'Hitchcock would have liked it': why Psycho II wasn't such a crazy idea after all

·13-min read
Anthony Perkins in Psycho II
Anthony Perkins in Psycho II

It’s 60 years since Alfred Hitchcock re-wrote the rules with Psycho, a film which changed both the American horror movie and cinema audiences. Its rug-pulling mastery is encapsulated, of course, in its most famous sequence: the shower scene.

Utterly shocking upon its first release in 1960, it killed female star Janet Leigh just 50 minutes in, created the monstrous split personality of Norman Bates/Mother, and brought horror into America’s backyard. The details of its creation have become cinematic legend: the chocolate syrup for blood; the screeching Bernard Herrmann score; and Hitchcock’s battles with censors.

So seminal and masterfully crafted is Psycho, that when Psycho II arrived in 1983 – directed by Aussie exploitation maestro Richard Franklin – it must have seemed like an impossible task: a sequel made 23 years later, at a time that sequels weren’t really a thing, and which dared to begin with the shower scene itself.

“That was Richard Franklin,” says screenwriter Tom Holland about including the shower scene at the start of the film. “That was him paying respects to Alfred Hitchcock.”

Indeed, Psycho II might sound like a made-for-TV quickie – and that’s what Universal had in mind at first – but it’s a smart, still surprising movie that plays out in both reverence and reference to Hitchcock.

The production crew included what Holland calls “the last gathering of all the people who had worked with Alfred Hitchcock.” Even the priest who read Hitchcock his last rites came to a preview screening.

Writing about the film in an unpublished autobiography – included as an extract with the Arrow Blu-ray release of Psycho II – Richard Franklin recalled that the priest said Psycho II was “better than the original”. Franklin replied that it was surely “sacrilege.” But Father Tom protested: “Nonsense, I’ll summon Hitch up – I’m sure he’ll agree.”

In 1982 – a year before Franklin and Holland’s sequel – Psycho author Robert Bloch published a follow-up to the original novel. Bloch’s Psycho II was a satire on Hollywood violence. It killed off Norman in the early chapters and – in a bit of Scream-like postmodernism – set the story around a film based on Norman’s murders, starring a Norman Bates lookalike.

When Richard Franklin heard about the book he was excited. “Finding out what happened to one of the screen’s archetypes, 20 years on was irresistible,” he wrote. (This being years before Hollywood was mining years-old properties for belated sequels.) But the opening gambit left Franklin cold: Norman escapes from jail and murders and rapes a nun (in that order). Hitchcock’s Norman would never have done that. He was far too nice.

And Franklin would know; he was a Hitchcock obsessive. Psycho was the film that made him want to become a filmmaker, aged just 12; he ended up studying under Hitchcock at the University of Southern California.

Alfred Hitcock directing Janet Leigh in Psycho - Paramount
Alfred Hitcock directing Janet Leigh in Psycho - Paramount

Universal – which held the sequel rights – wanted to capitalise with its own sequel but tossed out Bloch’s version. According to Bloch himself, the studio “loathed” his book.

“Robert Bloch was someone I admired tremendously,” says Tom Holland. “But it would have been a commercial disaster. No one wanted to see Psycho without Norman!”

Hilton Green – who had been the assistant director on the original Psycho – would produce and Franklin hired Holland to write the screenplay. Holland has since become a cult favourite in horror, having written and directed Fright Night and directed the original Child’s Play. At 76, he’s just published his first horror novel, The Notch.

Back in 1982, Holland remembers that Universal didn’t see Psycho II as anything more than “a throwaway cable movie. Universal had no sense of any value in the title,” he says. “It had been 22 years since the original. This is just at the birth of cable. It was just a TV movie – nobody took us seriously.”

Anthony Perkins’s agent told Franklin that Perkins would not return to play Norman Bates. As legend has it, Christopher Walken was in line as a potential Norman V.02.

Anthony Perkins in Psycho II - Alamy
Anthony Perkins in Psycho II - Alamy

But Holland knew he had to lure Perkins back. It would convince Universal that Psycho II was more than made-for-cable fodder. “If you look at the original movie, Norman is the serial murderer that you feel sorry for," says Holland. "What Hitchcock and [Psycho screenwriter] Joseph Stefano did was to have the mother create such psychological damage in the boy, that she was somehow responsible for the murders."

They created a new story around two key points: Norman would have to “come home” from the institution where he’d presumably been sent for life at the end of Psycho; and “mother” – last seen as a corpse in the basement, decked out in a wig and cardigan – would have to return.

"I said, ‘Let’s explore a little bit more about what drove him mad,'" says Holland. "What would make him sympathetic is that he’s trying to hold onto his sanity.”

The story begins with Norman being released from his mental institution, now declared sane and cured by Dr Raymond (Robert Loggia). He returns to his old home – the spooky house up on the hill and adjoining Bates Motel – and befriends a young girl named Mary (Meg Tilly). But Lila Loomis (Vera Miles) – sister of Norman’s original shower victim – plots to have Norman locked up again.

When Norman starts receiving notes and phone calls from a mystery “Mother”, and – more to the point – someone in a dress and wig begins piling up the bodies, Norman rightly questions his own sense of reality. Is Mother real? Is she up to her old tricks again? Or is it a conspiracy against him?

Meg Tilly in Psycho II - Alamy
Meg Tilly in Psycho II - Alamy

Perkins said the role of Norman Bates both “helped and hurt” his career. He’d begun his career as a romantic lead (“He was a teenage heartthrob!” says Holland) but Perkins found himself indelibly tied to the kook who dressed up as his mother. The script, however, won Perkins over. “He jumped at it,” says Holland.

Perkins had made peace with Norman by the time of Psycho II. Interviewed in 1983, Perkins said: “I’ve long since tried to forget about disassociating myself with the spectre of Norman Bates… I’ve got to give into that rather than resist it.”

Holland remembers that Perkins’s involvement was big news. “Universal put out a press release saying Tony Perkins was going to re-do Norman Bates,” he says. “The worldwide reaction was overwhelming. And Universal realised we had a movie here – not a cable movie. But they still gave us no money – just $4 million and the lot at Universal. We only left the studio once. There were no production values.”

Thanks to producer Hilton Green, then a vice president at Universal, the production was left alone, free from studio interference.

Along with Green, other Hitchcock alumni included matte painter Albert Whitlock, who worked on The Birds, Marnie, Frenzy, and Topaz; a wardrobe mistress, who was daughter of the Psycho script supervisor; and, of course, Vera Miles. Even Hitchcock’s old chauffeur was rehired.

Holland remembers going to the Universal production site with original Psycho designer and regular Hitch collaborator Robert Boyle. “He pulled out the architectural drawings of the Psycho house, which they still had from the original,” he says. “I was in seventh heaven, just this crazed film fan. I walked around with my mouth hanging open. I should have had an autograph book.”

The old Bates’ house still stood on the Universal backlot, while the Bates Motel had to be re-built. To recreate the interiors, Franklin freeze-framed a video of the original film and even used Hitchcock’s infamous trailer, in which he takes the audience on a tour of the Bates Motel, for reference. Original props were sourced and rediscovered. “I remember searching for the original front door to the house!” says Holland.

The original poster for Psycho II - Alamy
The original poster for Psycho II - Alamy

For visual inspiration, Franklin looked at the German expressionist films which had inspired Hitchcock – Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Sunrise – and The Night of the Hunter. The most obvious state of intent in the reinvention of Psycho is the use of colour – Psycho II is surprisingly vivid.

Holland went back to Hitchcock’s own films for story inspiration. “We watched every movie that Hitchcock ever directed, including the silents,” says Holland. “We’d go to Universal every day and run one or two Hitchcock movies. I made a list of all the visual set pieces and tried to design our own set pieces to echo Hitchcock’s – and not just from Psycho."

The most obvious nod comes when Dr Raymond crashes to his death, stuck with a kitchen knife and pushed from the top of the stairs. It’s a re-run of an iconic death scene from the original Psycho, in which the private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is slashed to death and tumbles backwards down the staircase.

"I was trying to use the way Hitchcock manipulated editing and the camera to create suspense," he says. "I made damn sure the movie was faithful to the original.”

Rather than a beat-for-beat retread, like the hack-and-slash horror sequels of the time, Psycho II is created within the context of the original – a psychological horror haunted by a psychological horror. It plays with the iconic moments – the shower scene, the peep hole (Hitchcock’s trademark silhouette even makes a cameo) – but has a sly knowingness about its own sense of genre, without needing to wink at the camera.

Released from the institution and declared sane with relative ease, Norman comments “Is that all there is to it?”; minutes later he’s back in the dusty old gothic mansion, the site of his original murders, and running the motel again (which is asking for trouble in anyone’s book); and once the voices begin, he’s able to arrange an exhumation of his mother’s grave at an afternoon’s notice for a good look at the old lady’s corpse – just to be sure she’s dead.

(Holland would do the same for vampires with the brilliantly self-aware, genre-updating Fright Night in 1985.)

In another knowing scene, a couple of teens break into Bates’ basement to smoke pot and have sex, a nod to the crass rules of the slasher genre which Norman inadvertently helped create – years before Scream did it. “If you had sex you got killed!” laughs Holland. “That’s how the slasher worked. We thought it was funny as a comment.”

Some of the gore – including, most horribly, a knife through Vera Miles’s mouth – was also inspired by slashers, though perhaps gratuitously. “That level of gore was commercial and popular then,” says Holland. “We felt we had to do it at the time.”

The film’s masterstroke is to rearrange the pieces of Psycho. The question of “Who is Mother?” – or, more specifically, who’s dressing up as an old lady and killing everyone – becomes more interesting with our knowledge of the original.

Norman Bates – one of cinema’s most notorious killers – becomes the sympathetic hero, and Lila, the heroine of the original, is a remorseless villain. It’s about exploring beyond the parameters of Hitchcock’s original: Psycho II goes further into the house; and deeper into Norman’s psyche and past.

Arguably, it’s a complex interpretation of Norman Bates, with more layers for Perkins to submerge beneath. And he’s brilliant, with an off-kilter, bird-like gait; a childlike innocence as he tries to clutch onto his sanity. “Tony was maybe the smartest actor I ever met,” says Holland. “He had an encyclopedic knowledge of films – the stars, cinematographers, who did the score. He knew more than we did about film – and I thought I knew more than anybody! He was intimidating. I would call him intellectually brilliant.”

Perkins, however, was unimpressed with Meg Tilly. Franklin recalled that Perkins tried to have the role recast mid-way through production. But there's much more to Tilly’s performance and character than the average Eighties scream queen. Mary, so it transpires, is the daughter of Lila Loomis and is part of the plot to send Norman loopy again. But Mary sides with Norman and – in her efforts to stop Norman losing his grip – finds herself dressed as Mother, with blood on her hands.

After rearranging the pieces, Psycho II saves its smartest trick for the final minutes. Norman learns that his mother – his biological mother – is alive and well. The corpse he kept in the house for all those years was in fact his aunt. His real mother, the kindly Mrs Spool (Claudia Bryar), visits him and confesses all: this time around, Mother really was the murderer.

In the film’s final shock – a literal killer moment – Norman smashes her around the back of the head with a shovel. For all the film’s playfulness, it’s a moment of pure horror. Norman returns to insanity with a sickening, skull-cracking thud.

“Originally, Norman was going to poison her and she'd die at the table. But Richard and I kept looking at it. He felt it didn’t end with enough of a bang,” laughs Holland. “Her gasping and dying at the table wasn’t strong enough. I said, ‘What about the shovel?!’ Richard looked at me like I was crazy. But once he thought about it, he called me and said, ‘Let’s do it’. When you see the movie there’s no way you’re prepared for the shovel! It was a moment that just awed the audience.”

It’s a gutsy move: the twist rewrites the backstory and reassembles the pieces once again, this time putting Norman back to where he began: mad, murderous, and with a dead mother calling the shots.

Meg Tilly and Anthony Perkins in Psycho II - Alamy
Meg Tilly and Anthony Perkins in Psycho II - Alamy

“Norman starts comparatively sane, but by the time he kills his mother he’s as mad as a hatter!” laughs Holland. “How’s that for a character arc?”

Universal were just as shocked by Psycho II. Released on June 3, 1983 it became a surprise hit of the summer and made $40 million – more than the original. “They were f–––––– stunned,” says Holland about Universal. “They knew that they had a quality movie but they didn’t know that’s what the audience wanted. They expected a Friday the 13th.”

Psycho III followed in 1986 – directed by Perkins himself – followed by Psycho IV in 1990 and the twisty-turny Bates Motel series in 2013. Psycho II remains the most interesting sequel – sometimes overlooked as one of the best, most effective sequels of any franchise.

Hitchcock would surely have appreciated its greatest reverence: following Psycho's example by rewriting the rules. As Tom Holland says: “I like to think that Hitchcock would have liked it!”

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