Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Census Flashback: Afterthoughts

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, the last week of Census Flashback, we’re anticipating the dregs of the summer season: Logan Lucky and The Hitman’s Bodyguard. In honor of this last gasp of the project, we’ll be reviewing a movie that isn’t even an 80’s slasher, but completes the mini-marathon we’ve been running within this very segment: the 1990 sequel Psycho IV: The Beginning.

Year: 1990
Director: Mick Garris
Cast: Anthony Perkins, CCH Pounder, Henry Thomas
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

And so goes the mighty slasher franchise. Norman Bates, the granddaddy of the genre whose crimes have spanned decades and been helmed by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Hitch’s foremost Aussie acolyte, and then eventually Bates himself, finds his fourth and final outing to be a TV movie. It’s nauseating. Mind you, this wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to Norman Bates in the 90’s, and the TV movie is actually quite good, but still. How undignified.

Mother would be furious.

The movie joins late night radio host Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder) in the middle of her call-in criminal psychology show “The Mother Killers: Boys Who Kill Their Mothers.” In a moment of serendipity so perfect it’s almost like some screenwriter wrote it that way. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is the next caller. He wants to tell his story so people will understand why he killed his mother… and why he’ll kill again tonight. While Fran and her producers scramble to figure out where he is and who he’s targeting, Norman tells the story of the events leading up to his matricide.

As a young man, Norman (played as a teen by Henry Thomas and in one scene as a child by Ryan Finnegan) lives alone with his mother (Olivia Hussey), with whom he has a tempestuous relationship. His burgeoning sexuality is twisted by his needy mother, who alternately eggs him on and punishes him for his lust. When his mother starts dating local bartender Chet (Tom Schuster), Norman’s complex about his libido ignites in the face of his pious mother’s lustful hypocrisy.

Also, young Norman wanders around shirtless for like 90% of the movie.

I don’t like prequels, for the most part. There’s something intrinsically stagnant about the way that the character arc dumps you in a place you’re already intimately familiar with. But Psycho IV, for the most part, does it right. The only reason the “present day” angle is there is to squeeze in a few more moments with Tony Perkins without taxing him too much, but tying Norman’s past with his current condition allows the story a bit of freedom to go unexpected places and further flesh out the character.

And even if the flashback segments don’t provide much new insight, Mick Garris directs them with a flair that’s of a piece with the other two sequels. I’m especially fond of the transitions between past and present that use matching elements – sometimes including Norman himself – to create a distinct visual fluidity. And those scenes in the past have a palette to die for, with soaring candy colors emphasizing Norman’s youth and vitality.

And shirtlessness.

Plus, while I wouldn’t call the casting “brilliant,” it’s at least deeply weird – which it needs to be. Henry Thomas is a compelling presence, capturing Tony Perkins' entrancing all-American charm, with more than a hint of tumultuous eccentricity surging beneath the surface. And while Olivia Hussey in no way matches the version of Norman’s mother the other films have presented, her dubiously-accented rendition is pitched right over the top in a deliriously effective way, providing the feeling of Norman’s relationship with his mother more than the look or sound of any previous actress.

Hussey is perhaps even more unpredictable than her already unstable character, turning even the simple act of drinking iced tea into a three-minute odyssey of bizarre psychosexual mania. She commands the screen, demanding every last ounce of your attention through pure weirdness.

But soft, what light through yonder lunatic breaks?

It’s not perfect, but it’s far better than a made-for-TV third sequel really has any right to be. Mind you, this was made-for-Showtime, so some of the limitations of TV horror are avoided. There aren’t boobs and blood galore, but there’s enough to remind you that the spirit of the 80’s hadn’t quite died yet.

Really, nothing in Psycho IV is bad. There’s a hell of a lot that’s underwhelming, but there’s a distinct difference. For one thing, there’s no conclusion to the CCH Pounder storyline. Personally, I found it the most compelling part of the movie: a lazy night shift is suddenly plunged into chaos by the introduction of a deadly mystery. That’s exactly what I want to stumble across on TV at 2 in the morning. The efforts of the radio crew to keep Norman on the line and eke out details of his plan are essentially the driving force behind whatever narrative this loose collection of vignettes has, but they vanish as soon as he finishes his story, revealing themselves as the cheap framing device they truly were.

Psycho IV deflates like an unknotted balloon, forgetting everything that made it interesting and contorting the final ten minutes into an effects showcase that quite conspicuously avoids actually damaging the Psycho house in any way (Universal Studios would have had a fit), despite that being the only possible conclusion to this particular narrative.

It tiptoes to the finale of a story that has until that point been pretty fearlessly nutty. The disappointing ending isn’t enough to deflate a startlingly solid film, but it does show its hand as the weakest of the Psycho entries. But it’s hard to complain. Four films deep, it should’ve been impossible to make a movie this ultimately satisfying, but they did it against all odds.

Killer: Young Norman Bates (Henry Thomas)
Final Girl: Connie Bates (Donna Mitchell)
Best Kill: The only brutal kill here is CCH Pounder’s plotline, which is ruthlessly murdered.
Sign of the Times: People still listened to the radio.
Scariest Moment: The sound overlay just before the end credits. No spoilers, but it’s a brutal gut punch of an implication.
Weirdest Moment: Norman’s mom tickles him at his dad’s funeral.
Champion Dialogue: “You’ve got a tongue like an elephant’s memory.”
Body Count: 4
  1. Holly is stabbed to death.
  2. Gloria is garroted and drowned.
  3. Chet is poisoned.
  4. Norma Bates is poisoned.
TL;DR: Psycho IV: The Beginning is as good as a TV movie Psycho prequel could ever hope to be.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1116
Reviews In This Series
Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960)
Psycho II (Franklin, 1983)
Psycho III (Perkins, 1986)
Psycho IV: The Beginning (Garris, 1990)

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