Directed by Richard Franklin
Distributed by The Scream Factory
The notion of creating a sequel to a hugely successful film – both critically and commercially – is already a daunting task, but following up one directed by the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock? That borders on blasphemy. It’s an endeavor most directors would hardly consider simply because Hitch, and most of his oeuvre, is held in such high regard that they’re bound to be torn to shreds by critics and filmgoers alike. Does anyone remember director Rick Rosenthal’s The Birds II: Land’s End (1994)? The 2.8 rating on IMDb seems to indicate no, and those that do probably wish they could forget it. S
o, really, how much pressure was Australian helmer Richard Franklin under when Universal decided to move forward on a sequel to the granddaddy of horror films, Psycho (1960)? Franklin had been hired on to direct the sequel after original Psycho author Robert Bloch’s sequel novel was released in 1982, with the story taking a satirical approach to Norman Bates and his killing spree, eventually landing him in Hollywood where a film version of his story was being made. Universal balked at the concept and immediately put their own sequel in motion. Franklin, now set as the director, hired a then-neophyte writer, Tom Holland, to pen the script after being impressed by his work on The Beast Within (1982). The initial pressure to deliver on the film wasn’t tremendously great since it was being planned as a made-for-cable movie, but once star Anthony Perkins decided to return to the role of Norman Bates when the studio showed interest in other actors (we came very close to getting Christopher Walken) the picture was slotted for a theatrical release. There’s a bit of irony in there since it took Perkins returning to bump the first sequel from cable to theaters, but when his portrayal of Bates concluded with Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) it was released as a made-for-cable movie on Showtime. Still, even with Perkins back there was no guarantee Psycho II (1983) wouldn’t be a redundant cash grab made to capitalize on the original film’s infamy. Except that there was a guarantee… in the form of Holland’s adroit script, which stands as a key example of exactly how to do a sequel the right way.
Taking place in real time, Psycho II picks up 22 years later, when Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is about to be released from a mental hospital despite his murderous ways so many years ago. His release is heavily protested by Lila Loomis (a returning Vera Miles), sister of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who desperately tries to plead with the judge to reconsider Bates’ release. But bureaucracy trumps all, and Lila is threatened with contempt of court before relenting on her tirade. Dr. Raymond (Robert Loggia) accompanies Norman back home to the motel, letting him know he’ll check up on him from time to time but to try doing his best to live out a quiet life. That advice is hard to heed, though, as Norman starts to notice notes from “mother” all around his home, causing him to question the sanity he appears to possess. In his absence the motel hired a manager, Toomey (Dennis Franz), a sleazy boozer who turns a blind eye to the sex and drug use that runs rampant on his watch. Norman’s only solace is found in Mary (a young, gorgeous Meg Tilly), a co-worker who has sympathy for him and stays in the main house, sort of watching over him. Norman’s doing his best to be good, but someone’s trying to make him snap back to his old ways. The pressure continues to build, the bodies begin to pile up, and Norman’s newly–acquired sanity looks like it’s beginning to slip.
Immense praise must be given to Tom Holland’s script, which manages to avoid the tendency most sequels have to simply regurgitate their predecessor with minor changes. Psycho II puts Norman back in a familiar setting, only this time he’s supposedly cured of his maniacal impulses. What’s smart about the script is that minor callbacks are made to the original (every sequel needs a little fan service, right?) but Holland does a lot to distance it; to show viewers that this isn’t the same film that scared your parents. Here, the tension is created by creating an ambivalence regarding Norman’s mental state – is he really sane now? The difficulty in knowing is because Norman is constantly being needled, whether by notes left around the house, Toomey declaring him a “loony” in front of the customers at the diner where he works, strange appearances by “mother” in the front window, reports of deaths on his property… all of these things start to make Norman wonder whether or not he’s insane, yet it almost seems clear to the audience that he isn’t. We know someone else is hoping to push him over the edge, and while it seems obvious who that person is I can promise you the film holds back some key reveals that make for a tense, clever climax.
Although the film resists the urge to become a standard stalk-and-slash picture – which would’ve been the norm around this period – there’s still plenty of killing to go around. The first major death is relatively bloodless and tame, which is in stark comparison to the later deaths that are shockingly brutal and, frankly, quite sadistic. There’s no fun in spoiling them, just know that effects artist Greg C. Jensen (who has shockingly few, if any, genre credits to his name) did some ghastly work here. Actually, wait; I will spoil one death because I’ve got to say the shovel hit taken by one character’s head during the finale is done with such force and malice that it almost trumps any of the other kills. Something about the way the shovel is swung, and the accompanying Foley effect, makes that hit so palpable. I’d also like to give some credit to matte-painting wizard Albert Whitlock, who provides some exquisite, seamless elements for the backgrounds here. Horror fans should know Whitlock as the man who did the matte work on Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), as well as about a thousand other titles. That’s a lost art I’d love to see return one day.
High praise to composer Jerry Goldsmith, too, for resisting the low-hanging fruit of simply reprising the late Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score. Goldsmith weaves his own original themes here, creating a tense score that peaks at all the right moments. Not hearing the classic Psycho theme is a bold statement, furthering this film’s intention to be seen as able to stand on its own without having to rest on the laurels of what came before. Psycho II is a film that, even now, sounds like it couldn’t possibly escape the looming shadow of the original. Yet, it manages to do something different, introduce new elements and characters, and it never panders to an expecting audience. Rather than aping Hitchcock, the film respects him enough to know his genius couldn’t be topped; and for that, the film can stand as a rare sequel that got it right.
I will never tire of thanking Shout!/Scream Factory for what they do. Think you’d ever see half these films on blu-ray without them? Psycho II has been given the “collector’s edition” treatment here, with a top-notch disc that delivers on almost every front. First off, the hi-def image is an impressive upgrade over the previous DVD edition. The print used here looks to have been kept in great shape, resulting in a crisp, clean image with lots of fine detail. Facial close-ups in particular look natural and picturesque. Grain remains intact, with a healthy layer throughout that never looks noisy or obtrusive. One thing about Scream/Shout! is that, while they sometimes don’t do the most expensive restoration work on their titles (I doubt their pockets are a fraction of what the majors can utilize), they do the smart thing by not messing with their titles too much. Rarely are deficiencies like DNR a problem; they generally provide a quality, high-definition image that – for better or worse- is faithful to the original source material. Not even Arrow, with all their fancy bells-and-whistles releases, can do that right. Also helping this image looks stellar is the fact it was shot by Carpenter’s old D.P., Dean Cundey. Cundey is known for his abilities in low-lighting scenarios, and while I didn’t think Psycho II was all that dark of a movie, it sure is damn stylish. Some of his wide shots and camera movements are downright spectacular. On the audio side of things, we’re treated to both 5.1 and 2.0 English DTS-HD MA tracks – and note that the packaging erroneously states the options as “4.0 and 2.0”. The old DVD had a 4.0 track, and this edition simply expands upon that with some added channels. I can’t say it was to much benefit, since the LFE still doesn’t have much presence. Goldsmith’s score shines in lossless audio, however, with a balanced score that sets a perfect mood. Dialogue levels are well-balanced in the mix, though sometimes it can sound a bit flat.
On to the good stuff – bonus materials. The audio commentary with screenwriter Tom Holland is moderated by director of the Psycho Legacy (2010) documentary, Robert Galluzzo. There’s great pace to this track, with Holland recalling how he got the gig, what the studio expected, casting decisions, scripting choices… he touches on just about everything. Galluzzo clearly knows the material very well, and he comes armed with a host of good questions to keep Holland rolling through. It’s a great, informative listen. Cast & Crew Interviews runs for around 35 minutes, containing interview footage featuring cast members from both this film and the original. This is a dated EPK featurette that isn’t in the best shape. Audio dropouts are frequent during the first several minutes, and occasionally throughout, so don’t think your system is glitching on you. The piece shows a little too much film footage (it’s constant, really), but the interviews are worthwhile. A handful of trailers runs for around 4 minutes, while a few TV spots are included, too, running for 2 minutes. A still gallery runs for a little over 6 minutes, showcasing numerous behind-the-scenes and publicity photos. Finally, the film includes the option to watch the feature with cast & crew interviews playing – sort of like an audio commentary. The interviews are culled from radio sources, with an interviewer (who is more or less an unwitting moderator) keeping the pace. It’s a unique feature, one I wasn’t totally sold on, but it has some added value in that the interviews are not ripped from the EPK found on this disc.
On a nerdier note, while this release does include the original key art on both the cover and the slipcover, Universal is apparently a company that doesn’t like to have fun, so newly-commissioned artwork wasn’t allowed for this (or Psycho III). Not that it’ll keep anyone from buying these, but it would’ve been nice to see what one of their stock artists came up with here. Scream Factory continues their all-out plunder on fans’ wallets, this release being no exception. Psycho II is a sequel worthy of any horror fan’s time, and a fine release like this makes purchasing it that much easier.
4 out of 5
3 out of 5