Psycho III (Blu-ray)
Directed by Anthony Perkins
Distributed by The Scream Factory
After Psycho II (1983) wound up being a surprise hit with audiences and (most) critics alike, it was inevitable that Universal would want another go-round with Norman and Mother. This time, however, Norman Bates would be in front of the camera as well as behind it, with Anthony Perkins tackling double duty. While that might seem like a curious decision given the fact that Perkins had never directed anything before, you’ve got to remember any sequels were going to place the onus on Norman to carry the film anyway, so who better to control his direction than the man so inexorably linked to him.
The answer, some could argue, would be someone else since Psycho III (1986) is the most divisive entry in the series, garnering a lower rating on IMDb than the made-for-cable sequel/prequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990). It isn’t a bad film by any means; it’s just a bizarre one. Perkins’ film is populated by a suicidal ex-nun, a lowly drifter with a penchant for extortion, an unethical reporter digging up stories on Norman, and Perkins himself delivering a performance that occasionally borders on someone parodying the mannerisms of Bates. New, questionable elements aside, the film does tie in well enough to Psycho II that this sequel doesn’t feel quite so out of place. If there’s a fault to be found, it’s that the film has a bit of an identity crisis, unsure of whether to pander to younger audiences looking for boobs and blood, or an older audience hoping to see more of the faux-humanity Norman has been perfecting during his time away from the mental institution. It settles for more of the former (which is totally fine), and I have to admit that despite the diminishing returns coming off of the last film, Psycho III has a vibe to it that manages to mostly work to its benefit.
This entry picks up a little over a month after the events of II, with Norman still running the motel all by his lonesome. It’s established early on that he’s still certifiable - latently by showing him scoop peanut butter with the same spoon he uses for taxidermy stuffing, manifestly by showcasing “Mother” (the dispatched-via-shovel-to-the-head Ms. Spool, who claimed to be Norman’s real mother) stuffed, propped up in the window, and chattering Norman’s ear off constantly. The motel gets a dose of energy when Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey) arrives, hot off the road to Los Angeles and looking to score a few quick bucks to repair the brakes for the final stretch. Norman offers him the assistant manager’s position and allows him to sleep in one of the rooms. Soon after Duke’s arrival, Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid) enters the picture, immediately grabbing Norman’s attention with her short blonde hair and a monogrammed suitcase bearing her initials, “M.C.”, which reminds Norman of Marion Crane. Like Norman, she’s also a troubled soul, trying to find her way in life after leaving a convent. Sensing this, he takes her in at the motel where the two have an awkward, budding romance which ultimately fizzles out when Maureen learns of Norman’s violent past. It seems an unethical reporter named Tracy (Roberta Maxwell) has been asking questions all around town, trying to uncover the mystery of Emma Spool’s disappearance. Norman appears clean to the townsfolk, but Duke discovers the truth about “Mother”, threatening to expose Norman’s secrets to everyone unless he pays up. But there’s only one way Norman knows how to deal with problems…
Produced during a horror boon in the mid-80s, Psycho III feels less like the methodically-paced entries that came before it and more like a fairly standard horror picture. More effort seems to have gone into pumping up the film’s quotient of nudity and violence than anything else. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the atmosphere and production values make it aesthetically akin to what Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers were doing at the time. We know who the “villain” is, we know he’s crazy, and we’re here to watch him slice people up with a large kitchen knife. The film takes the obvious route of finally populating the motel with some unsavory guests so that Norman has plenty of moments to do “Mother”’s bidding, much to gore fan’s delight. Oddly enough, the original idea screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue came up with was to reveal that Duke was the killer, taking a page out of Friday the 13th V: A New Beginning’s playbook. Thankfully, Universal shot that notion down. While that could have added an interesting dynamic, the fact is that the last film established Norman had slipped back into insanity. Making someone else the killer wouldn’t be bought so easily.
This entry is the first to spend a lot of time with “Mother” and Norman, since the prior films never really showed them communicating in the same room. “Mother”’s withered husk appearance looks like something Leatherface would’ve stitched together. Here, it comes courtesy of legendary make-up FX artist Michael Westmore, who also provided all of the film’s practical effects work. I can’t say that any of the deaths here rival the sheer brutality of Psycho II, but they are certainly bloodier. And bloody isn’t always a better thing - clearly the case here since the impact of these deaths never felt as shocking as the relatively-bloodless deaths in the last film. Westmore’s effects work is nothing but top notch, though, and his expertise with crafting ultra-realistic work does add an extra element of realism to Norman’s handiwork.
Jeff Fahey almost steals the picture as Duke. He’s one of those guys that get by with a charming look and a shot of charisma, but underneath it all he’s just another selfish scumbag that uses people for his own gain. His sex scene with a local skank is particularly memorable, with Fahey – in the buck – playing with a couple lamps strategically positioned over his crotch while his lady friend gyrates in front of a wall covered in porn clippings. He’s all sweet talk and fun… until he finishes and becomes a nightmare pump-and-dump-er, flinging his “date” out of the room ass naked. Duke was one of Fahey’s earliest roles and he nails it. Even though he’s never much of a foil for Norman simply because he’s too stupid, he possesses an awful sense of hubris that runs counter to Norman’s congenial disposition. They make good enemies.
Psycho III can’t live up to the original, not by a long shot. Personally, I don’t think it can even live up to II. But I don’t think it needed to. Perkins does go a little overboard on connecting-the-dots back to Psycho, but this film manages to stand on its own as a unique entry. The story has a few hiccups in an otherwise well-plotted tale, and Perkins seems so comfortable back in Norman’s skin that just watching him vacillate between reluctance and malevolence is entertaining enough. Even though the love angle with Scarwid never amounts to a whole lot, it does allow us to see a more humane side of Norman that few get to witness. Oh, man, and I didn’t even mention the bizarre score featuring Southwestern acoustic tones, tribal sounds, and the kind of jazzy sax music you expect from a ‘80s action movie produced by Joel Silver. This movie deserves a little more love than it’s gotten over the years - and who else but Scream Factory would come along to deliver the goods?
I’d have to rank the picture here a notch below the previous film. Once the typically-poor optical credits are out of the way, the rest of the picture still retains a layer of grain that is moderately thick, not that it ever obfuscates the image in any way. A great deal of this entry was shot in low-lighting conditions, and the shadows swallow up a lot of the finer details. Black levels have a bit of crush to them, though they do manage to hold up pretty well for the most part. Daylight scenes exhibit greater strength across the board, allowing colors to pop a bit and giving faces some better details. While this isn’t as impressive looking as Psycho II, it’s still an appreciable upgrade over the DVD edition in every way. As with the last film, the audio here comes in the form of English DTS-HD MA tracks in both 5.1 and 2.0 stereo. The multi-channel mix is the clear winner here, even though the range could have been a little greater. There’s a rain storm during the film and the rear speakers never appear to take advantage by pulling some of the falling rain sounds into the field. Carter Burwell’s score has good fidelity, and the effects cues have a nice punch. If you need them, the disc comes with English subtitles.
In the special features department, Psycho III is stacked more than the last film. Starting things off is an audio commentary with screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue, moderated by Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felscher. This track is very interesting because, although Pogue wrote the film, many of his original intentions were cast aside once production started. His idea was to ignore the events of Psycho II (he hated the Mrs. Spool plot, which I tend to agree with) and make something more akin to the original film. While that didn’t happen, Pogue has a lot to say about the film and its characters.
Watch the Guitar is a 17-minute interview with star Jeff Fahey that covers his excitement at working on such a storied series, as well as how great it was to work with Perkins as a director. As you’ll hear in all of these interviews, everyone agrees that even though he might have been in a little over his head, Perkins was a thoughtful, caring director. Patsy’s Last Night is an interview with actress Katt Shea, who was memorably dispatched mid-toilet break. Her role isn’t all that big, but she’s got plenty to say about it in this 8-minute segment. Mother’s Maker is a fascinating interview with FX guru Michael Westmore, who talks in depth about his processes for creating the film’s grisly effects work. I thought it was cool that he said Perkins specifically asked for only old-school Universal artists to work on this picture. Body Double is a brief, candid chat with B-movie actress Brinke Stevens. She acknowledges her mid-level career, stating that after doing one Corman slasher she became typecast for life. Here, she doubles for Diana Scarwid during a scene when Norman watches her undress. Apparently, her background as a dancer made her moves so erotic that Perkins had to ask her to be more abrupt and awkward with her undressing. A couple of trailers are also included, and there’s a still gallery of mostly publicity shots that runs for a little over 8 minutes.
Psycho III seems to have as many detractors as it does fans. It’s commendable that Perkins tried to do something different with this entry, further expanding the tiny world of Bates by giving him some unique personalities to interact with. Jeff Fahey is truly memorable in his role as Duke, but the other newly-introduced characters don’t work as well. Maureen isn’t much of a love interest, and she doesn’t have much more to offer aside from being another tortured soul. And the less said about the reporter angle, the better. But the film works in spite of some clear shortcomings, making it a worthy addition to the series nonetheless.
3 out of 5
4 out of 5