Psycho Path: Tracing Norman Bates’ Twisted Trail Through Page and Screen Part 5
And here we are – the fifth and final installment of Psycho Path, a look at fictional madman Norman Bates from the Psycho franchise.
This series has focused 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 V: New Beginnings
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay just a little while longer?”
Say what you will about Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (and I’ll likely join you), one thing should not be up for debate: It’s a fascinating idea for an experiment – taking one of the many masterworks created by a genius director, then replicating it moment for moment while using the same screenplay and shot list the great man himself employed some thirty-eight years previous. Not a great idea, mind, and who knows to what end – but fascinating all the same. But was the resulting film good?
No. Oh dear, no. But! That doesn’t mean it’s not an important film.
Easy, hang on. Hear me out. It’s a terrible film, right? So what’s so terrible about it? Stefano’s script? The very screenplay Hitchcock worked from? Of course not. The film’s shots, recaptured from the original movie by a more than capable director of photography (Chris Doyle rules!)? The editing, which mostly echoes every single cut from the 1960 masterpiece? One might be tempted to say the actors are at fault, and indeed there are many bad performances in the film. But they’re bad performances given by a cast known for solid work in other films. Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Philip Baker Hall – all good actors. Even Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn had more decent performances behind them at this point than not…
…and that’s why the Psycho remake is such an important film. Because with its cast, its script, its blueprint, and its budget – it should have been a stunning motion picture. But it’s a wreck, a nearly unwatchable mess of a film that challenges viewers (and especially Psycho fans) not to look away in disgust. And there it is – more so than any book, documentary, or film class lecture might possibly illustrate, the Psycho remake perfectly demonstrates to audiences just how important a director’s own personal vision and passion are for the film he or she is making. Even though Van Sant had all the resources necessary to make a great film, and even though the director is capable of making great films, his Psycho is atrocious simply because it wasn’t his story to tell (perhaps had he told it in his own way, then it might have worked). As a result of this disconnect between filmmaker and material, the bulk of the film is infused with a sense of “wrongness” – everything just seems off. Some of that may be due to the film clashing with our own memories of the original, but I imagine it’s chiefly due to the principals here not understanding the material they were working with, guided by a man attempting to shepherd another artist’s voice to the screen (for the second time, no less).
That very wrongness extends to the remake’s version of Norman, played here by Vince Vaughn. Vaughn has certainly seen his share of duds in the decade and a half since this film’s release, but at this stage in his career he was responsible for some decent performances (Swingers, Return from Paradise, the sadly underseen Clay Pigeons). But as Norman he’s pretty terrible, and badly miscast. Perkins was perfect as Norman because we could buy him as being a sweet, seemingly harmless guy that Marion Crane might possibly enjoy spending time with (and that audiences could eventually sympathize with). Vaughn’s Norman, towering over the rest of the cast, immediately seems a threat with his imposing stature, oddball demeanor, lilting voice, and the nutcase giggle he lets loose with after every other line of dialogue.
But that’s hardly the most alarming thing about this Norman. In addition to his fits of anger, which make the Perkins Norman look entirely well-adjusted in comparison, there is the controversial (and oh so stupid) decision to have Norman masturbate during the voyeuristic sequence where Norman spies on Marion through his parlor peephole. Elevating this initially low-key creepiness to full-blown, disturbing perversion destroys the entire point of Stefano’s structure and Perkins’ original performance: No way will audiences accept this irredeemably sleazy Norman and allow for him to be the protagonist they side with once poor Marion is gone.
The rest of the movie follows suit. Norman’s bizarre, occasionally antagonistic behavior and unsettling laugh ensure that audience members will be hoping for this lunatic to get caught straight away, even if they’re not aware of the full extent of his crimes (though the thought of viewers watching this film before the original makes me unreasonably depressed). By the time the film’s final moments come, one can’t help but feel glad – as Vaughn’s murderous pervert has been locked away for all time (hopefully – I have a recurring nightmare in which Van Sant and Vaughn remake Richard Franklin’s Psycho II…*shudder*).
It’s worth noting, however, that as much of a misfire as the film and its presentation of Norman are, Vaughn’s portrayal puts his take on the character closer in league with Psycho author Robert Bloch’s original version of the madman. Sure – Vaughn is a handsome enough guy here, and a far cry from the balding, overweight boozehound the author originally wrote about. But with his physically threatening, emotionally unstable, entirely uncharming, and downright icky version of Norman, Vaughn (likely unintentionally) hews far closer to the literary Norman than the cinematic version Perkins gave us nearly forty years previous.
It’s a shame that the film failed so spectacularly because a good remake of the original film might have revitalized the dormant franchise, rather than putting more nails in its coffin. For several years after the remake’s release, fans had little new material to sate them (though the occasional extras-laden DVD and Blu-ray releases did help, along with the fantastic feature-length documentary The Psycho Legacy, which examines the entire film franchise – sans remake). Fortunately, after yet another very long break, Norman Bates would live again – this time in a far more successful reboot of the franchise.
”It’s you and me. It’s always been you and me. We belong to each other.”
After a wait of nearly fifteen years, Norman Bates has come back to life yet again, this time in a new A&E television series titled “Bates Motel” (no relation to the failed series pilot from the 80s). Focusing on teenaged Norman, “Bates” takes a look at Norman’s relationship with his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga, amazing here), when she was still quite alive. While the series delves into Norman’s early years and burgeoning madness, it’s set in the present day – meaning that even though it draws heavily on the original Hitchcock film (far more so than on Bloch’s book), the show is its own beast entirely.
As Norman, young actor Freddie Highmore does a brilliant job of making Norman his own, all while giving just enough nods to Perkins’ portrayal to allow for this Norman to seem familiar to fans. Highmore’s Norman is every bit as sweet and sympathetic as Perkins’ Norman, though he is prone to the types of rage-fueled fits that only manifested in the original Norman when he was “Mother”. As a result, his Norman is a bit more unpredictable than the Psycho Norman, as he doesn’t need the benefit of an alternate personality to appear unhinged or threatening.
Perhaps the most interesting and quite sad thing about this look at Norman is that we’re viewing the character while there’s still a bit of hope for his future. He’s had his fair share of problems, sure, as the initial batch of episodes hint at or outright show, but there are still a few rays of light in his life at this point. The relationship with Norma, while occasionally unusual and a tad creepy, is far more positive now than the one we’re already aware of. Norman also has quite a bit of luck with the ladies, as everyone from his high school’s popular girls, a cute outcast, and even his language arts teacher seem to have taken an interest in him (no ex-nuns on the horizon as of yet). But, as with all prequels to well-known properties, we know where this is all going – and it tinges every scene with Norman (even the happy ones) with a bit of sadness.
Though this writer has only seen the first three episodes of the new series, it can be said that Norman Bates appears to be in very good hands creatively. While I won’t spoil anything from the next two chapters, which have yet to air as of this writing, I will note this – the third installment features a moment which sheds a bit more light on Norman’s “problem”. And if that plot point plays out as I expect it to, it will be a fascinating rewrite of Psycho mythology (I will say it involves “Mother”, but not necessarily Norma). For more of my thoughts on the show, check out my “Bates Motel” review here.
And that catches us up to the present, dear readers. I do hope you’ve enjoyed this visit to the Psycho franchise and the walk we’ve taken down Norman’s very twisted path through books, film, and television. I hope that we’ve discovered together that, as far as the human experience goes, Norman Bates seems to have run the gamut. He’s been a loathsome, murderous drunk; a kind, well-meaning psychopath; a degenerate necrophile; the figment of somebody else’s imagination; a reformed killer; a kindly father figure; a near-mythic boogeyman; a redeemed husband and expectant father; and a sweet teenager facing a very dark future.
Few franchises could hope to ever have the amount of influence provided by a character such as Norman Bates or expect to have the longevity that the Psycho series has had. Over a half century after their debut in print, Norman and Mother Bates can be seen on billboards, in magazine ads, and on weekly television. And with the initial episode of “Bates Motel” posting more than impressive viewing numbers, it appears as though Robert Bloch’s sentiment at the end of his second Psycho novel is holding true:
Norman Bates will never die…
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