Saturday, February 23, 2019

Psycho II (1983)

Director: Richard Franklin                               Writer: Tom Holland
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                            Cinematography: Dean Cundey
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia and Vera Miles

I have to admit, I was more than a little dubious when I learned that a sequel was being made to Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic film Psycho. After all, what was left to do? In terms of story, Norman Bates was in a mental institution and it was over twenty years later. In terms of film technique, how do you go about trying to top Hitchcock? But after being compelled to go to the theater and watch it back in 1983, I was delighted at what a good film it turned out to be, one that not only stands on its own but was a worthy successor to the original. Psycho II brings back Anthony Perkins to reprise his most famous—or infamous, take your pick—role, along with the great Vera Miles from the first film. Hitchcock even makes his traditional cameo early on. Meg Tilly, fresh from her breakout role in The Big Chill, does a nice job as the young girl who befriends Perkins. Robert Loggia is great as always, and would go on to have a string of memorable performances in eighties films. Dennis Franz makes an early appearance, before his lengthy career in television, and Hugh Gillin shows up as the sheriff. The film was originally intended as a cable-TV movie after Perkins declined the offer to reprise his character, but when he read Tom Holland’s script he signed on and it was turned into a feature. Universal’s motivation for making the film was the release of Robert Bloch’s sequel, which poked fun at Hollywood slasher films, and their concern about what damage it might do to the reputation of Hitchcock’s original.

The film opens in black and white, the neon sign of the Bates’ Motel glowing in the night. When Janet Leigh suddenly appears in her robe, the audience realizes it is about to re-experience the famous shower scene from the 1960 film. And it does. Afterward, as Hitchcock’s camera leaves the bathroom and pans to the window framing the house, the color comes up and the opening credits begin. The film proper opens on the court hearing in which Anthony Perkins is declared sane and the judge releases him. Vera Miles is in the courtroom and is naturally outraged. Robert Loggia is Perkins’ psychiatrist, and is also confronted by Miles, who is convinced he’ll murder again. The next shot has Perkins returning to the motel and the house with a bag of groceries. He’s naturally apprehensive, and it begs the question of why he would return there, but it was apparently Perkins’ idea and Loggia thinks he can handle it. After the doctor leaves, however, he finds a note from his mother under the phone and flashes back to killing her. Later he goes to his new job as a cook’s helper at a diner owned by Robert Alan Browne. Also working there are waitresses Claudia Bryar, an older woman, and the young Meg Tilly. Tilly has just broken up with her boyfriend and has no place to live so Perkins invites her stay at the hotel. When Perkins gets there he’s shocked that the new manager, Dennis Franz, is renting out rooms by the hour, and so he fires him.

Tilly wants to leave, and though Perkins convinces her to stay, she does seem a little too inquisitive about his former life. He eventually tells her about killing his mother, but not about the other murders. When Perkins gets another note from “mother,” this time at work, he’s convinced it’s the work of Franz. Of course Tilly takes a shower that night, and director Richard Franklin replicates the shots from the original--complete with someone spying through a hole in the wallpaper. After Perkins gets a phone call from “mother,” Toomey is murdered in the office with a knife, and the whole thing seems to be starting again. Cinematographer Dean Cundey executes some terrific moving camera shots, especially tracking Perkins from the front going up the stairs. And while Dutch angles have been overused in the decades since, they add a lot of atmosphere to certain scenes and imbue the entire production with an underlying menace that stays with the viewer. One of the brilliant choices by producer Bernard Schwartz and director Richard Franklin was to have Jerry Goldsmith score the film. So many films from the nineteen-eighties have synthesized soundtracks that wind up ruining many otherwise interesting movies from the period. Goldsmith wrote a beautiful symphonic score--and like the film itself, has no interest in competing with the iconic Bernard Herrmann original--that gives the production a timeless quality that makes it just as enjoyable to watch today.

One of the great features of Joe Stefano’s original screenplay is that after the murder of Janet Leigh the viewer is forced to identify with Anthony Perkins for the rest of the film. Tom Holland’s story strives for something similar right from the outset. Meg Tilly’s character, on the other hand, is far more difficult to read, and it’s only after the film is over and the final reveal happens that her behavior makes sense. The ending is certainly unique, especially the idea of the overlapping storylines that nimbly keep the viewer from guessing what is really going on. Reviews at the time were mixed, as would be expected, with purists decrying the travesty of any kind of Hitchcock sequel, and others impressed with the obvious affection the filmmakers had for their subject. The ending bothered a lot of reviewers who felt that it diminished the original intent of the screenplay, essentially changing the story from what it was. But the next film in the franchise did away with that objection, which in retrospect now leaves this film wide open for viewers to decide the significance of the final scene for themselves. Anthony Perkins does an excellent job of crawling back into Norman’s skin, especially at the close of the film, and even though it wasn’t specifically intended to set up another sequel it’s tailor made for one. It’s also great to see Vera Miles reprising the character of Lila, as well as the brief appearance of Robert Loggia. While Hitchcock pedants may not like the film, Psycho II really is a fascinating attempt to continue a classic story and has a lot to recommend it for more open-minded viewers.

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