Psycho II is, to me, Anthony Perkins' best performance. Period. But this is not a critical film essay, nor is it a scholarly argument for the importance or relevance of the sequels to Hitchcock's 1960 picture, it is instead a journaling of what these movies meant to me, and the impact they had on my life. I can actually think of three instances where the phrase "that movie changed my life" applies to me in a major way, and Psycho was the first. A child's obsession with movies about a serial killer might seem like cause for alarm, but they helped me overcome an anxiety I had over horror (or anything remotely scary for that matter) when I was young. The first movie I saw in the theater was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and I emerged with eyes full of tears. Judge Doom scared the hell out of me, and that final confrontation between him and Eddie Valiant still gives me chills. When I was six I screamed my head off in Walt Disney World's Haunted Mansion, I was terrified. Everything scared me.
Psycho was my first true horror movie love and it represented a conquering of the darkness... I walked into that "haunted house" alone and confronted my fears, and what I found was a therapeutic treasure. Anthony Perkins came to love playing, and even directing, the character of Norman Bates, and it was his raw passion for cinema that lit the fuse on film for me. Can one movie actually change your life? I can tell you that without Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece that I wouldn't be who I am, or where I am, without it. So let's toast some cheese sandwiches, pour a glass of milk, and dive into the belly of the beast.
A: Universal Studios Florida.
There are two versions of Jason Anders, the one who existed before visiting the attraction Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies and the one who afterwards exited through the Bates Motel gift shop (with bags full of merchandise) during the summer of his 6th grade year. I first read about the attraction in the Universal Studios brochure at my great-grandmother's house and was obsessed with its promise of sending a chill down my spine. That classic drawing of Hitchcock's profile captured my imagination, and one of the souvenirs purchased that day was this coffee mug...
The attraction then shuffled its audience into the next room, where before us was a full stage set of the Bates Motel and mansion. It was beautiful, unlike anything I had ever seen. Something about that set struck a chord with me and I fell deeply in love. The gothic mansion on the hill above a seedy motel with flickering neon lights dimmed as Anthony Perkins appeared on a movie screen to discuss the importance of "the shower scene." The what? Hosts from the attraction proceeded to pluck volunteers from the audience to participate in an onstage demonstration of how the shower scene was filmed. I knew, at that moment, I had to see this movie. I even bought the Universal Studios souvenir video so that I could watch clips from the attraction at home. This was unlike anything that had existed in any theme park before or since, it remains my favorite attraction of all time. To describe its scope and scale to anyone who didn't experience it first-hand is difficult, though I tried on this blog a decade ago in an interview with Susan Lustig, a creative who developed The Art of Making Movies. These were only portions of the full experience, which included using binoculars to spy on people in a building "across the street" on a Rear Window set (my sister and I spent a lot of time at this spot, a video looping above us of Jimmy Stewart talking about the movie it was based on - guys, JAMES STEWART filmed a video for this attraction!) or filming yourself falling off the Statue of Liberty in a re-creation of the climax from Saboteur. I arrived back home in Tennessee after our Orlando trip and ran to open the Columbia House catalogue to order two movies, The Birds and Psycho.
|(from Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies at Universal Studios Florida)|
At Universal there was a large framed one-sheet for Psycho II hanging at the exit. "It's 22 years later, and Norman Bates is coming home." After seeing Psycho, this poster taunted me. I saw the VHS for II and III at Reel Collections, a video store at a Knoxville mall, but could not afford to buy them myself, refusing to ask my parents out of fear that they wouldn't allow me to watch them. Then, finally, I found them at a rental store called Movieland Video, where the clerks allowed me to rent R-rated movies. "What did you get?" my mom asked. "Rock-a-Doodle and Rover Dangerfield," I said. I finally had them, this was it, the sequels I had been waiting for months to see.
If this film were produced today it would have been a reboot, to pick a story up in 1983 in real time from where it left off in 1960 with the same actors simply never happens, with the exception of the new Halloween (a franchise notable for its multitude of Psycho nods). The film opens with a beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith as the sun rises on an empty Bates mansion, cut to a courtroom where some "legal hocus pocus" is going down. Norman Bates is being released, and Lila Loomis isn't happy about it. Another Tarantino quote I love regarding this movie is, "Vera Miles is back and she's a fucking bitch!" Right off the bat Norman thinks he sees someone in his mother's window as he returns home. Is he still crazy after all these years? Norman is trying his hardest to be a good man. Watch the brilliant and haunting way in which Perkins gazes at himself in the mirror, it's like you can read his mind but you also wonder what he's thinking about at the same time.
Norman: "You smell good."
Mary: "I do?"
Mary: "What do I smell like?"
Norman: "You smell like... like the toasted cheese sandwiches my mother used to bring me when I was in bed with a temperature. She used to do lots of nice things for me, before she went... before she became..."
Mary: "Shh, just remember the good things she did for you. Only the good things."
Norman: "I can't. They're not there anymore."
Mary: "Of course they're there."
Norman: "No, the doctors took them all away. Along with everything else. Except... except those sandwiches."
Mary: "Just sleep, Norman. Just sleep."
The framing that scene ends on is surreal. This is not an 80s slasher, this is art.
There are so many twists and turns in this story that it makes you start feeling a little bit crazy, capped with an ending we could have never predicted. That's the greatest thing about this movie, it's packed with so many surprises that when the picture ends you need to take a moment to reflect, just to make sure you really do have it all figured out. It's a slow burn that builds to a manic pace until you reach that booming music and iconic shot that cuts to the end credits, putting you on the edge of your damn seat to where you CANNOT get Psycho III into the VCR quickly enough!
For all its wickedness, this movie still teases you with redemption, especially with the Catholic overtones, though redemption seems far more unlikely here than it did in II. In fact, Perkins and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue tried to convince Universal to let them end it on a poignant note, but the studio refused and slapped on the strangest ending that, honestly, I loved as a kid, but knowing how perfectly it all could have ended it just makes me angry now.
There are some beautiful moments in III that you just don't see in your typical slasher film. The shot of Norman sitting in the dark playing the piano just so happens to be the film's haunting theme composed by Carter Burwell, which is my all-time favorite horror movie score. Perkins encouraged the cast and crew to watch the Coen Brother's Blood Simple from which he drew inspiration, another film featuring Burwell's work. We spend a lot of time alone with Norman, in the stillness and silence of his mansion, as he indulges in taxidermy and plopping spoonfuls peanut butter onto Ritz Crackers, feeling uneasy that the stuffing of birds is happening at such close proximity. We witness his struggles, the fighting of his own inner demons, and his sadness. There is unbearable weight of loneliness that Perkins has captured starting with since the first film - at his most conscious he knows that he must separate himself from people to keep them out of harm's way, but he also needs companionship, and dammit, he tries. There's a lot of remorse, captured both in quiet moments and in the screenplay.
Tracy: "We always hear the objections of the victims and their relatives, but in a way, murderers, who can't help themselves, are victims, too. Your point of view would be important to me."
Norman: "I understand. My cure couldn't cure the hurt I caused. My return to sanity didn't return the dead, there's no way to make up that loss. The past... is never really past. It stays with me all the time, and no matter how hard I try I can't really escape. It's always there, throbbing inside you, coloring your perceptions of the world and, sometimes, controlling them."
There's also a love story in III, not only with the corpse of the girl from the toilet but also with a suicidal nun-on-the-run who accidentally committed murder herself. This is classic stuff. You get to see Norman on an actual date in a restaurant, among actual people, attempting to be an actual human being... something that we know in our gut at this point in the series he is utterly incapable of. You can read in his eyes as they dance that he desperately wants love, but knows he can never have it. "What should we toast to?" asks Maureen. "Happiness." says Norman. The most heartbreaking dialogue is in the hospital scene...
Norman: "People should look out for each other, don't you think? We sometimes get lost, but if there'd only been someone looking out for us, to help us understand, maybe we wouldn't do some of the sad, awful things we do."
The movie continuously flips from heartfelt, to hilarious, to disturbingly bizarre. The drifter known as Duke is slimy and fun, and I really enjoy watching him go from cool to batshit crazy. The performance by Jeff Fahey is fantastic. Hugh Gillin as Sheriff John Hunt is a comfort in both films, you may remember him as the mayor in Back to the Future: Part III, he's great in thirds, I suppose. In both movies you feel he really cares for Norman. I just feel safe when he's around. Plus watching him unknowingly swallow bloody ice cubes is the funniest scene in all the Psycho movies. I also love seeing a college party happening at the Bates Motel, we rarely see the place overrun with guests and it creates all kinds of trouble for poor, crazy Norman. The movie is filled with great, dark dialogue...
Maureen: "I guess I did leave the bathroom a mess."
Norman: "I've seen worse."
Psycho III, even with the cryptic ending slapped on by the studio who was no doubt hoping for another sequel, is the perfect ending for this franchise. Free or not, Norman has exercised the demons and is going away. He'll never get out again.
Many years later I would stand in the exact spot where the mansion once resided, the house now gone and replaced with a Curious George playground, wearing a Universal Orlando name tag and spieling about the legacy of Psycho to my V.I.P. Experience trainers, David and Alina. Standing next to a Woody Woodpecker cutout, I connected the bird with Psycho III (Burwell's score even echoes and distorts Woody's theme song as the cartoon plays in the background of a scene, it's wonderful) in a passionate 10-minute speech that ultimately landed my job as a tour guide. I had made my way from the hills of Tennessee to working at the very theme park that made me a movie geek, and my new job was to talk about the things I loved. Life was good.
If I wouldn't have visited Universal when I was young, I wouldn't have experienced the Hitchcock attraction that made me fall in love with movies. Not only movies, but with filmmaking itself. In which case this blog wouldn't exist. My love for storytelling might have never been realized. That passion for entertainment exploded from within me right there in that theme park when I was a kid, and I returned from Orlando immediately wanting to consume classic films, that same week tuning into AMC and watching Tony Perkins in Fear Strikes Out with my mom, so excited to dive head first into movie marathons... there were so many movies to watch and I didn't know where to begin! The fact is that I wouldn't have explored films obsessively or moved to Orlando after college to pursue a career in theme parks, a road that eventually led me to Hollywood, without Psycho. The first film books I ever bought were on the making of Psycho (I also bought the Bloch novels, but I didn't like that his Norman was... gross.)
I'll never forget the day that I landed a job at the Studio Tour at Universal Studios Hollywood. It was the greatest day of my life. Only a month prior I considered buying a very expensive VIP Tour ticket solely for the advertised photo op in front of the Bates house. From the top of the parking garage I stood looking out at the Psycho set and just took in the moment. That very house had inspired me since childhood, and there it was, now part of my workplace. Kids had made fun of me for loving those movies, but those films never stopped speaking to me. I moved around a lot as a kid and was at times quite lonely, I think it was Norman's loneliness that I related to. There's a poetry to his performance that hits me on the deepest level. I sometimes forget these are horror movies. My favorite single frame of film from any of the Psycho movies is when Norman returns to the house from his dinner with Marion in the parlor. He just sits there at the kitchen table, alone. What is going through his head? It's an incredible shot and I related to it.
I had studied Perkins' life and career as a kid, reading biographies like Split Image and watching everything from Lucky Stiff to Edge of Sanity. I was nervous to rent Crimes of Passion in 8th grade, but I secretly did it anyways. Falling in love with movies is what created a dialogue with the people who I now consider my best friends. It has landed me multiple jobs and has ultimately shaped my life. Without a passion for film and theme parks, I honestly don't know where (or who) I'd be.
When I landed a promotion at Universal to Supervisor of Entertainment Operations, I quickly got myself in trouble with HR for filming a documentary about Psycho's legacy in relation to the theme park, which was intended to be used as a training video. I worried, once again, that I was getting fired. I was told to surrender the footage in which I interviewed the Park's creative director, John Murdy, and all the performers who played Norman. I even filmed one performer's set from every possible angle (even from inside the trunk of Marion's car) and edited it all together. I was told to cease and desist. So I did.
I'll never forget the first email that I sent to repair the rotting steps that the performers use at the house for Halloween Horror Nights as it became a safety concern, or the ribbon cutting to celebrate a trailer upgrade for the actors, complete with Psycho-themed Voodoo Donuts, or teaching day one orientation for new hires and educating them on the history of that set. There was also a failed attempt at an outdoor screening of Psycho at the Bates Motel, which I'm still hoping they figure out one day. We even had Janet Leigh's original body-double for the shower scene, Marli Renfro, on site one day and she autographed a photo for me that read "Be careful taking a shower!" Visits to the Psycho house on a daily basis was now officially part of my salaried job. What is life? Psycho screened at the Universal Cinema for one night only and I, of course, had to attend. Who was sitting behind me but the entire cast and crew of Bates Motel! The entire movie was spent listening in on Freddie Highmore making Norman jokes and observations with writer/producer Kerry Ehrin. What a magical night at the movies!
So now, here I sit, alone at 12:30 a.m. with the Psycho III Blu-ray from Shout! Factory spinning in the background. I've grown, as has the video presentation of both films. As bad as the Universal Home Video release was, does anyone remember that GoodTimes DVD? Ew. (At one point I even met with the Director of Universal Archives & Collections to inquire about what materials the studio had on hand from the sequels, but there was nothing.) I'm reflecting on my five-years spent at Universal, where I reached a high point donning suits and filling theaters on the Lot with an audience of Studio Tour guides to perform Q&As with cinema legends like John Landis (yes, we discussed Psycho IV), Joe Dante, and Tippi Hedren. With Tippi, surrounded onstage by fake birds, we discussed the magic of being on the Lot, and what her first job in the industry was like, starring in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Life had become surreal. This is what I had dreamed of as a kid in my bedroom, watching these same people interviewed on my DVDs and thinking, "I want to be a part of that."
|(Me on the Psycho set)|
Sometimes it's easy to feel lost and alone in that process of finding your place in the world, even when surrounded by people who love you, and in those moments it is vital to remind yourself how far you've come, and what it is that got you to where you are. For me, it was sitting alone in my bed at midnight as a child watching my brand new Psycho VHS, seeing the big reveal at the end of the film that truly shocked me, and while experiencing the high that I was on from being completely engrossed in movie magic, I knew I was ultimately, somehow, bound for Los Angeles. There were many other movies and filmmakers along the way that would become a new obsession, but I'll never forget the origin of finding my passion, in the belly of the beast, with the house that Hitch built.
The point of this post is, ultimately, to both remind and encourage you to celebrate your fandom. When someone puts you down for the things you love, or you're worried about how others might think of you as silly for indulging as a fervent fan in whatever it is that makes you happy, remind yourself of why you love those things and how they've helped you cope with life. They might call you crazy, but hey, we all go a little mad sometimes.