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Check-Out - Season 2, Episode 4 – Original air date 3/24/2014

This week’s episode opens, refreshingly, with a shot of Emma.  Granted, she is an ancillary character, but she is just so darned sweet, and provides a bit of a break from the Bates family drama.  Emma’s eyes are asking the same question that we are:  did she sleep with the stoner dude, who happens to be lying next to her?  Knowing Emma as we do, we know the answer to that question.

The real core of the story this week is the Bates family coming to terms with the shocker about Norma’s brother.   Dylan is understandably having a tough time with this one, and he confronts Caleb, only to get a slightly different, and evasive, version of events.  He also gets his money back.  So just what the hell did Caleb go to White Pine Bay for?  What did he hope to accomplish by visiting his sister?  Did he really think that all would be forgiven?   Dylan and Norma have a heartbreaking scene at the end,  and it seems as if Dylan realizes Norma is telling the truth, but it’s all too much for him, and he storms away, saying that he is moving out.

Sheriff Romero gives Major Douche (Zane) a polite warning to stay in line.  Is there anyone who thinks Zane will survive to the end of the season?  Is there anyone who wants him to?

And then there is Norman.  First of all, we have a very creepy scene where Norman lies down next to his mother on her bed to comfort her.  What makes it truly unsettling is a long, lingering close-up on Norman’s face, which displays emotions that are not exactly what one expects to see on a child’s face.  Norma goes on a date with George, (the guy she met in the last episode), at the insistence of his sister, who all but drags Norma out the door.  We probably haven’t seen the last of George.

And at the end Norman confronts Caleb, a man he doesn’t even know, and finally we see the first glimpse of the specific mental condition which plagues the Norman Bates of Hitchcock’s Psycho.   It is a frightening moment to watch, as well as being a bit of an “aha!” moment for fans of the movie.

The second season has almost reached the halfway point, (4 episodes down, 5 to go), and up to this point it is on par with the first season.  Will the show be renewed for a third season?  The first episode of season 2 had an audience of over 3 million, more than any episode of the first season.  That was down to 1.84 million by episode 3.  Fans of the show can only keep watching, and hope that they are not left hanging mid-story line.

 

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Caleb - Season Two, episode 3 – original air date 3/17/2014

The third episode of Bates Motel is very solid overall, and the writers deserve a shout out.  However, it must be said up front:  when Norma’s brother  Caleb (played by Kenny Johnson) arrived at the motel, and he and Dylan approached each other awkwardly, and stood talking, was there anyone who did not immediately realize that Caleb was Dylan’s daddy?   It was rather obvious from the first moment, apparently to everybody except Dylan.  I thought maybe even he might have had a suspicion, but it was clear from the look of shock on his face in the last scene that he did not.   So that last-minute reveal was no reveal at all, and now this series has taken a left turn into Chinatown.  He’s your uncle.  He’s your father.  He’s your uncle and your father.    Holy crap!  Poor Norma; it is amazing the amount of shit she has had to deal with, and the way she continually tries to find a way to provide a “normal” life for her children is admirable, as is the performance of Vera Farmiga.  She simply couldn’t be better.

This episode focuses on several characters meeting new people, creating new relationships.  And the episode is bookended by the reminders of the past, in Norma’s brother Caleb, the past that she just can’t seem to outrun.    Of course Norma did not get the lead in the play, as a matter of fact she got no part at all.   That’s small town politics for you.  Especially this small town.  The play’s director Christine (Rebecca Creskoff) quits in protest, and befriends Norma.   When she invites Norma to her garden party, we are worried for Norma.  Dear God, how is her crazy going to manifest itself this time?   But that is not the case.  Norma is very nervous, but handles herself well.  She is engaging, charming, and funny.  She even hits it off with Christine’s brother, George.  We almost certainly haven’t seen the last of him.

Meanwhile Norman befriends a girl named Cody, that we first saw as a grocery store cashier in this season’s first episode.  She is working as a tech on the play, and convinces Norman to join as well.  It is clear that there is some mutual attraction here, and Norman handles himself with a confidence that we have not yet seen.   It would appear that Emma is tired of waiting for Norman to notice her, for she cozies up to the guy that her gave her the pot-laced cupcakes in season one.   Emma is just feeling guilty over Bradley’s “death”, which we know was faked.  Emma’s honesty is disarming, as she admits that she feels guilt because she still doesn’t like Bradley even though she is dead.  We probably haven’t seen the last of Bradley either.

And Dylan is bonding with his Uncle Daddy, foolishly giving him all of his saved cash.   Dylan is probably the most balanced member of the Bates family, and considering he is the result of rape and incest, that is saying something.  He has a good heart, and a sharp wit.  When Major Douche (aka Zane) asks him what his next move would be in the escalating drug war, he takes the time to think about it, and then gives the perfect response.  He would do nothing.  It is a zero-sum game.  Bravo.

Just when things seemed to be going so well for all of the Bates, everything collapses in the final scene, and now they have another mess to face.  Norma seems equipped to deal with anything.  Bring it on.

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Shadow of a Doubt - Season Two, Episode Two – original air date 3/10/2014

Season Two of Bates Motel got off to a pretty good start in the first episode of the new season, picking up right where season one left off.  The story lines are intriguing, the characters interesting.   I wonder now, just as I wondered when this show began, just how long will this show be able to sustain any intensity, and a dramatic arc, when we already know there is no happy ending in store for anyone in the Bates family.   I thought about this a lot during this newest episode of season two, which was far less satisfying to me than the first episode.

As far as storylines go, there are several threads at work.  Bradley is hiding in the basement, having killed the drug kingpin Gil, who she believes is responsible for her father’s death.   Norman buys Bradley a bus ticket, and is going to drive her to the bus station in an adjacent town.  Just where Bradley is planning to go and what she is planning to do is never made clear.   But she lays low, waiting for her time of departure.

Meanwhile, in the drug world, Gil’s replacement arrives, and this is a character that is designed to be disliked by everyone.  He screams “major douche”, from his hairstyle, to his dress, to his manner of speech.  It’s hard to believe a guy like this could have climbed to middle management in the drug world without being killed by someone.  So it turns out that White Pine Bay has not only one, but two families in the drug trade?  And Major Douche decides that the other family must have offed Gil, so he kidnaps someone from the other crew, and kills him, in front of Dylan.  Is this going to turn into a Hatfield v. McCoy standoff?  Seems a little far-fetched.  And I’m not sure if Sheriff Romero is intriguing and enigmatic, or just poorly written.  He was pretty badass when he took care of Abernathy in season one.  Now at times he seems to be a lackey for the druglords.   Hopefully there will be some resolution with his character.

And finally we have the mother/son relationship with Norma and Norman, by far the most interesting storyline in this episode.  Ultimately, this harkens back to what Psycho was all about.  It can be by turns creepy, humorous, and touching.  Who else but Norma Bates would ask her doctor about her son during a gynecological exam?  Norma also has one of her strongest moments in the series, when she sings “Maybe This Time” at an audition for the local community theater, pouring all of her emotions into her performance, and stunning everyone, Norman included.

The episode ends with Dylan taking Bradley to the bus stop, first asking her to compose a suicide note.  And the Bates family tree expands with the arrival of Norma’s brother.  I’m assuming this is the same brother that used to abuse her, so he probably won’t be welcomed with open arms.

 

 

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 Gone But Not Forgotten - Season Two, Episode 1 – original airdate 3/3/2014

My oh my, the time sure passes quickly.  It seems like it was just a few weeks ago that we  were watching the conclusion to season one of Bates Motel, which ended with Norman experiencing one of the most messed-up days in his messed-up life.

Remember that day?  Remember how his mom  told him that she had been raped by her brother when she was younger?  Remember Norman going to the dance with Emma, but staring at Bradley?  Remember Emma leaving, Norman getting punched in the face, walking home in the rain, being picked up by Miss Watson?  Oh yeah, Miss Watson…

Season Two picks up right where the first season left off, with the death of Miss Watson.  Norman is very distraught by her death, maybe a little too distraught?  And whose pearls are those he is toying with?

Meanwhile, Bradley is driving drunk, takes a dive off a bridge (if she wanted to kill herself, why did she swerve out of the way of the truck in the scene just before she jumped off the bridge?)  She survives the attempt, but spends a few months in a mental facility.  When she gets out, she is obsessed with finding out who killed her father.  And of course Norman is still obsessed with her, even though Emma is right there in front of him, wanting only to be loved.

Meanwhile, business is booming at the Bates Motel.  We see lots of happy customers, while a Haim song plays on the soundtrack (nice choice!)   But there is a big problem looming:  the highway bypass, which will divert all the traffic away from the motel.  Yes, this is the bypass, the one referenced in Hitchcock’s Psycho movie.  The bypass that will be the undoing of the Bates Motel.  Norma goes to a city council meeting, in an attempt to thwart the planned start of construction on the bypass, but she is treated rather rudely, and out comes her crazy.    We get these glimpses of the strong, successful woman Norma could have been, if life had treated her a little better.  She brings up the fact that the massive pot fields drive the towns’ economy, something that everyone knows but nobody wants to talk about.  Bravo!  But the deck is stacked against her in this battle.  Vera Farmiga sure is owning this role, at this point.

Every time we see Norma and Norman in a scene together now, there is a cringe-worthy element.  A simple driving lesson becomes very tense, and mother and son both explode.  Are they arguing about driving, or something more?  And in the tender moments, such as when Norma drapes her arm lovingly over Norman’s chest as she stands behind him, how can we not be creeped out by that?

Also,  Dylan reconnects with Bradley, and gives her some information that may help her find out what happened to Daddy, and it involves Gil, the head honcho of all the illegal goings on.  And the body count goes up.

Meanwhile Sheriff Romero and Norma both begin to suspect that Norman may have had something to do with Miss Watson’s death.  Finally Norman tells his mom that he was in her house, and that he blacked out.  Am I the only one who thinks its just a little too obvious that Norman killed Miss Watson?  We all know where Norman is headed;  he certainly is a killer.  And he has Miss Watson’s pearls.  Is there a slight possibility that someone else was involved in her death, or is it really that simple?

PSYCHO (1998 remake): Why?

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 PSYCHO (1998) – Universal – Rating: 1/10

Color – 104 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Gus Van Sant

Principal cast:  Vince Vaughn (Norman Bates), Anne Heche (Marion Crane), Julianne Moore (Lila Crane), Viggo Mortensen (Sam Loomis), William H. Macy (Milton Arbogast), Philip Baker Hall (Sheriff Chambers), Robert Forster (Dr. Simon).

Screenplay by Joseph Stefano

Cinematography:  Christopher Doyle

Music by Bernard Herrmann and Danny Elfman

Why?  That is the question that echoed in my head as I watched this pointless remake, and the question I continue to ask.  I respect Gus Van Sant as a filmmaker.  And I have nothing against remakes; there have been several good ones.   Even Alfred Hitchcock did a remake of one of his own movies (The Man Who Knew Too Much, original 1934, remake 1956.)  But there has to be an artistic reason to attempt a remake;  usually a desire to do a “modern take” on something that worked well in an earlier era.  Unfortunately, this film is in no way a modern take.   This film is often described as a shot-for-shot remake. That is not true.  It does come close to that, but there is probably a 5% variance between the two films, and none of that 5% makes the least bit of sense.

Van Sant claimed that he wanted to make Psycho appeal to a younger audience.  Perhaps if he would have done a completely new version of the film, he could have succeeded in that goal.  I can’t imagine a “young” person watching his version and finding it anything other than stilted, awkward and anachronistic.  Hitchcock’s original seems more fresh and modern in comparison.

If Van Sant had chosen to make a literal shot-for-shot remake, his film would have been slightly better, although still stultifyingly boring and completely unnecessary.   But the few arbitrary changes that were made only serve to make his remake seem more out of place.   The late, great Roger Ebert said of this movie “it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.”

In choosing to make this movie, Gus Van Sant not only makes it impossible to avoid comparison with Hitchcock’s original film, but actively invites comparison in virtually every scene.   Maybe that is the saving grace of this remake:  it reaffirms, through comparison, how good the original Psycho was.  So, since it seemingly serves no other purpose, let’s compare.

Vince Vaughn – Poor Vince.  He doesn’t have the widest range as an actor, but within his limited range he is very good.   He is the best schlub in the business.  I’m not even sure what a schlub is, but when I hear the word, I immediately picture Vince Vaughn.  Old School…Wedding Crashers…I can’t imagine any other actor playing those parts as well as he did.  But he is so totally wrong for the part of Norman Bates.  He lacks…well, everything that Anthony Perkins had.

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Vaughn’s Norman is not sympathetic in the least;  he is creepy and repulsive, and more of a caricature than a character.  Vaughn so painfully tried to make Norman his own, but the affectations he chose to use (the lip pursing, the mad cackle at the end of sentences) are comical and pathetic.   This whole movie hangs on the performance of Norman Bates; Vaughn’s failure is the movie’s failure.

Anne Heche – Relax Vince, at least you didn’t have the worst performance in the movie.   The difference between Janet Leigh and Anne Heche in the role of Marion Crane is the difference between good acting and bad.   Much of Marion’s performance is internal;  she has several scenes where she is alone on screen.  Where Janet Leigh conveyed her thoughts through a subtle and believable internal struggle, Anne Heche uses broad, over-emphasized facial expressions and eye movements.  To call it caricature would be generous.  Her broad pantomime is unintentionally funny, and out of place everywhere except a 1920′s silent film.  I kept expecting to see title cards on the screen:  WHAT WILL I DO? CRIED OUR DAMSEL IN DISTRESS.  Her single worst acting moment in this movie (and there are plenty of bad ones) is the exaggerated roll of the eyes after the guy buying the house hits on her, then walks away from her desk.  Marion would have dealt with dozens of men like that;  he would have been forgotten before he took two steps, not treated to an eye roll that would make a 15 year-old girl say OMG.

Julianne Moore – She chose to take Lila in a different direction, making her more angry, which actually works well.  I still give the nod to Vera Miles.

Viggo Mortensen – I never thought I would say this, but where is John Gavin when you need him?

Willliam H. Macy – Good job.  He plays Arbogast straight, in a nod to Martin Balsam’s performance.  Not bad.

Philip Baker Hall – Here is the one performance that actually improves upon the original.  Granted, he is only in one scene (two in the original film), but Hall makes a very believable sheriff.

Robert Forster – Great actor, wasted on an unnecessary scene.

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  • Random observations to Gus Van Sant:
  • When Marion encounters the highway patrolman, why would you eliminate her dialogue asking if she acts like something is wrong, and his response “Frankly, yes.”  That was essential to the exchange, and certainly not dated.  Unlike Marion having her vehicle registration in her purse (!), and the cop taking it to the front of the vehicle to stare at the license plate, both anachronisms in 1998.
  •  

    Thanks for showing us Viggo Mortensen’s ass.  Sure haven’t seen enough of that.

  •  The reason Patricia Hitchcock’s line “He must have seen my wedding ring” was so funny in the original movie is because Janet Leigh’s character was far more attractive.  In your version, Rita Wilson is arguably more attractive than Anne Heche, thereby rendering the entire exchange meaningless.
  • Why in the hell does Anne Heche have a parasol when she gets out of the car at the dealership?  Is that supposed to be appropriate to ’98?  Maybe if you’re talking about 1898.  Why not dress her in a ruffled skirt and lace petticoat?
  • Why did you show Norman Bates whacking off to Marion?  So inappropriate, and a clear indication of how little you understood the character.  Norman was most likely impotent; his sexual satisfaction would have come from the act of murder.  Beyond the psychological implications,the scene was filmed and acted in such a way that it could only inspire laughter.  Which it does.
  • You changed Arbogast’s line from “If it don’t gel it ain’t aspic” to ” if it don’t gel, it ain’t jello”? Sure, that’s something the kids were all saying in 1998.  Way to modernize the dialogue.
  • The changes in the cellar scene?  First off, all those different species of bird would never roost that way.  And Norman says himself “I don’t know anything about birds.  My hobby is stuffing things.”  There is no logic to your scene on any level.
  • The shower scene…do you  not understand why Hitchcock’s montage was so effective?  Your subliminal shots of roiling clouds deflate the emotional intensity of the scene.  Complete failure.
  • Ditto the subliminal shots in Arbogast’s murder scene.
William H. Macy asks himself "What the hell am I doing here?"

William H. Macy asks himself “What the hell am I doing here?”

 

 

 

 

psycho2When one thinks of Alfred Hitchcock one does not think of sequels.  And while he never directed any sequels himself, his 1960 release Psycho has generated quite a legacy on film, television and in print.  There are three feature-length sequels, all with Anthony Perkins reprising his role as Norman Bates.  There are two television shows, one that never made it past the pilot episode, and one that has just concluded its first successful season.  Robert Bloch also wrote two sequels to his original novel, something he arguably would not have done had the movie not been such a success.  There is an excellent non-fiction book by Stephen Rebello about the making of the original film.  There is a movie based loosely on Rebello’s book.  And there is also a remake directed by Gus Van Sant.   (I should note that Alfred Hitchcock had nothing to do with any of these projects; they all were released after his death in 1980).

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Psycho II (1983) – Universal – Rating: 4/10

 Color – 113 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Richard Franklin

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Vera Miles (Lila Loomis), Meg Tilly (Mary Samuels), Robert Loggia (Dr. Bill Raymond), Dennis Franz (Warren Toomey).

Written by Tom Holland

Music by Jerry Goldsmith

 First off, let’s acknowledge that Psycho did not need a sequel.  But the horror genre was experiencing a massive popularity burst in the early 80′s, thanks in large part to movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th.  And Universal Pictures owned the rights to the original movie, which meant they could use its characters, or even steal scenes from it.  They also still had the Psycho house standing on their backlot.  (The motel building had been torn down, and had to be rebuilt.)  And the most important piece of the puzzle:  Anthony Perkins, who somewhat reluctantly agreed to reprise his role as Norman Bates.

This movie is in trouble from the very first moment.  It begins with the shower scene from the original Psycho, but in edited form!  How can you edit one of the most iconic scenes in movie history?  Either let it play out,  or don’t use it at all.  The set-up for the film is actually quite good, and the tagline on the movie poster sums it up as well as anybody could:  “It’s 22 years later, and Norman Bates is coming home.”   Norman is released from the mental facility where he has spent over two decades, and returns to his childhood home to find the Bates Motel being run by an obnoxious sleazebag played by Dennis Franz (this is before Franz made the switch from obnoxious sleazebags to endearing sleazebags.)  Within five seconds of meeting Franz’s character we know he is going to die, and this points to the movie’s biggest problem; the script sucks.  There is just no subtlety to be found, either in plot or dialogue.

Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles are both very believable in the roles they had initiated over 20 years earlier.  It’s quite plausible that Lila Loomis would have married Sam after the death of Marion.  It’s also believable that Lila would hate Norman Bates, and do anything to get him locked up for good.  It is a bit of a stretch, however, to believe that she would use her daughter as a pawn in a potentially deadly game.  Robert Loggia is very solid in the role of Robert Loggia.  (That is not meant as a slight; he is a good character actor, who helps keep this movie from going completely off the rails.)  Meg Tilly is, well, annoying at best.  Rumor has it that Anthony Perkins did not get along with her, and asked for her to be replaced at some point during filming.  Honestly though, you could put any other actress in that role and it would not have been enough to save the rest of the movie.

Did Jerry Goldsmith really compose the score?  The same man who scored Chinatown, Alien, and Star Trek: TMP?  He had the choice of echoing Bernard Herrmann’s score in some way, or going in a different direction.  He chose the latter.  But its just so movie-of-the-week sounding, that to me it weakens the films already shaky credibility.

So, people are stabbed to death, Norman questions his sanity, and let’s not forget about the surpsise ending.  There is an absolutely ludicrous plot twist that seems to undermine the logic of the original movie.  I can’t really fault the director Richard Franklin, who was a student of Hitchcock, no less, but a stronger script may have helped this be something more than what it is.

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 PSYCHO III (1986) – Universal – Rating:  5/10

Color – 92 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Anthony Perkins

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Diana Scarwid (Maureen Coyle), Jeff Fahey (Duane Duke), Roberta Maxwell (Tracy Venable), Hugh Gillin (Sheriff John Hunt).

Written by Charles Edward Pogue

Music by Carter Burwell

The third chapter in the Psycho series is somewhat better than its predecessor,  but is still miles away from being a truly good film.   Norman is back to his crazy ways, having installed Mother 2.0 in the bed where he kept the first model.  Norman has a love interest again, this time a nun who has been kicked out of her convent.  She caused a mother superior to fall to her death, in a scene that deliberately (and quite effectively) evokes Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  She ends up at the Bates Motel, along with Jeff Fahey’s character Duane, a drifter looking to make a score, and make it with every woman who crosses his path.   Hugh Gillin reprises his role from the last installment as Sheriff Hunt, a man who sympathizes with Norman Bates and wishes everyone would just leave him alone.

So, this being a Psycho movie, you can be assured that people will die violent deaths, and Norman will wage his mental battle with Mother.  And that is what really drives this movie, and makes it worth watching.  Anthony Perkins still makes Norman Bates a sympathetic character.  We watch him perform acts of evil, and yet still root for him to somehow overcome in this struggle with his dead mother, who is the real source of evil.

Anthony Perkins directed this movie, and did an admirable job, considering it was the first (and only) time he sat in the director’s chair in his career.   He overcame his initial nervousness about directing, and won over everyone on the set.  Several cast and crew members remarked that Perkins was a pleasure to work with as a director.

Psycho III throws in a plot twist at the end, regarding Norman’s family tree, that seemingly attempts to untwist the twist at the end of Psycho II.  Once again, ludicrous!  But if you’re watching this movie, you’re not doing so for plot points.  You’re doing it because you just can’t get enough Norman Bates.

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Psycho IV: The Beginning  (1990)- Universal – Rating: 5/10

Color – 96 minutes – 1.78:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Mick Garris

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Henry Thomas (Young Norman Bates), Olivia Hussey (Norma Bates), C.C.H. Pounder (Fran Ambrose).

Written by Joseph Stefano

Music by Graeme Revell

When a horror movie franchise reaches part 4, you know its time for the inevitable flashback motif to show up, if it hasn’t already.  And so a good part of this film is the older Norman Bates recounting his teenage years.  For the first time we see Norma Bates in the flesh, and we see how Norman became who he became.  This movie was written by Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock’s original 1960 Psycho.  Stefano does a pretty decent job; I would say the screenplay is definitely better than the last two movies in the series.  Some have said that it is highly improbable Norman Bates would have been released from the insane asylum a second time, and that is certainly true.  But Joseph Stefano wrote this as a follow-up to his original movie, more-or-less ignoring the existence of Parts II and III altogether.  If you take that into consideration, the plot of this film makes a little more sense, although its probably a little too late to introduce sense into this movie franchise, considering how senseless the last two screenplays were.

Anthony Perkins initially expressed interest in directing this installment as well, but Universal nixed that idea, based on the poor box office of the Perkins-directed part III.  As it turns out, the potential box office of part IV was not a factor, because it was never released in theaters, but instead went straight to video, premiering exclusively on the Showtime cable TV network in 1990.

The set-up here is pretty good.  Norman Bates calls in to a radio talk show hosted by Fran Ambrose.  Fran is played quite believably by C.C.H. Pounder.  Norman admits that he has killed, and says he is going to kill again.  While on the phone with Fran, Norman talks about his childhood, and we get to see several flashback sequences showing Norman in his teenage years.  The young Norman is played well by Henry Thomas of ET fame.  He does not try to copy Anthony Perkins’ mannerisms in any way, which was a good decision.  And young Norman’s mother is played in creepily good fashion by Olivia Hussey.

Norman’s present-day situation, and the reason that he feels he may have to kill again, is both surprising and disturbing.  And the film’s resolution seems to imply that the Bates family saga has finally come to a conclusion.  This movie is better than the cable TV movie-of-the-week status to which it was relegated.  It is interesting to observe the ease with which Anthony Perkins now slips in the skin of Norman Bates.  And while the quality of the movies definitely declined, Perkins’ performance is a marvel; he stayed true to the character, and made his atrocities believable from first to last.  (When Psycho IV was being filmed, Anthony Perkins had already been diagnosed as HIV positive, and was receiving treatment during filming.  This was one of the last projects he completed before his death.)

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PSYCHO (1960):  continued

Technique:  From the opening frames of the movie, Saul Bass’s jarring graphic title sequence coupled with Bernard Herrmann’s frenzied musical score are designed to put the viewer on edge.  After this unsettling opening the audience gets a breather, as slow, melodic strings take us into the movie proper.   Titles on the screen establish the setting, as the camera starts with a wide view of the city of Phoenix, panning and zooming in on an open window.  Inside are Sam and Marion,  sharing in a little afternoon delight.

It is interesting to observe that Marion Cranes’s brief story arc is basically encounters with a succession of men.   We first meet Marion with her boyfriend, Sam.  Marion is clearly a smart young woman, but she cannot make Sam look past his pride, and agree to move Marion in with her.  Next we see Marion back at the office where she works.  Here she interacts with her boss and his client, the brash and boorish man who flaunts his wad of cash in Marion’s face, offering to buy away her problems, more or less offering to buy her in the bargain.  One gets the sense that Marion has to deal with men like this quite frequently;  men who objectify her, never recognizing her true qualities.  It is a very well-drawn character portrait.

Marion’s only interaction with a woman occurs here in the office, with her co-worker, played effectively by Patricia Hitchcock (the daughter of Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville).  But Patricia’s character does all the talking, and her very small part exists only to provide some comic relief, all at the expense of relationships.   She has a couple of great lines,  casually mentioning that her mom gave her tranquilizers for her wedding night, and observing that the customer flirted with Marion and not her because “he must have seen my wedding ring”, when the truth is that Marion is a far more attractive woman.

The next man Marion interacts with is the highway patrolman.  He obviously represents authority, and does so with an effective thinly-veiled menace.  By this time Marion has taken the money, so she has reason to be afraid.  She asks him if she acts like she’s done something wrong, and he responds “quite frankly, yes.”  She then interacts with the car salesman, California Charlie, who is surprised by how quickly Marion wants to trade in her car, saying “this is the first time the customer ever high-pressured the salesman.”   As with all of the men Marion has encountered, he also has preconceived ideas about the roles of a female, telling her “you can do anything you’ve a mind to.  Being a woman, you will.”   And there is Mr. Highway Patrolman back on the scene, standing across the street, inscrutable behind his sunglasses, but menacing as ever.

Finally Marion arrives at the Bates Motel, and interacts with Norman Bates, the last man she will ever interact with in life.  To Marion the Bates Motel is a sanctuary, from the torrential rain and from her guilty thoughts.  She definitely finds Norman a bit odd, but clearly feels sorry for him, and likes his good nature.  His conversation shows a genuine interest in her as a person, which is more than all the other men she has dealt with have shown.  His gentle nature, his talk, have a strong influence on Marion, perhaps even more than she realizes.  By the time she returns to her room to shower, she has decided to return the money, and clearly Norman’s conversation played a strong role in that decision.

 psychoshower Shower scene:  The shower scene in Psycho is one of the most well-known movie scenes of all time, referenced and parodied in everything from The Simpsons and That 70′s Show to National Lampoon’s Vacation.  What makes it so memorable?  To start with, Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, that jarring string section, which sounds like the thrusts of a knife put to music, is unforgettable.  At one point Hitchcock considered playing the scene with no music.  Of course the music is considered such an iconic and integral part of the scene that it’s hard to imagine it without.  On the Universal blu-ray, you can watch the scene without a musical score.  To me it is far more menacing and frightening without the music.

Hitchcock said “It took us seven days to shoot that scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage.”   The scene itself is just a montage of images, many of them too brief to leave more than a subliminal impression.  And many of them are also unforgettable.   There is a point-of-view shot looking directly up at the shower head as water pours seemingly right at the camera.  There is a great shot of Marion’s hand grabbing the shower curtain as she falls, and the curtain pulling from the hooks, one by one.  There is a close-up shot of water swirling down the drain, which suddenly turns dark with blood.  The “blood” was actually Shasta chocolate syrup, according to make up man Jack Barron.  And the unforgettable final shot of the sequence, which starts on a close-up of Janet Leigh’s eye and slowly pulls back, revealing her dead body.  The camera continues into the bedroom, showing the newspaper that hides the money inside, then shows the open window, through which Norman can be seen running from the house to the motel.  Hitchcock wanted this to look like one continuous shot, but it is actually a composite of three separate pieces of film put seamlessly together.

The symbolic aspect of this scene should not be overlooked either.  As Janet Leigh described it:  “Hitch was very clear about what he wanted from me in the shower scene…The shower was a baptism, a taking away of the torment from her mind.  Marion became a virgin again.  He wanted the audience to feel her peacefulness, her kind of rebirth, so that the moment of intrusion is even more shocking and tragic.”

The shower scene is worthy of it’s place in cinematic history;  it is impeccably shot and edited, and endlessly entertaining.  You may view this scene ten times, and still discover new details with each viewing.

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The murder of Arbogast:  Another fantastic scene is the one showing “mother” killing Detective Arbogast.  This scene begins with Martin Balsam’s character entering the Bates house and slowly climbing the stairs.  When he gets to the top the camera cuts to a very high  overhead shot.  This is a shot that Hitchcock employed in almost every single movie he made.  Removing the camera from the action, giving us a “God’s-eye view” if you will, makes the viewer feel helpless, and heightens the tension to an extreme.  The way “mother’  purposefully strides towards Arbogast in this overhead shot is scary as hell, and the direct cut from the overhead shot to the close-up knife slash is equally effective, something that was deliberately planned by Hitchcock.  Arbogast’s fall down the stairs has a surreal, dreamlike quality, obtained through a process shot.  First Hitchcock did a dolly shot down the stairs, then sat Martin Balsam in a special chair in front of a transparency screen showing the stairs, and had the actor flail his arms.

Stairs are supposed to be a symbol of knowledge.  One must climb to achieve enlightenment.  Certainly Detective Arbogast does find the knowledge he is looking for when he ascends the stairs, but that knowledge costs him his life, and leaves him dead at the foot of the staircase.  Some knowledge is just not worth seeking, and some stairs not worth climbing.

There are several other great sequences, including the cleanup sequence.  We watch Norman Bates methodically clean the motel room and dispose of the evidence.  This takes several minutes of screen time, and occurs with no dialogue at all.  More of Hitchcock’s “pure” storytelling.   This is a movie that works exceptionally well on a storytelling level, but does have a deeper significance for those who choose to look for it.   It is absolutely required viewing for anybody that wants to understand Hitchcock, or American movies in general

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PSYCHO (1960) – Paramount – Rating:  9/10

 B&W – 109 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), Janet Leigh (Marion Crane), John Gavin (Sam Loomis), Vera Miles (Lila Crane), Martin Balsam (Milton Arbogast), Patricia Hitchcock (Caroline).

Produced by Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, based on the novel by Robert Bloch.

Director of Photography:  John L. Russell

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Bernard Herrmann

Titles designed by Saul Bass

Note:  Because of the significance of this film in Hitchcock’s catalog, I will divide my analysis into two parts.  The first is a general overview;  the second will be a more detailed look at several key scenes in the movie, as well as overall techniques employed by Hitchcock.  Also, in past Hitchcock movie entries I  have tried to walk a fine line between review and analysis.  Going forward I will focus on analysis, and presume that my audience has already seen the movie.

Everybody knows Psycho.   It is part of a select group of films (e.g. Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz) that are part of the the movie-going collective consciousness, to the extent that even those who haven’t seen it almost feel as if they have.   Elements of the movie have been referenced, alluded to, copied, and parodied hundreds of times in popular culture.  But Alfred Hitchcock certainly did not set out to make a groundbreaking movie.  Psycho was intended to be an “experiment” of sorts, one that proved to be a massive success for all involved.

Source material:  The movie is based upon the 1959  novel of the same name by Robert Bloch.    Bloch’s novel is a well-paced, fast-moving thriller that most fans of the movie would likely enjoy.   The plot structure of the movie follows the book to such a degree that the book almost reads as a movie treatment.   The most significant change made by Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano relates to character, not plot.  In the novel, Norman Bates is described as an overweight, middle-aged, pathetic looking man.  Bates’ physical description makes him a repulsive character from the first page.  For the movie, Hitchcock and Stefano made the wonderful decision that Norman Bates should be younger, more attractive, and likable.  Hitchcock loved to create a sympathetic antagonist, and perhaps there is no greater example  in his entire canon than that of Norman Bates.  He may be one of the most sympathetic “bad guys” in all of cinema.  Of course one could make the argument that Norman isn’t the villain at all;  rather his mother is the true antagonist, and Norman just another one of her victims.

The “experimental” film:  The word “experimental” could apply to a handful of Hitchcock’s films:  certainly The Wrong Man, Rope, and Lifeboat at the very least could be classified as such.  But Psycho was an experiment of a different nature, by Hitchcock’s own admission.

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He had just released North by Northwest in 1959.  That film was a breathtaking spectacle for the eyes, large in scope, shot in Technicolor and VistaVistion.  Why follow that up with a small scale, black and white film that has very little dialogue and takes place primarily in small cluttered rooms?  It is often said that Hitchcock had to make Psycho in black and white, because the censors wouldn’t have allowed him to show blood in color, to the extent that he wanted to show it.   That certainly was a consideration, but Alfred Hitchcock also chose to shoot in black and white (and Psycho was his last non-color film) because he used his television crew to film it.  Alfred Hitchcock had the notion that he could use the technical crew from his very popular “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” TV show to shoot a feature film, and that they could do it in less time and with less money.  This was of some significance to Hitchcock because he was also the film’s producer.  Keeping costs down meant more money in his pocket.  And Psycho went on to become one of the most profitable film’s of Hitchcock’s entire career.  His “experiment” paid off in spades. 

Themes and motifs:  All of the major themes of Hitchcock’s career can be found in Psycho, making it a very representative work for that reason.  The concept of guilt is very significant.  Marion Crane is hounded by guilt almost from the moment she decides to flee with the money.  It is only after talking to Norman Bates at the motel that she has a change of heart, and makes her plan to return the money.  What a sad irony that Norman helps her come to this realization, only to kill her moments later.  Norman’s guilt is of a much more profound and complex nature.  He is portrayed as a victim, as much as anyone in this film, and yet he is most certainly a killer.  Another major theme is the relationship between men and women.  Hitchcock often portrays relationships with much more realism than was common at the time.  His films show that sacrifices have to be made for relationships to succeed.   Marion Crane is ready to make any sacrifice to be with Sam, but his pride gets in the way.  When he remarks sardonically that she can lick the stamps when he writes his alimony checks, the love and devotion in Marion’s voice when she replies “I’ll lick the stamps” is heartbreaking.  One could argue that Sam could have prevented the tragedy to come if he had merely put aside his pride and agreed to let Marion live with him.

psycho3To say that the “mother” motif shows up in this film is a major understatement.  Mothers in Hitchcock’s films are often domineering and belittling of their adult male children, nowhere more so than here.  Even from the grave, Mrs. Bates’ domination of her son is total.  Hitchcock’s fear of the police is on display here as well.  Hitchcock often portrayed law enforcement as inept, bumbling fools.  Here however, the highway patrolman is played with a sense of menace, and it works very well.   Some Hitchcock scholars have pointed out the many staircases that figure in his movies, and there is one that features very prominently here.

Performance:  The two standout performances here belong to Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh.  Janet’s character undergoes a lot of different emotions in her shortened screen time, and she also has several scenes where she is alone on screen, and must convey her feelings with no dialogue.  She does a fantastic job of playing it low key.  And Perkins portrayal of Norman Bates is one of the best acting performances in any Hitchcock film.  Veteran character actor Martin Balsam is solid as always, in his portrayal of Arbogast.   The one performance that doesn’t work well at all is that of John Gavin, playing Sam Loomis.  There is no real chemistry between Gavin and Janet Leigh in their opening scene, and he comes off as somewhat wooden in all of his scenes.  Vera Miles, who plays Marion’s sister Lila, also gives a somewhat detached performance.  Miles is good, but somehow off-putting.

Promotion:  For Psycho  Alfred Hitchcock employed what may be the most ingenious marketing campaign in the history of motion pictures.  It all grew out of his concern that word of mouth would kill the movie’s surprises, and hurt its box office chances.  His first decision was not to have any advance screenings, either for critics or for a test audience.  He then made the decision that nobody should be allowed to enter the theater once the movie had started.  He actually made this a condition for theaters who wished to show the movie.  Movie theaters were sent a ton of promotional materials from Paramount explaining the policy of no late admissions, including signs, life-size cardboard figures of Alfred Hitchcock, and vinyl albums with repeating messages recorded by Hitchcock.  Here, you can listen to one of these promotional messages in its entirety.

Delivered with Hitchcock’s usual dry humor, the dialogue was written by James Allerdice, who also wrote most of Hitchcock’s dialogue for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show.  Another of the recorded messages  urged moviegoers not to give away the movie’s secrets to their friends.

Some theaters even hired security guards to man the lobbies, preventing late entries into the theater.  Hitchcock even went so far as to tell theater owners how to show the movie.  He suggested that the house lights should remain off for 30 seconds after the end credits finished.  Hitchcock suggested that this would imprint the movie’s images into the viewers minds.  He then suggested a very low light, ideally green, while moviegoers exited the theaters.   The campaign was a huge, unparalleled success, with massive lines queued up outside theaters all over the country.  Alfred Hitchcock also created one of the most unique and impressive theatrical trailers for this movie.  Rather than showing clips from the movie, the trailer features Alfred Hitchcock giving a “tour” of the Psycho movie set.  This highly entertaining trailer runs over 6 minutes in length, and can be seen in its entirety on the Universal blu-ray or DVD.

Recurring players:  Vera Miles appeared in the film The Wrong Man,

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 in addition to several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Mort Mills, who plays the highway patrolman so well, would later appear in Torn Curtain.  And Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia can also be seen in Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train.

Where’s Hitch:  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo comes very early in the film.  At about the 7:00 mark, he can be seen standing outside the office where Marion works, wearing a cowboy hat.

Academy Awards:  Psycho received four nominations:  Alfred Hitchcock for best director, Janet Leigh for best supporting actress, John L. Russell for best black-and-white cinematography, and Joesph Hurley, Robert Clatworthy and George Milo for best art decoration/set decoration black-and-white.  Psycho did not win in any of these categories.

What Hitch said:  He told Truffaut that his main satisfaction with Psycho was that “the film had an effect on the audiences, and I consider that very important.  I don’t care about the subject matter; I don’t care about the acting…I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion.  And with Psycho we most definitely achieved this…the audiences…were aroused by pure film.”

Blu-ray:  Universal’s excellent blu-ray release has a treasure trove of extra features, including a feature-length documentary, commentary track, and plenty more.

Below you can watch one of the best scenes from the movie:  Arbogast questioning Norman Bates about Marion.  Here are two character actors at the absolute peak of their craft, and they are a joy to watch.  It was Anthony Perkins idea to chew on the candy corns.  (Note:  Universal Pictures owns all rights to this movie.  If you haven’t seen it, please purchase or rent it!)

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Bates Motel debuted in mid March with a lot of hype and a lot of anticipation.  Now that season one is wrapped up, let’s take a look back at some of the best and worst moments.

Best overall performance:    Freddie Highmore does a spectacular job as the young Norman Bates.  In many ways he follows in the footsteps of Anthony Perkins.  There is no deliberate attempt to mimic Perkins’ performance, but Highmore manages to create a very real character who generates a lot of sympathy from the viewers of the show.   Vera Farmiga probably has the most difficult role, because Norma Bates is certainly a contributing factor to Norman’s mental state, and it would have been easy to make her a villain.  But she is not.  It is very hard to vilify her, because we see her own struggles, and her genuine concern for her children, as misguided as it might be at times.

Best supporting character:   Olivia Cooke does a wonderful job as Emma.   When she first appeared on screen with her oxygen tank in tow I groaned and thought “Oh great!  The token character battling a serious illness.”  What a pleasant surprise to see that Emma is much more.  Her character is very endearing, and often provokes a much needed smile from the viewer, something this show needs from time to time.

Worst supporting character:   This is a minor quibble, because all of the supporting characters are good.  But Keith Summers, played by W. Earl Brown, is a shallow caricature at best.  Granted, his character is killed off in the first episode, so there is really no time for character development.  He almost has to step on screen portraying menace from the first second.  Still, it did not need to be so painfully obvious that he was going to do something bad, and be killed in the process.

Best episode:  Episode 6, titled “The Truth”, was a real standout.  It featured the Bates family members all uniting together to take down Deputy Shelby.   The family dynamic was believable;  it was nice to be rooting for the family unit as a whole.  And the tension level was very high.  I have seen season finales of other dramatic shows that could not compare to this mid-season episode.

Worst episode:    There is no really bad episode, but episode nine (“Underwater”), felt like the series was just treading water; there was no real ratcheting of the tension leading into the series finale.  And the ending “surprise”, with Jere Burns character Abernathy hiding in the back of Norma’s car with a gun, was predictably boring and cliched.

Best reference to the original Psycho movie:  There are several moments in this series that recall the original movie.  My personal favorite is the origin of Norman Bates interest in taxidermy.  Recalling the scene in Psycho when Norman Bates talks about how he likes “stuffing things”, one can almost imagine him recalling a dead dog from his childhood.  The shows’ writers managed to take what many would consider to be a creepy hobby and add an endearing touch.  Bravo!

Creepiest/most shocking moment:  There are plenty of choices here.  My favorite would be Deputy Shelby’s decomposing, post-autopsy corpse lying in Norma’s bed.  Truly shocking, and completely unexpected.  The runner-up moment would have to be Norman and his mother snuggled up together in Norman’s small bed.

Unanswered questions:   For starters, Sheriff Romero’s character is one giant enigma.  He was written and played very mysteriously all season, and even though viewers might have a little better understanding of him now, there is a lot we don’t know about him.   We have to assume he knows about and probably condones the pot-growing operation.  But what about all the deaths?  For a very small town, a lot of people die, many in gruesome fashion.  Does Romero have any real authority, or does Dylan’s boss run the town?  How could someone being hung upside-down and set on fire in the middle of town be such a ho-hum affair?  A similar event in a major metropolitan city would create a media frenzy.

Body count:  Keith Summers, Bradley’s father, the unnamed person hanging upside-down and on fire, Ethan (the Asian dude that is Dylan’s partner watching the pot fields), Jiao (the poor Chinese girl), Deputy Shelby, Jake Abernathy, Miss Watson.  Eight murders in one small town in a few short months.  That would almost certainly make the fictitious White Pines Bay the murder capital of America, yeah?

Overall rating:  Season one of Bates Motel gets a solid A rating.  It can appeal to fans of Hitchcock’s original film, and a younger generation of viewers that have never seen it.  It is both contemporary and classic.  It has good writing, great performances, and likable characters.  It channels its influences well (Psycho, Twin Peaks, Lost), while still being original.  We can only hope season two lives up to the high standards established here.

batesmotelepisode10one Midnight - Episode 10 – original airdate 5/20/2013 For the last three episodes, this show has been building up for a Norma/Abernathy showdown.  After the somewhat formulaic ending of last week’s episode (how many times have we seen the bad guy suddenly pop up in the back seat of the car and place a gun to the driver’s head?) it was natural to assume that this season would end with the Bates family facing off with the sinister sleazebag Abernathy.   Or would it?  There have also been plenty of surprises, so maybe the season would end with another didn’t-see-that-coming moment.   How about a little of both?

First off, hats off to writers Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin, who also wrote the excellent episode 6, and the underwhelming episode 9.  This is a very well-written conclusion to the first season, and it  does just what a good season finale should do:  it answers some questions, provides some clues to others, and piques the viewers’ interest for next season.  Last week I questioned the relevance of the Norman/Miss Watson storyline,  saying that it was wasted screen time if it didn’t build to something.   Well the writers knew exactly what they were doing, because it builds to something pretty big, and completely unexpected.  batesmotelepisode10two

Nestor Carbonell continues to impress as Sheriff Romero.  His character has been hard to peg;  he has been written and played as a guy who may go either way.  Is he the good sheriff who cares about his town, or is he just another Shelby, or worse?  I found myself cheering for his actions in this episode, although I think there are still questions about him and his choices.

So lets review Norman’s last day of season one.  He asks Emma to the dance (or Emma tricks him into asking her); he overhears Miss Watson having a violent conversation on her cell phone, after which she gives him another of those awkward embraces; he sees Bradley and Dylan together and realizes that they are clearly attracted to each other;  his mother Norma confesses to him that her brother forced her to have sex with him while she was a teenager (really Norma?  while you are waiting with your son for his date to arrive, his date to his first ever school dance, that’s when you decide to spring that?  Granted, you are worried about your showdown with Abernathy, but still, how could you?); Norman stares at Bradley at the dance, prompting Emma to leave (way to be a jerk Norman, she is clearly the girl for you);  Bradley’s bf punches Norman in the face; Norman is walking home from the dance in the rain, when a car pulls up… (Pretty messed up day, huh?  Any wonder he has problems?)

The expected showdown is kind of a bait and switch by the writers, giving us what we wanted, and something else we didn’t expect, which left me pleased overall, and hungry for more.

Stay tuned next week for a season one summary, including some questions that didn’t get answered this season.

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