Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) / Thriller-Horror
MPAA Rated: R for violence, some nudity, and sensuality
Running Time: 96 min.
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Henry Thomas, Olivia Hussey, CCH Pounder, Warren Frost, Donna Mitchell, Tom Schuster, Sharen Camille, Bobbi Evors, John Landis
Director: Mick Garris
Screenplay: Joseph Stefano
Review published March 15, 2013
Psycho IV: The Beginning is the fourth and final film in Universal's Psycho franchise, and the last to portray Anthony Perkins (The Black Hole, The Trial) in his most famous of roles. It's the first of the series not to be released theatrically (not counting the god-awful TV-pilot spinoff, Bates Motel), debuting on the premium cable channel Showtime in 1990. This film is a sequel in theory, as it does take a step forward in showing Norman Bates trying to live the semblance of a normal life today, finally in a relationship with a woman, with a baby on the way. Trouble is, Norman does not want a baby, thinking that being a homicidal maniac is a genetic trait that passes on from generation to generation, and he wants his mother's psychopathic tendencies to end with him.
On this night, Norman is listening to a late-night radio program about why sons kill their mothers, and after hearing what the doctors have to say about it, Norman ends up calling the show to tell how it really went down for him. Under the pseudonym of 'Ed' (a nod to the man who inspired Robert Bloch to write the novel "Psycho", Ed Gein, perhaps?) Norman relates the tale of his adolescence, and how his mother Norma's severe mood swings, psychological abuse, and sexual repression drove him to commit murder, including his own mother.
Although much talked about in the previous films, Psycho IV: The Beginning is the first to show a living Norma Bates (Hussey, Rome and Juliet), and to give is a first-hand viewing of how bizarre an upbringing a young Norman (Thomas, Cloak & Dagger) would have, resulting in overwhelming feeling of guilt in his actions that he didn't have the maturity or mental balance to keep a grip on. In addition to Norma's stamping out of her son's masculinity and sexuality, there is also an element Norman becoming a bit of a surrogate for male companionship in her life in between finding a suitable partner, though never physically consummated between mother and son.
Other than a returning Anthony Perkins as Norman, Psycho IV boasts a screenplay by Joseph Stefano (Two Bits, The Kindred), who adapted the Bloch novel for Alfred Hitchcock's original Psycho. The screenplay sheds some interesting insights to Norman's psyche, yet somehow it is a tad boring to witness events that are of little surprise to anyone that has seen at least the first film in the series. While the screenplay does a fine job in its knowledge of the Bates mythos, the boat that is missed by Stefano is in the lack of dark, often tongue-in-cheek comedy that had a healthy helping in each one of the films in the series, which makes this the most serious, and thereby least entertaining of the series in terms of exciting moments.
Though there is a "IV" in the title, it is not required to watch Psycho II and Psycho III to understand this film (Stefano intentionally ignored them due to not liking the conventional slasher film direction they took with the story), as they aren't directly referenced, though they aren't overtly contradicted either other than not relating how a killer like Bates managed to be let out of prison again after Psycho III.
Mick Garris (Riding the Bullet, Sleepwalkers) offers a nice, modestly styled sense of direction, though it really could have used a bit more excitement in the manner in which the killings are staged and shot. Yet, the film plays out with little sense of requisite suspense that made the first Psycho such a great film, and many of the scenes, including the murders, play out as if they were made for a psychological drama, rather than in a scary horror flick or tense, nail-biting thriller. It's the least gory, least funny, and least viscerally engaging of the films, despite a few shots of nudity and underlying titillation factor in the incestuous feelings between mother and son. Graeme Revell (Dead Calm, Street Fighter) composes the music, though much of that is merely recreating the sound, often note for note, of the original Bernard Herrmann score from the 1960 film.
Interestingly, Olivia Hussey's casting is a bit of an homage as well, as she appeared in what many consider to be the first of the slasher flick genre that Psycho inspired, Black Christmas. Henry Thomas, so wholesome from his most famous role in Steven Spielberg's E.T., gives Norman the right mix of pathos, and inner confusion and torment, to ever keep us from loathing the lad despite his awful acts. John Landis, a director with a great sense of film history and surely a Psycho fan through and through, appears in a minor role as a radio show producer.
Unlike the previous films, there is closure to the saga of Norman that suggests that Perkins made this film as a way to put the character behind him, though there is a suggestion that the story could continue on without him from the final fade to black. Universal thus far hasn't decided to explore this area, which is just fine, as few would want to see a Psycho film without Norman Bates in it, so it is only fitting that the film franchise end here. Psycho IV isn't a good film, mostly due to the less-than-passionate way it is told, and it won't bring forth many new fans, but it is respectful of the story, and even if it isn't scintillating, it's a fine enough way to depart our time spent with a mad, despicable killer who, thanks to the nuanced portrayal of Perkins, manages to still retain a shred of conflicted and tragic humanity underneath.
-- The relationship between Norman and his mother would be revisited in the retcon 2013 TV series, "Bates Motel", which completely ignores this version. Details regarding the making of this film are featured in the documentary, The Psycho Legacy.
©2013 Vince Leo