Psycho III

August 29, 2011

Things are quiet out at the Bates Motel, since that bad business a few years back. Oh, customers are infrequent, but then it’s been like that since they put in the new highway a few miles away. In a way, that’s probably a good thing.

The proprietor, Norman, continues to recover. He got through the murderous split personality of Psycho and survived a shaky rehabilitation in Psycho II. Now we find him back home, working at his favorite hobby: stuffing birds with sawdust with one hand, reaching for a peanut-butter cracker with the other.

It can’t last, of course. Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) collects insects, even though he wouldn’t hurt a fly. In Psycho III, which Perkins himself directed, trouble comes in the form of a wandering nun (Diana Scarwid), who carries some sexual attractiveness as well as a vague physical reminder of Marion Crane, the ill-fated character played by Janet Leigh in the 1960 original.

What poor Norman is doing, as always, is fighting the nasty influence of his mother, whose body is still stuffed in an upstairs bedroom and who still seems determined to screw up Norman’s love life. But there’s another scoundrel on the scene, a drifter (Jeff Fahey) who’s trying to get too friendly with Scarwid. The combination of things pushes Norman over the edge, again.

Perkins has made this Psycho much in the spirit of its predecessors—he obviously understands the idiosyncrasies of the series. Especially skillfully achieved is the blend of jump-out-of-your-chair horror with very dry humor.

On top of that, Perkins actually captures a few moments of tenderness between his character and Scarwid, as though these two bruised souls had finally found a soul mate. Perkins’ care in keeping the characters true prevents the film from turning into a mere campy romp (as was also the case with Psycho II, directed by Richard Franklin).

As it is, the picture is a great deal of fun—more sheerly enjoyable than any Hollywood movie released so far this summer. Neither of the two sequels is as pure or innovative as the Hitchcock original, but both have been solidly entertaining, and respectful of the original without being too reverent.

The famous shower scene is referred to here, but with a twist. A phone booth figures prominently, though I shouldn’t disclose how, and there’s this ice chest that provides a final resting place for someone, in a marvelously gruesome send-off.

After what Norman Bates goes through this time, it’s to be hoped that he finds some peace. Don’t bet on it, though; if Psycho III is as popular as it deserves to be, the Universal executives may decide to intrude on Norman’s quiet existence once again.

First published in the Herald, July 1986

I’ve never seen it again, but this movie made a great first impression. It had a buoyant World Premiere showing at the Seattle International Film Festival that year, with Anthony Perkins in attendance (I got to interview Perkins for an hour, in the day when you could actually sit and have a wide-ranging conversation with an interview subject for that long, and it was one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done). The film certainly gave off directorial confidence, and a strong sense of humor. It’s a drag that Perkins only directed once more, with the unmemorable Lucky Stiffs, but at least he made his peace with Norman after a couple of decades of being dominated by the role.