People have been disparaging film franchises as cash grabs since time immemorial, and sometimes they are right to do so...
...Horror in particular is notorious for taking well-loved figures and dragging them kicking and screaming across the cobbled streets of a series until they emerge, beaten and bloodied on the other side of an eighth entry. Sometimes, though, a beloved film’s journey into the world of franchises results in an unexpectedly fun and fulfilling addition to the foundational story. Such is the case, for me, when it comes to the entirety of Anthony Perkins’ run as Norman Bates in the Psycho films. In honor of its 30th anniversary this week I wanted to revisit one of the more unusual entries in the lovingly crafted saga of Norman Bates: Psycho IV: The Beginning.
I discovered the Psycho franchise entirely on accident. Until the day I stumbled upon all the sequels at once on some cable streaming app I had thought it went untouched, contained in its bubble of influence never to be revisited. I would have been more skeptical of their quality had I not noticed one beautifully consistent element: Anthony Perkins played Norman in every single one of them, even stepping behind the camera to the director’s chair for the third entry. Now, it is often the case that majorly influential roles will eclipse an artist’s career such that the shadow of their breakout is inescapable. It is also often true these roles haunt the actors who inhabited them like an unshakeable specter. Some people, for better or worse, are inseparable in the public consciousness from the roles that put them firmest in the public eye. This feels true of Perkins and his role as Norman Bates, but with one notable difference. Perkins does not seem to want to shake Norman off entirely, at least when it comes to his journey through the franchise. Indeed, it seems like he has an immense amount of fun dancing the line between sympathy and psychopath that Norman so precariously inhabits. Nowhere in the series does he dance that line in so unique a fashion as in Psycho IV.
Directed by Mick Garris and written by Joseph Stefano, this 1990 TV movie found Norman recounting his psychosexual murderous origins over the phone to a radio talk show host (C.C.H Pounder) who is doing a series on why sons kill their mothers. Where the original, through certain lenses, allows for some ambiguity as to whether or not Norman’s mother was truly abusive, the sequels lean into that possibility as truth, and none more so than Psycho IV. As the night progresses and Norman tells of his sordid childhood abuse at the hands of his mother (incomparably and disturbingly played by Olivia Hussey), he also reveals his urge to kill again and his fear that his soon-to-be child will inherit his mental illness.
Perkins’ portrayal of Norman has always been one of a traumatized and dangerously sympathetic figure, one who could lure you in with his perceived innocence even as he was calculating his way around you, but Psycho IV leans into his trauma such that we almost have no choice but to at least feel the shock and sadness that comes with such discoveries. Psycho IV is the first time we see Norman’s home life playing out, with his mother alive to have her own voice apart from him—sort of. Norman is, after all, still the one in complete control of how the story gets told. Nevertheless, Psycho IV is perhaps the one entry to paint the most glaring picture not of his murders or his all-consuming love for his mother, but of the manipulative, abusive woman his mother was to him. She was just as sick as he, and in fact went so far as to put him in a dress herself and shove him in a closet calling him “Norma”, all as a way to shame him for his body’s response to close contact with a woman’s body. More specifically, her own. She manipulates him into thinking every other woman outside of her is dirty and undeserving, all while yelling such vile things as “I should have killed you when I found out about you” and telling her boyfriend how Norman is “not too badly hung either”.
While such an in-depth exploration does go a little beyond anything we ever truly needed to know that wasn’t implied to us in the original film, it does offer up a new side of Norman to explore. Beyond his abusive childhood and murderous exploits with any woman who finds him attractive or vice versa, Norman is a man fully aware of his illness. More than that, he is aware of the damage he has caused because of it. So aware of it and where he believes it stemmed from, in fact, that he’s willing to kill to stop its continuing. You see, somewhere along the way during his time in the mental institution between the second and third films of the franchise, Norman got married to a psychologist. They seem happy and supportive enough of each other save for one detail. His wife is pregnant and unwilling to give up the baby. For this, Norman has decided he needs to kill her so he doesn’t risk his sickness being passed on to his unborn child.
Troubling as the concept may be, it’s the only way he sees to stop the violence. This isn’t the first time Norman has tried to break the hold of Mother on his mind, you see. At the end of the third entry, we find Norman on his way to the institution for a second time after symbolically killing Mother as she demanded he murder someone else. As he rides away to his destination he says “I’ll finally be free”—but yet even then he carries with him a part of his mother, literally the chopped off hand of a woman who entered the second film calling herself his “real mother”. If it sounds convoluted that’s because it is. The entire Psycho franchise skips along the tightrope of camp and genuine intrigue, thanks in no small part to Perkins and various others reprising roles from previous entries, and to the through line of it all—Norman’s apparent unending battle against the dominating force of his mother.
Psycho IV spends the entire film painting a vicious and complex picture of Norman’s mother and his perception of her while telling us how desperately he does not want to pass on the illness he inherited from her. Yet he also admits, characteristic coy smile on his face, that his mother, however indirectly, has enormous influence over all of his actions. The fourth entry to the franchise finds him reiterating the desire to be free as in its predecessor and confronting his demons both figuratively and literally onscreen. And yet, he is never quite the one to get the last word.
Whether or not you enjoy these campy expansions on the Bates family history and whether or not you consider Norman to be something of a tragic figure by the end of the fourth iteration, one thing remains true. Perkins solidified Norman as one of the greatest unreliable figures in film and was able to keep that lure every step of the way. He is never, ever to be trusted, even if he smiles in your face and tells you the saddest story you ever heard. His perspective is one tainted if not by mental illness then by an obsessive need for control he isn’t always able to articulate. A need to control his home space, his family life, and perhaps most important of all, a need to control the narrative. Mother won’t be silenced for long.
By Katelyn Nelson