There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.
The fifty-seventh entry into this unbroken backlog is the twenty-three-years-in-the-making sequel to Alfred Hitchcock's horror masterpiece, Psycho II...
Richard Franklin fell in love with Alfred Hitchcock from the first time he saw Psycho ('60) at the age of twelve. While attending college at the University of Southern California - studying alongside the likes of John Capenter and George Lucas - the Australian transplant attempted to have a repertory screening of Hitchcock’s Rope ('48) arranged for the campus. Much to his surprise, Franklin received a phone call from the master of suspense himself, who was honored by the young student’s admiration. Franklin went on to invite Hitchcock to give a lecture at the school, and the two became and remained friends, up until the great director’s death in 1980.
Following graduation, Franklin returned to Australia to commence his own film career, during a period in which the country’s film industry was experiencing a resurgence (for more information on this "Ozploitation" boom, Mark Hartley’s documentary Not Quite Hollywood ['08] comes highly recommended). Franklin started out helming episodes of the Australian police drama Homicide ('64 - '77) before taking the reins on the ribald sex comedy The True Story of Eskimo Nell [a/k/a Dick Down Under] ('75). Immediately after that, he helmed the softcore slice of sexploitation Fantasm ('76) - not to be confused with Don Cascarelli’s surrealist, phonetically-similar, horror series.
Refusing to be pigeonholed as a guy who only liked to shoot young people without their clothes on, Franklin directed the ultra bizarre story of a vengeful telekinetic man in a coma, Patrick ('78), which - to connect the filmmaker to Hartley again - was remade as the Australian cult documentarian’s first narrative feature. While working on Patrick, Franklin gave screenwriter Everett De Roche a copy of the screenplay for Hitchcock’s Rear Window ('54), prompting the scribe to suggest crafting a picture that replicated the classic’s plot, only set inside of a moving vehicle. What resulted was Road Games ('81), starring American actors Stacy Keach - who is really quite something as truck driver, Patrick Quaid - and Jamie Lee Curtis (whom Franklin met whilst visiting Carpenter on the set of The Fog ['80]). At the time, Road Games was notable for being the most expensive movie to come out of Australia’s re-emerging genre factory, and became a sizable hit in its home country (but unfortunately floundered in the US).
Despite Road Games’ tepid box office performance in the US, Universal hired Franklin to helm Psycho II ('83), as they saw Road Games as a solid homage, and knew of the director’s close personal relationship to Hitchcock. In turn, Franklin helped hire future Fright Night ('85) and Child's Play ('88) mastermind Tom Holland to write the sequel, as he was impressed with his screenplay for The Beast Within ('82). At the time, Universal was upset with Psycho author Robert Bloch, who'd written a second novel (also entitled Psycho II) as a parody of the slasher films that had taken over the horror genre in the wake of Halloween ('78). Not wanting the author’s satire sullying the legacy of one of the studio’s greatest classics, executives set down strict instruction for the film to be a deadly serious follow-up to the original.
Anthony Perkins didn’t initially want to reprise his role as psychotic mama’s boy/motel owner, Norman Bates. Thinking he was never able to distance himself enough from the role following the film’s release, the actor turned down the reprisal as Universal was developing the project (which was initially supposed to be a TV Movie). But after such actors as Christopher Walken came in to read for the role, Perkins agreed to come back for the sequel. In the end, it feels like a smart choice on Perkins’ part, as Psycho II went on to become a modest hit, allowing the actor to step behind the camera for the super bizarre Psycho III ('86).
Picking up twenty-two years after the first, Norman Bates is a sinewy skeleton; a ghost of his former homicidal self. Freshly released from psychiatric care, he returns to the Bates Motel and mother’s estate, all the while working as a line cook at a local diner run by the kindly, old Mrs. Spool (Claudia Bryar). Making a friend in Mary (Meg Tilly), the mousy girl who is constantly berated by their boss, and watched over by Dr. Raymond (Robert Loggia), Norman tries his damndest to assimilate back into society. But he is hounded by Lila Loomis (Vera Miles), sister of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who strenuously objects to his release and follows him back to the motel, letting everyone around Norman know that a murderer has been set free by the system.
Franklin opens Psycho II with Hitchcock’s famous shower scene before transitioning into the main narrative, and it’s a pretty ingenuous decision. By including the most memorable moment from the original in the text of his own film, the director is addressing the audience’s fears of an unnecessary, exploitive sequel with an act of utmost reverence. Franklin follows up on this problem of expectation by even attempting to replicate some of Hitch’s trademark shot selections - the bird’s eye overhead angle of the Bates mansion being the best example here - tying the film stylistically and giving it an almost “classy” air.
But this is still '83, and with that comes the slasher trend that'd invaded horror. It’s kind of fascinating that Universal greenlit Psycho II as a response to Bloch’s hack-and-stab skewering literary follow-up, as it shoehorns in scenes that would feel more at home in a Friday the 13th ('80) knockoff. Teenagers break into Norman’s spooky house to smoke a joint and screw on a dirty mattress in the basement, leading to a rather bloody demise for one of them. De Palma regular and walking ’80s-avatar for-sleaze Dennis Franz shows up as the new manager of the Bates Motel, harassing Norman and Mary. A character near the end of the film has a knife graphically shoved through her mouth until it protrudes out of the back of her neck, recalling the opening of Lucio Fulci’s House By the Cemetery ('81). None of these elements fit with the respectful tone Franklin attempts to establish early on, resulting in a film that constantly feels at odds with itself, but is nevertheless wholly entertaining.
The biggest point of contention, however, comes at the very end of the film, where both Franklin and Holland play with the Psycho mythology in a way that will cause most viewers to see the original film’s narrative in an entirely new light. For some fans, this re-jiggering is straight up sacrilege, even though it thematically wraps the sequel up with a nice, neat bow. The good news is that the final, shocking reveal only strengthens Norman’s iconic position in the ranks of horror, as the niceties of his “public face” are sacrificed in service of turning him into a full-fledged madman. Structurally, this scene comes out of nowhere, as it's not even hinted at before being exposed, lending the ending the superficial feeling of being a schlocky “twist”.
Psycho II is a truly unusual beast; made by those who adore the series’ creator yet are still very conscious of the times in which they were making their own film. With one foot firmly in cinematic history and the other in the world of pure exploitation, it’s never less than mesmerizing visually (Dean Cundey’s usage of shadows and blue is stunning), even when the film stumbles in the storytelling department. Yet Perkins’ performance is a real treat, as he plays with his own sinewy frame and posture to show Norman’s devolution from reformed nice guy to paranoid schizo. Definitely one of the more diverting slasher installments ever made, it’s a shame Franklin would move on from the series after the film, as it would’ve been exciting to see him explore the continuing adventures of horror’s most polite, murderous antihero.
Psycho II is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Scream Factory.