Psycho Path: Tracing Norman Bates' Twisted Trail Through Page and Screen Part 3
Welcome to the third installment of Psycho Path, a look at fictional madman Norman Bates from the Psycho franchise.
Intended to run in five parts, Psycho Path will focus on each of Norman’s adventures – in novels, films, and television series – while examining each incarnation of the character and the differences amongst them.
Check out past installments of Psycho Path: Tracing Norman Bates' Twisted Trail Through Page and Screen here
Part III: Third Time’s the Charm
When we last left Norman Bates, he was either dead or insane, depending on which Psycho II you’d like to refer to (book or film, respectively). With the novel series keeping idle for nearly a decade between books (the third and final chapter of Bloch’s Psycho run wouldn’t appear until 1990), the only offerings fans could find in the wake of each Psycho II were another film sequel and a failed television pilot that never went to series titled “Bates Motel” (not to be confused with A&E’s current prequel/reboot).
So it will be those two bits of Psycho lore that we look at today, along with their quite individual takes on Norman Bates. Though the two Normans here are different from each other in many ways, there is a strangely charming presentation of each that binds the two together a bit more closely than previous versions of Norman. Both the Norman of Psycho III and of “Bates Motel” are presented as kinder, gentler psychopaths – each a far cry from the repulsive madman that creator Robert Bloch gave us.
”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.”
A direct sequel to Psycho II helmed by Norman Bates himself, Anthony Perkins, 1986’s Psycho III picks up six months after the ending of the previous installment. “Mother” has been restored to her room and rocker, with Norman as mad as he ever was. We catch up with him poisoning and stuffing tiny birds in the film’s opening, staying as non-violent as he can until various external factors force him to don his mother’s wig and dress again, slashing his way through the film’s cast and racking up yet another body count.
These factors come in the form of – Duke (Jeff Fahey, at his sleazy best), a shady drifter who takes the job as Norman’s assistant manager at the motel; Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell), a reporter writing an article on the insanity plea defense who takes an unhealthy (for her) interest in Norman; and Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid), a lovely young ex-nun (and Marion Crane lookalike) who happens upon the Bates Motel in her darkest hour.
Tracy and Duke eventually meet, then conspire together to keep an eye on Norman to see if he’s slipped back into his murderous ways, while Norman saves Maureen’s life after she attempts suicide (bungling a murder attempted by “Mother”). These pressures are too much for Norman’s fragile psyche, and he begins taking up his old habits – killing a couple of motel guests before eventually pointing Mother’s knife in the direction of Duke, Tracy, and even Maureen.
Still, along the way, there are moments throughout that underscore the kind person that Norman truly wants to be, when he doesn’t have a monster on his back. There is the quote from above, spoken to Tracy as she’s grilling him about his previous victims and the disappearance of Mrs. Spool (the kindly old lady revealed to be Norman’s true mother at the end of the previous film, now a corpse in the Bates Mansion). This sequence is quite important, in that it finally points to Norman’s remorse about his past crimes.
Then there is the way he interacts with Maureen, first visiting her in the hospital after he saved her and offering to put her up at the motel. Norman is positively sweet to Maureen, as it seems he wishes to treat her well as a strange way of atoning for the death of Marion Crane. Their initial dialogue even ends with a smile and boyish giggle from Norman, like a youngster having just discovered puppy love for the first time. Eventually, Norman even begins to court Maureen, taking her to dinner and teaching her how to dance, before winding up in Maureen’s bed to share a few near-chaste smooches. For all of the potential threat lurking in these scenes, they play as oddly charming and innocent – we’re watching Norman be normal for once, catching up on years of dating he never experienced.
Still, we mustn’t forget what Norman is capable of. Even as he’s making nice with his pretty new friend, Norman is still playing dress-up and murdering innocents who cross his (or Mother’s) path. As Mother, he slaughters a one-night stand of Duke’s after she is unceremoniously tossed out of his room (this after she had flirted with Norman earlier in the evening). He later murders a poor young girl attending an after-game party at the motel, again as Mother. But surprisingly, Norman takes to murdering as himself when Duke discovers Mother’s corpse and holds it for ransom in one of the motel rooms. Norman, still believing the stuffed body to be his living mother, “defends” her by bashing Duke half to death with his own guitar, and then dumping him into the swamp along with his previous victim. This makes for Norman’s third ever victim (rather than a victim of Mother’s), after the poisoning of Norma Bates and her lover.
In addition to the ever-present menace lurking within Norman, there are a few touches of the grotesque that are downright Blochian. When we’re first introduced to Norman in this film, he is busy spooning sawdust into bird carcasses – and then he proceeds to use that same spoon to smear peanut butter onto crackers as a snack. A bit of dark humor, sure, but somewhat misjudged I think. There is also an inexplicable moment with Norman kissing the corpse of the dead young partygoer before loading her into the swamp-bound car. Again, this seems more like Bloch than Perkins, and stands as one of the stranger moments in an already quite strange film.
It all winds down to the inevitable: Maureen, seeking to reconcile with Norman after having left him upon discovering details about his past, is accidentally knocked down the Bates Mansion staircase. She lands upon a cupid statue, impaled upon its arrow. This loss aggravates an already growing rift between Norman and Mother. When Tracy appears, having discovered the truth about Mrs. Spool (that she was in fact mad herself, and was not Norman’s true mother), she details Norman’s true parentage even as she dodges his blade. Learning that Mrs. Spool had lied, and that Norma Bates was his true mother, leads Norman to perhaps the single greatest moment of catharsis for him in any of the films – ripping away Mother’s clothes from himself, then using his knife to hack her sawdust-stuffed body to bits.
The film’s final moments begin on a hopeful note, with the sheriff pointing out that Norman will likely never be let out of the asylum again. Smiling peacefully, Norman points out that even so, he’ll “finally be free”. This assertion would have made for a fine ending to Norman’s arc over the past two films, and would have ended the trilogy nicely. If only it weren’t for a daft studio note insisting that a lame “gotcha!” tag be included in the film’s final shot – Norman, smiling malevolently, caressing a piece of Mother’s corpse that he’d squirrelled away when the authorities weren’t looking. Redemption sullied. Catharsis ruined.
Still, given all that had come before with Norman’s genuine kindness and desire to be good, one might still hope that he could one day find peace and free himself from Mother’s grasp. But not before a no less kind, no less charming version of the same character would briefly appear on television screens, in a failed pilot that (thankfully) never made it to series.
”Norman always said to me that if I wanted to get better, I could. But I would have to work at it, and it would be hard. He said that people, no matter how bad they were treated, have to try and forget, to forgive, and to try to get the hatred out of their hearts. Because it is hatred that is the enemy. And it doesn’t make us feel any better, it just eats us up inside.”
Opening in 1960 Fairvale (spelled “Fairville”, because this pilot flat out refuses to get anything right), 1987’s “Bates Motel” opens not long after the end of the original Psycho, with Norman Bates being taken away to the asylum that would forever be his home (the pilot ignores the continuity of the original film’s follow-ups). The story then shifts to Alex West, a young boy institutionalized for murdering his abusive stepfather. Alex’s psychiatrist introduces him to Norman, and encourages a friendship between the two. As a result, the next two and a half decades finds Norman acting as a surrogate father of sorts for Alex. Norman eventually passes away, leaving his motel and mansion to a newly released Alex.
From there on, Alex renovates the motel with his…actually, you know what? Don’t worry about it. Norman Bates no longer figures into the story from this point on, and the remaining hour and a half are quite bad. One assumes the show was setting itself up to be an anthology of sorts, with a “guest of the week” gag that would allow for a revolving door to potential guest stars. The story featured in the pilot concerns a suicidal woman, time-travelling ghosts, a shady real estate tycoon dressing up as “Mother”, and Jason Bateman. It’s all quite bad, and extremely forgettable – a bizarre little footnote in Psycho history that is curiously unavailable on any home format (if you’re a masochist, or merely an adventurous fan, be sure to consult your local bootlegger).
What is worth examining is the brief look at Norman this pilot presents. In giving Norman a surrogate son and serenity with all that had happened to him, the pilot allows Norman Bates the happy ending he’d been cheated out of for so long. It might have been a fitting end for the character, if only it had been done well. Instead, we never once hear Norman speak, and we only glimpse him through news footage and old photographs (with Norman being played by Kurt Paul, Anthony Perkins’ stunt double from the two sequels). A shame, as better writing might have elevated this material, allowing it to act as a proper finish to Norman’s tale.
Still, Norman would have his true finale soon. Two, in fact, as both the novel series and original movie franchise would each conclude just three short years later, with Robert Bloch’s Psycho House and director Mick Garris’ Psycho IV: The Beginning, featuring a screenplay written by original Psycho scripter Joseph Stefano.
Be sure to check back for our fourth installment of Psycho Path soon!
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