels completely apiece with that movie. There's not a moment of Psycho II that feels like it's doing a disservice to Hitchcock's film. If anything, it compliments the original so well it almost recontextualizes it, adding a new layer of depth and setting the tone for the rest of the franchise. And it does so by recognizing our inherent sympathy for Norman Bates.

You read that correctly, and it's really what I'd like to discuss here as the main reason I think this may in fact be the best horror franchise - Norman Bates is the one slasher in all of cinema's varied interpretations of that formula that we as viewers are meant to be sympathetic towards. As portrayed by Anthony Perkins, Norman is an innocent, and his mother is a monster. These are two separate entities that have taken residence in Norman's body. One seems to act without the knowledge of the other, or perhaps one is always observing the actions of the other and reacting in kind. Either way, Norman is his own ultimate victim, and we are devastatingly aware that he does not want to commit the atrocities of his mother, but is bound to do so by his own chemistry. The first movie certainly toys with this notion, ultimately leaving us with the uneasy feeling that Norman will never be free of his mother and is thus an unstoppable evil. But the genius of the sequels is knowing that we come into them with this baggage, unable to trust Norman, regardless of how convinced he is of his own recovery, while also sad for him and his inability to take control of his own destiny. We know he wants to be better, but we also know what he's capable of and question how much say he actually has in the matter. In other words, we care for and about him, even if we're afraid of him.

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Every single one of the sequels preys on this sympathy we have for Norman. The film makers use it to their advantage, pulling the wool over our eyes in a variety of ways that I never would've imagined when I heard this too was in fact a slasher franchise. I may not find these movies as scary as I do the original Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street, or as absurdly fun and cheesy as I do the entirety of the Friday the 13th franchise, but I do think they're vastly more interesting as stories. Rather than build a complicated mythos around the killer and create a revolving door of uninteresting new leads that we have to learn about before they're unceremoniously killed off by a mostly faceless evil, the killer is legitimately the lead of this franchise and becomes an unlikely anti-hero over the course of the series. It's all anchored by Perkins' continued presence throughout, which is uniquely warm and frightening at the same time, and always impressively note perfect, no matter how many years go by between films. His handle on this character is unparalleled, and something he was apparently very precious about. That shows in each and every one of the sequels and lends to the surprising quality that is maintained throughout the series.

And while Psycho II is certainly the best of the sequels, both of its successors are admirable attempts at furthering the story of Norman's recovery and return to society. The third one is directed by none other than Perkins himself, who has a bizarre but totally charming sense of humor about the character that comes through in his direction and makes for a really fun, wild sequel. And the fourth one, while coming to a somewhat disappointing conclusion, is just weird enough to be worth your time. If you asked me to write 400 different Psycho sequels, I never even would have come close to landing on the premise that creative team came up with. 

These movies really are so much better than they seem to get credit for, which if I had to guess is simply due to the fact that they will forever live in the shadow of Hitchcock's truly phenomenal original. But in a world where some of us (me, I mean me) legitimately love Jason X and find the notion of continued cash-grabs charming in their ability to become a creative ouroboros, eventually spawning something legitimately fun and interesting from a series of bad ideas, there's no reason to shut these out completely just because the first one is a true classic of American cinema. I'd argue that both HALLOWEEN and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET are new classics in their own right, and yet most of us still gravitate towards and argue about the merits of their sequels. The existence of these perhaps lesser films (though in this case, I'd argue that Psycho II is potentially the only horror sequel that meets the quality of its predecessor) does not negate the greatness of that which birthed them. If you've got a soft spot for any sequel in any long running franchise, I implore you to seek these out and give them all a shot. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

That said, I think we can all agree to pretend the 1998 remake never happened and hope that our collective ignorance of it will eventually erase it from existence.

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