Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Census Flashback: Trilogies Nobody Asked For

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

This week we’re anticipating War for the Planet of the Apes, the third in the unexpectedly popular reboot/prequel franchise. In honor of this film, which people may be looking forward to now but certainly would never have claimed that they wanted back in 2010, we’re watching another third film in a franchise nobody asked for: 1986’s Psycho III.

Year: 1986
Director: Anthony Perkins
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Diana Scarwid, Jeff Fahey
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The thing that’s most infuriating about the deeply unnecessary second sequel to the belatedly pointless first sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho is that it’s also a pretty great movie. It’s difficult to grouse about cash grab franchise extension when you actually like the movies.

For being such a good sport and returning to his most notorious role, Anthony Perkins was allowed the luxury of actually directing the film. And although his directorial debut is but an imitation of Richard Franklin’s imitation of Hitchcock, that bar is set so high that everything still winds up above average.

I can’t believe I waited so long to watch these movies.

Psycho III has one of the best opening scenes in history: “THERE IS NO GOD!!!” shouts nun-in-training Maureen (Diana Scarwid) as she prepares to jump from the bell tower. She gets in a scuffle with the sisters trying to save her, and one of them cracks her head on the massive metal bell behind her, plummeting ten stories to her death. The Bates Motel hasn’t even appeared yet and already things are going psycho.

The film doesn’t sustain that manic, crazed energy, though it does manage to recapture it from time to time in delicious spurts of mayhem. So anyway, Maureen runs away and hitches a ride with wannabe rock star Duane “Call Me Duke” Duke (Jeff Fahey, who I am now rocking a major 80’s crush on). Although she escapes from his sexual advances, they both wind up at a certain secluded motel. Duke takes a temporary job at the front desk to earn gas money an the troubled Maureen falls helplessly in love with the nebbish proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who saves her from a second suicide attempt.

The only problem is, this means ol’ Normie is back to his old ways, sneaking into androgynous women’s motel rooms in the middle of the night. While he resists his new mummified mother’s murderous impulses, he also finds himself tentatively falling for Maureen. Unfortunately their love bubble is threatened by snooping reporter Tracy (Roberta Maxwell), who is looking for evidence that Norman isn’t as mentally fit as he claims to be. The mounting pile of bodies on the motel lot would be exactly the proof she needs.

What’s a Psycho movie without a nosy middle-aged woman poking around?

Now, I wouldn’t want people to think I’m saying Psycho III is a superior film to the original psycho. It’s more enjoyable, but then again so is Cupcake Wars, so that doesn’t necessarily mean a lot. No, Psycho III exists on an entirely different spectrum (that of the 80’s slasher film), and in that realm it excels. What it lacks in psychological nuance, it more than makes up for with pure slash panache. (And let us not misremember the “lunatic drag queen” original as a searingly observant character study. It’s a well-crafted film, but being black-and-white doesn’t make a movie smart.)

For one thing, it has a sure-footed sense of style that makes you wish Perkins had gone on to helm more than just one other feature. The transitions here have an incredible, ephemeral feeling, slipping almost imperceptibly between locations and scenes, keeping you on your toes and putting you in the appropriate off-kilter mindset. And the lighting is full of deliciously unmotivated splashes of color that create a lurid, unnatural dreamscape. Every frame pops off the screen like a demented comic book, and that helps smooth over some of the more (putting it charitably) unrealistic beats of the plot.

Like yet another young woman/wounded bird with a short haircut crossing Norman’s path.

Psycho III is thoroughly an 80’s slasher, bringing Norman Bates crashing into the topless, bloody world of 80’s horror with a sense of culture shock that Psycho II was somewhat lacking. But it’s also just a plain solid thriller, which is something that not many a 1986 Census Bloodbath entry can boast. It features a marvelously compelling antihero. No longer are you speculating whether or not Norman has slipped back into his old habits. He has, but he desperately wants to be free of his mother’s influence, making him a figure you can root for even as he’s slashing throats and stabbing townies in effects sequences that don’t rise to the level of Vera Miles’ departure from Psycho II, but are nevertheless the most blatantly bloody of the franchise.

I’m not gonna pretend I have a problem with that.

Another factor that has Psycho III stand above its slasher brethren is its cast. Tony Perkins the director gives Tony Perkins the actor a little too much leeway to ham it up, but Roberta Maxwell is frankly a revelation, effortless trading witty barbs with the likewise solid Jeff Fahey, and selling the hell out of the dotty emotional climax. Diana Scarwid is also excellent, powering through some truly putrid theological dialogue, and even a random sideline victim (played by, of all people, Stripped to Kill director Katt Shea) has bucketsful of charisma to toss around.

The script certainly has its ups and downs (the religious angle is almost completely forgotten by the end, and the dialogue relies on a few too many cheeky callbacks to events and lines in the original film), but when it’s up it’s tall as a skyscraper. Psycho III defies all laws of cinema by being the third spectacular entry in a horror franchise that had at that point already spanned two and a half decades. Hitchcock fans might not get what they’re looking for, but slasher fans should make a beeline to the continuing adventures of the Bates Motel.

Killer: Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)
Final Girl: Tracy (Roberta Maxwell), but only incidentally
Best Kill: Sister Margaret takes home the prize for sheers bonkersness.
Sign of the Times: Minimum wage was $5 an hour, and a double room at a motel cost $25.95.
Scariest Moment: Norman turns off the TV, which is showing people screaming, but in the silence the screaming continues.
Weirdest Moment: Duke has sex with a townie (played by Friday the 13th: Part V actress Juliette Cummins), and their foreplay involves her licking her own arm and making out with a nudie photograph while he points purple lamps at her.
Champion Dialogue: “You’re about as warm as a cry for help.”
Body Count: 5
  1. Sister Margaret falls from a great height.
  2. Red is stabbed in a phone booth.
  3. Patsy Boyle has her throat slit.
  4. Duke is hit in the head with his guitar and drowned in the swamp.
  5. Maureen is impaled in the back of the head by a statue.
TL;DR: Psycho III is a delightfully bananas slasher film with a sure directorial hand.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1222
Reviews In This Series
Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
Psycho II (Franklin, 1983)
Psycho III (Perkins, 1986)

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