"Psycho III" at XXX Years


July 2, 2016, will mark 30 years since the US release of Psycho III. The following essay reflects upon the themes, characters and other distinguishing characteristics of this second sequel to the Hitchcock classic.

SPOILERS AHEAD 

When Anthony Perkins was promoting his directorial debut, Psycho III, in the US summer of 1986, The Late Show host David Letterman quipped that the film's title sounded somewhat "like dog food".1 The joshing may have been in good spirits, but it was a joke that couldn't help but hold a contextual punch: for punters who, three years earlier, had balked at the sight of a "II" positioned alongside the title of a revered film, the addition of another Roman Numeral (and all that this implied) was something to deride or pretend had not occurred.

Fortunately, on an artistic level, Psycho III acquits itself well (and a joke on canine culinaries would fit right in with the film’s mischievous impulses), although in many respects the film needs to be taken strictly on its own terms. The creative team of Perkins and writer Charles Edward Pogue have played up the psychological angst and played down the suspense, the latter of which was the principal hallmark of the 1960 original and its two-decades-later sequel, but surely would have proven a case of diminishing returns by a third film. The trade-off, though, is a good one, with the film transporting us beyond the arched window of the Bates house to show Norman and Mother conversing, up close and personal, and engaged in an ongoing, grasping, but fairly unequal, battle of wills. It’s all eerily rendered by cinematographer Bruce Surtees, whose skill in painting with darkness and shadows earned him, along with The Godfather's cinematographer Gordon Willis, the moniker "Prince of Darkness". The film also gives us a string of characters in desperate need of redemption, one of whom is Norman. (The film's infamous opening line is "There is no God!")

Notably, also, the jolts of suspense have been largely replaced with the jolts of the macabre: a hallucination of human taxidermy, a furtive kiss for a dead girl, the dismemberment of a stuffed corpse, another man planting a kiss on Mother, and so on. The film takes us into the more ghoulish details that the previous films were suggestive of, rather than displayed – and it accompanies such with the blackest of humour. If Psycho II was a tribute to the method of Psycho, Psycho III harnesses the bold, direct, gleefully macabre mindset of Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972). Granted, Psycho had its thread of black humour, and Psycho II its in-jokes, but such elements flow liberally through Psycho III's veins. (The story goes that in 1983, Perkins, participating in an interview at London’s National Film Theatre, chuckled away as a clip of Psycho’s infamous and much emulated – and much spoofed – shower scene was shown;2 Psycho III often plays like the 96-minute evidence of such offbeat mirth.)

Perkins and Pogue, though, often use the jokes as a segue way to the melancholy. Black comedy and sadness not only bounce off one another, but practically feed one another's lines. The pitifulness of characters' predicaments may generate a smile, but never a smirk – Perkins and Pogue have a clear feeling for outsiders. It's a laugh of recognition at our own desperate little struggles. And that we can locate our struggles in the struggles of a psychopathic killer has always been one of the fascinating, if not confronting, conceits of the Psycho films.

Which leads to a central point of these reflections. Psychos II, III and IV: The Beginning (1990) are typically appraised as potboilers that, while stylish, do not hold a candle to the subtextual and thematic richness of the original. But where the sequels (in particular III) resonate - and resonate strongly - is in their implicit message: if we refrained from being so damned crass and opportunistic with the more sensitive members of our communities, so much of this tragic stuff wouldn't hit the fan. Yes, we may feel, both logically and empathically, that the grief-stricken Lila Loomis of Psycho II has reason to act to ensure that the man who took her sister's life so violently is re-committed; but given what we already know of the demons that afflict Norman, we also wish she could just sit with her feelings. And in Psycho III, the desperate attempts for recognition that drive Jeff Fahey's drifter, Duke, and Roberta Maxwell's reporter, Tracy, are easy enough to relate to; but when seeking this through Norman’s notoriety, they overwhelmingly come off as bullies. (When Mother spectacularly materialises behind Tracy – our first real close-up of the embodied Mother, and what a great one! – it’s hard not to be swept up in Mother’s mocking proclamation: “Why can’t you leave my son, my poor Norman, alone?”) As Perkins has emphasised, the Psycho films are tragedies at heart, with Norman "the Hamlet of Horror". Psycho introduced the idea of the sensitive, feminine-identified man as dangerous, but Psychos II, III and IV assert their own distinct identity through a genuinely sympathetic rendering of the Norman Bates character.

In Psycho III, of course, Norman has an unlikely ally in Diana Scarwid's fallen nun, Maureen. Maureen, likewise, has an unlikely ally in Norman. Both are seeking redemption for past sins: Maureen knows this explicitly, while we, the audience, can identify Norman's need through his escalating tensions with Mother. (Note how Mother's increasing control over Norman is suggested through the nature of the murders: the first attack is frenzied, but the second is coolly, brutally deliberate.) The interactions between Norman and Maureen are touching, although always laced with fatalism. The wish for Norman to be left alone also extends to Maureen. Their version of desperation is a heartening rebuke to the more predatory version on display with Duke and Tracy, although in this scorched, cynical world, you always assume Duke and Tracy's way will prevail (not entirely the case, as it pans out).

Maureen's involvement at the Bates Motel – which comes after we first meet her, to disorienting effect, in the Vertigo universe – leads to the film's most memorable switcheroo on established tropes: Maureen hallucinates that Mother, pulling back the shower curtain, is in fact the Virgin Mary. It's the sort of moment where the filmmakers are veering so close to melodramatic hilarity, like the aforementioned close-up of Mother, (and another moment where the camera follows a crazed Norman for an extended period of time) that the success and, phew(!), the daring of these moments is nothing less than thrilling.

It is in these moments more than any that you can celebrate Perkins' directorial influence. He has the confidence with the material to take it to extreme points. Some of the touches might have been too left-field to attract the amount of bums-on-seats that had enjoyed the previous films.3 But you at least have another authentic Psycho film. As for his performance, you could entertain the notion that Perkins was evoking a degree of the spirit of his manic, coke-snorting Man of God from 1984's Crimes of Passion; this is a supremely jittery Norman Bates. More concretely, though, Perkins, as actor, is simply responding to the scenarios of Psycho III's narrative: it's as though the reinstitution of Mother in Norman’s life (and his accompanying guilt, therefore, in failing the state) has twisted him into a regressive state, even beyond the young man we met in 1960. This cowed older man is almost comically incapable of not drawing suspicion upon himself and, not-so-comically, his potentiality to hold meaningful relationships with the world of the living appears even more thwarted – which makes his moments of connection with Maureen semi-triumphant. Whatever the tone of his performance, Perkins is never less than fascinating to watch.

The spectre of Crimes of Passion is also felt in the visual glow of neon, so vibrant in the Hollywood Boulevard of Crimes, and now casting a series of peculiar glows across the darkness of a desert motel. (Cinematographer Surtees' parched vistas are similarly striking.) The murkiness of Crimes, meanwhile, is felt in touches such as the pornography adorning Duke's walls and the character’s sleazy but humorous sexual rendezvous, and post-coital argument, with the film's first victim. (For some, the "sleaze" was off-putting, and felt to be a lowering addition to the Psycho legacy.) Although Pogue had envisaged Duke as a red herring, the psychological preoccupations of this instalment rarely accommodate anyone but Mother as a suspect for murder; an impression solidified by composer Carter Burwell's introduction of unsettling vocals and ethereal choirs to the Psycho soundscape, effectively emphasising the "in his head" psychology of the piece. This preoccupation is not a creative problem, per se, except of course if one is intent on holding the filmmakers to account for not attempting "a mystery thriller" comparable to its predecessors.

Psycho III was released in the era of the slasher film, but Perkins by most accounts was philosophical towards the studio pressures of the day, such as “amping up” the visceral impact of the murders and adding a De Palma-esque final stinger. The stinger – the revelation that Norman has not completely separated with Mother, in both a literal and figurative sense – will I suspect always be viewed as a cynical set-up for Psycho IV, particularly as it seems to negate Norman's victory over his psychosis. But does it? Stroking the severed arm might represent another grab at the macabre, and is certainly played to unnerving effect, but Norman at least now appears on more relaxed terms with Mother. Why should he give up her company entirely after the enormity of their struggles? Has she not ever provided comfort for a lost soul? We always make exceptions for the murderous Norman Bates, and wish him well.

1 Anthony Perkins interviewed on The Late Show with David Letterman, viewed on Youtube: Zschim, 07-07-1986 Letterman Sandra Bernhard Anthony Perkins, 15 June 2014, viewed June 10 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5FQCBMiL2M
2 Charles Winecoff, Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins, Dutton: New York, pp. 413-414.
3 Reflecting on Psycho III’s disappointing box office, producer Hilton A. Green felt that Perkins “had brought out the darker side too much”, or too much for the audience to accept it (Winecoff, Split Image, p. 429).

Some PSYCHO sites of interest
THE PSYCHO MOVIES
THE PSYCHO MOVIES Facebook Page
THE PSYCHO LEGACY Facebook Page
"Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho" Facebook Page

Published 23 June 2016