Bates Motel (1987) / Comedy-Horror

MPAA rated: Not rated, but probably PG for some scary images
Length: 90 min.

Cast: Bud Cort, Lori Petty, Moses Gunn, Gregg Henry, Kerrie Keane, Khrystyne Haje, Jason Bateman, Robert Picardo
Director: Richard Rothstein
Screenplay: Richard Rothstein
Review published February 18, 2003

Bates Motel 1987 Bud Cort Lori PettyAt the time of Bates Motel's appearance on television in 1987, there had already been two theatrical sequels to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece, Psycho.  This offshoot ignores Psycho II and Psycho III completely.  In many ways, it barely should even be called a sequel to Psycho, as it changes a great deal of that film's facts for reasons that aren't altogether clear.  It's a TV pilot for a proposed series that had intended to become a "Twilight Zone", "Night Gallery" or "Fantasy Island" knockoff, whereby guests check in to the infamous hotel and enter a bizarre realm where supernatural events can happen, and confront their innermost fears through the course of the episode.

The events of the film take place 27 years after schizophrenic serial killer Norman Bates is arrested and found guilty by reason of insanity for his crimes.  While in the institution, Norman is introduced to a troubled young boy named Alex West (Cort, Brewster McCloud), who murdered his abusive stepfather in a giant tumble dryer and ends up staying in the same institution.  Norman takes the lad under his wing until his death 27 years later, coincidentally the same year that Alex is finally allowed out of the institution.  According to Norman's will (how he is deemed of 'sound mind' to do so is subject to debate), Alex inherits the Bates Motel and his family home that overlooks it. 

Alex soon takes over the motel and aims to renovate it back to former glory.  However, he finds the Bates house already illegally inhabited by a spunky runaway girl named Willie (Petty, Cadillac Man), who, despite wearing a costume chicken costume (no joke), worms her way into staying and helping Alex realize his dream of making a go of the motel business.  However, not everyone wants the business to succeeds, as Alex begins to see the ghost of Mrs. Bates around the place, and calamities begin to happen that threaten the establishment's livelihood before it can even begin.

In what is obviously the first taste of what the "Bates Motel" series would be like, the final third of the film takes a detour as we're introduced to Alex's first guest to stay in the motel, an aerobics instructor named Barbara Peters (Keane, Steel), who claims to be wanting peace and quiet to get some writing done, but in actuality, she aims to slash her wrists in the tub (something that had already been seen in Psycho III the year before).  At this point, she is visited by a young woman (Haje, 'Head of the Class') who stops her and takes her to a 1950s-themed party happening at the motel (I think), where she is pursued by Tony (Bateman, Love Stinks), a young cruiser there, and the two have strong feelings for one another, despite her protestations about their age difference.  But there is much more to the events that transpire that night than meets the eye.

Universal already had the Psycho house on the Universal Studios lot, which made it an easy putt to start up a TV show set there.  However, once the pilot had been in the can, they had second thoughts regarding the viability of the series, and NBC decided to just release the project as a TV movie.  As a potential horror/fantasy TV show anthology, the premise has legs.  Unfortunately, as a movie, Bates Motel flat out stinks, and it is especially frustrating for fans of the Hitchcock film.

I've already mentioned that this TV movie ignores the theatrically released sequels, which is fine, as many more potential viewers who might watch this TV movie had probably only seen the original Psycho, and may have been confused by any developments that happened afterward.  However, from the get-go, everything just feels out of place, starting with the idiotic idea that a young child would not only inhabit the same mental institution as a serial killer like Norman Bates, but that the staff there would see no problem in letting the young tyke be Norman's surrogate son.  The script by writer-director Richard Rothstein ("The Hitchhiker") ham-handedly pits the two as would-be friends when they witness young Alex stuff a dead bird to keep it looking lifelike, and knowing Norman's hobby of taxidermy, they suggest he'd do well to learn from the 'sweet' man who filled his own mother with sawdust and sewed her up tight, while he proceeded to viciously butcher anyone he felt turned on or threatened by.  Ah, what a nice story this is already turning out to be, right?

Then Rothstein proceeds to ignore fundamental things that should not ever be ignored by anyone who has actually seen Psycho. For starters, the town that the Bates Motel is closest to is called 'Fairvale', not 'Fairville' as it is in this movie.  It's bad enough that Rothstein can't get the basic name right, but then proceeds to further exacerbate the geographical errors by making the Bates Motel actually reside in, or a half-mile out of 'Fairville', when it is clearly, according to Norman himself in Psycho, about 15 away.  Now, this is presumably done in order to introduce a sub-story involving Alex's foolhardy desire to keep the motel running on this prime piece of real estate that developers in town have been drooling over for years, as evidenced by the loan officer that Alex sees who is astonished at seeing such a great opportunity to make serious cash go to waste.

So, meanwhile, as Alex and his crew of construction men set about renovating the motel area, including, for some reason, adding a fountain, they unearth the grave of Mrs. Bates.  Of course, anyone who has seen Psycho knows that Mrs. Bates was never buried, as the main premise of the film hinges on her body still residing above ground in the house.  I suppose it could be argued that they may have finally laid Mrs. Bates in the ground after Norman had been arrested, but the body they find could not possibly be Mrs. Bates, as we also know that her body had been meticulously preserved by Norman, and would not have decomposed to skeletal status as it is in this movie.  And further adding insult to injury to Psycho buffs, they all proceed to claim Mrs. Bates' first name is 'Gloria', and not 'Norma', as it has always been since the story's inception.  It's at this point when you begin to realize that Rothstein must have whipped out the teleplay either not having seen the Hitchcock flick, or had such time constraints so as to not find the time to rent the movie before he proceeded to type it all out.

So, really, the only tie-in to the Hitchcock film at all is the fact that the setting is at the Bates Motel, which they renovate to the point where it doesn't even look like the place anymore.  What's worse, they add a supernatural element to the stories that had never been a part of the original story line, as Psycho so clearly broke ground on a new kind of horror flick, which features the monsters within, rather than external forces at play outside of us.  By making it a standard horror anthology, they negate the very thing that made Psycho a unique entity among horror franchises altogether.

It gets worse.  The tone of Bates Motel is all over the map.  It would seem like a comedy much of the time, and certainly the annoying little harpy that Loti Petty plays should never be a character on anything but a really dumb sitcom.  However, Bud Cort infuses Alex with a sense of seriousness about his intentions and earnestness in respecting the wishes of good old Norman Bates' memory, to the point where he carries Norman's ashes around wherever he goes. (Ironic that Norman would choose to be cremated given his history of taxidermy).  As silly as it is half of the time, as soon as the Bates Motel gets its first client, the entire tone of the movie changes from goofball quirkiness to melancholy whimsy, as we see an attempted suicide followed up by a morose story of lives gone completely to waste.  And just when you think the jarring tone shifts are over, Mrs. Bates makes her appearance yet again, only to have, not one, but two 'Scooby Doo'-caliber de-maskings.

Bates Motel is the kind of movie that, like the remains of Norman Bates within it, should absolutely be burnt to ashes so that there is no chance of it ever being revived to haunt television again.  Thankfully, the offshoot storyline would end with this solitary pilot, and can be completely ignored by fans of the ongoing film series.  Just desserts for a film that completely ignored the film series as well as its fans.

-- Also completely ignored by the 2013 TV series of the same name.
Qwipster's rating:  

©2013 Vince Leo