Psycho Path: Tracing Norman Bates' Twisted Trail Through Page and Screen Part 4
Welcome to the fourth 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 IV: Endings
"There are times I wonder if all of what passes for sanity isn’t just a form of remission from our own natural state. What was it Norman Bates used to say? Something like 'everybody goes a little crazy at times.'"
In 1990, nine years after his last Psycho novel, novelist Robert Bloch returned to the world of Norman Bates for the third and final time with Psycho House - a tense thriller that finds good old-fashioned murder more popular than ever, even in Norman’s absence.
Set nearly a decade after the death of Norman Bates, Psycho House opens with a grisly murder inside of a themed attraction built to recreate the Bates Mansion and Motel, compete with animatronic figures of Norman, Mother, and Mary Crane. Though the business hasn’t yet opened, the murder captures the attention of the public, and of Amy Haines, a true-crime author in town to do research for book based upon the Bates case. Of course, Amy becomes entangled in the investigation surrounding the murder, even as more bodies begin piling up.
What follows is an engaging potboiler full of mystery, murder, and red herrings galore. While this writer will not spoil the climax of the book’s whodunit plot, I will say that the murderer’s big reveal uncovers a motive that stands in stark contrast to the ones from the previous two novels: the driving force behind the murders in Psycho House is profit, not passion.
Sadly, and understandably, Bloch’s novel doesn’t feature much of Norman at all, though he’s certainly there in spirit. Norman appears as a wax figure in the Bates Motel attraction and makes an appearance of sorts when his former psychiatrist (and Psycho II’s murderer) Adam Claiborne snaps again, releasing the “Norman” personality that had manifested itself within him in the previous novel. Ultimately, though, Norman’s story ended with his death in the previous novel. His presence in this third and final novel elevates him to “boogeyman” status, a cautionary tale the parents of Fairvale will tell their children for years to come. In many ways, that’s a fitting bit of closure for Bloch’s Norman. As for the cinematic Norman, he would receive his own appropriate ending later that same year…
"I’ve killed damn near a dozen human beings. I may be well now, but I’m not cured. I’ll never be cured. I’m still who I always was. My genes are the same ones I got from my mother. I’m still her flesh and blood."
Nature versus nurture – that’s the argument Norman Bates wrestles with throughout Psycho IV: The Beginning, a mixture of prequel and series finale that wraps up the cinematic Norman’s tale while giving us a look at his origins as a deranged murderer. In looking back upon his upbringing and early life, Norman questions whether or not his madness comes from his nightmarish youth, or from the very genes he inherited from his unstable mother.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This fourth installment in the now thirty-year-old franchise opens with a radio talk show hosted by Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder, fantastic as ever here), the current episode of which concerns matricide – that is, the murdering of one’s own mother. After dealing with a smug “mother-killer” (Kurt Paul, making another appearance in the Psychoverse), Fran receives a call from a gentlemen calling himself “Ed”, who claims that Fran’s show has special meaning for him as he’d killed his own mother and plans to kill again this very evening.
Of course, “Ed” (neat nod there to Ed Gein) is Norman himself, played again to perfection by Anthony Perkins. Fran, along with guest Doctor Leo Richmond (a character returning from the original Psycho’s epilogue), attempts to draw enough information out of Norman to save his intended victim, while Norman allows the questioning to spur on his memories of his early life. What follows is series of flashbacks interspersed throughout the main narrative, giving a chronologically fractured view of Norman’s life with his mother, and his own early years as a murderer.
These flashbacks are fascinating, presenting an utterly hellish relationship between mother and son. As Norma Bates, actress Olivia Hussey is stunning, giving a truly unhinged and frightening performance as a hopelessly unbalanced, mean-spirited mother. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the character is that she isn’t always a monster to poor Norman. She is at times kind and loving to her son, which only makes her always unexpected mental and physical abuse of him all the more unnerving.
As a teenaged Norman, E.T.’s Henry Thomas is up to the task of recreating the Perkins version of the character, presenting us with a young man who might have had a chance a being normal, before the emotional scarring at the hands of his mother leaves him a stuttering, socially awkward wreck. It’s a good performance, and one that must have been daunting for the young actor (especially considering that he shares the film with Perkins himself). Nevertheless, Thomas portrays Norman as a sweet kid, but more than capable of the horrible violence that defines his other persona (the sight of young Norman dressed as “Mother” during his two murder sequences is both horrific and strangely saddening).
Speaking of performances, Perkins is wonderful yet again as his signature character. His take on Norman here is not only impressive, it’s genuinely surprising: the Norman of Psycho IV differs wildly from the one in the previous installments. Gone is the jittery, stuttering, well-meaning mess of a man we were familiar with in the last three Psychos (especially the two sequels). The Norman here is calm, confident and well-spoken – the portrait of a madman who has long since left his madness behind him. Just how he happens to have been released from the sanitarium yet again after the events of Psycho III is for fans and fan-fic writers to make sense of – though I’ve an idea or two on that subject myself. Whatever the reason for his freedom, Norman is now married to a lovely psychiatrist named Connie (a strong, if brief performance by Donna Mitchell) and living in a large, quite modern home – a far cry from his days as an emotionally stunted man living in a Gothic mansion.
So if Norman appears to be quite sane, and if his life is finally “normal”, then why is it that he’s planning to kill again – as himself, no less, rather than as “Mother”? Both Fran and Dr. Richmond try to pry this out of him, even as they’re treated to Norman’s memories about his early days. When Richmond figures out that “Ed” is actually Norman, his line of questioning becomes antagonistic, leading him to be ejected from the show before Norman hangs up and leaves Fran helpless to prevent the impending murder. Eventually, after hearing about his mother’s treatment of him, her murder, and his initial forays as a dress-and-wig clad killer, Norman finally spills the beans: believing that his type of mental affliction is passed down genetically from one generation to the next, Norman plans on killing his own wife, after having just learned that she’s pregnant with his child (something Norman had always insisted against). Before Fran can determine his location, or talk him out of committing murder yet again, Norman ends the call.
The film’s climax comes with Norman inviting Connie to meet him at the “old house” (the long-neglected Bates Motel and house are in shambles at this point) to celebrate his birthday. Pulling her inside with him, he reveals his plan to kill her. Just as he’s about to murder perhaps the only person who ever really loved him, Norman is faced with a choice he’s never had as a truly sane person – to kill, or not to kill? He murdered his mother and her lover when he was young, sure (in a sequence detailed in all its grisly glory here), but the case could be made that he was dangerously disturbed even then. All of the subsequent murders were committed by his “Mother” personality. But at this moment, with his sanity restored, Norman must decide who he really is.
He falters when he catches a glimpse of himself in the blade he wields. Connie pleads with him, assuring him that he’s no longer “that person”, that he can choose to be better and not be a killer. "No more blood, Norman," Connie pleads. Norman drops the blade, embracing his wife. He then sends her away and sets fire to the house, cleansing away his past for good. The film ends on a hopeful note, with Norman saying, once again, "I’m free." Unlike with the previous film, this time it’s believable. Norman strides away with Connie, the now-destroyed Bates home behind him, the sun having just risen on a new day.
By rejecting the violence within him that had for so long defined his life, the cinematic Norman had finally achieved peace at last. It’s the happiest ending a horror movie slasher could hope to have - a hard-earned redemption which proved that, without his madness and Mother’s influence, Norman Bates was a good man after all. I can think of no other horror franchise which had such definitive closure.
Join us next time for the fifth and final installment of Psycho Path, where we take a look at two wildly different revisitations to the Norman Bates saga.
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