Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)
by Charles Beall
There is a good movie in Psycho IV: The Beginning that is dying to get out, yet never does. The premise (for the fourth film in a series) is promising: what was life with Mother like? The problem is that there is a lot of good material here, but the film is so campy that you can’t take it seriously.
It is interesting to look at the progression of the story of Norman Bates through the Psycho series. We know that the original Psycho is a more “serious” film“ (albeit with a lot of dark humor), as is Psycho II, and to an extent, Psycho III, but this installment walks a fine line of seriousness and camp, falling into the latter category. This is a shame, because with Psycho IV, we have a screenplay by Psycho’s original screenwriter Joseph Stefano, another spirited performance from Anthony Perkins, and enthusiastic direction from Mick Garris. What went wrong?
The film starts off with a solid concept. Late night radio host Fran Ambrose (the amazing and underrated CCH Pounder) has a show dealing with boys who kill their mothers, and of course, a now married and “rehabilitated” Norman Bates calls in. This is an instance where the movie flails between the serious and camp. There is potential and Pounder and Perkins take their roles seriously, yet the direction of Garris seems to take the performances to a campier level. Through his phone call, we meet Normans’s mother (the hot Olivia Hussey) through narratives about their life together, with young Norman played by Henry Thomas of E.T. fame. I give credit for Garris for choosing Hussey to play Mrs. Bates; she is gorgeous and not at all the image one would think of for Mrs. Bates. However, Hussey camps up her performance and I believe it is because of Garris’ direction.
That isn’t to say that Psycho IV isn’t well-made. The film is bursting with color, giving an idea of life back in the era at the time of the original film. But, much like Norman Bates himself, this film is at war with itself. It doesn’t know how to treat its material, and instead of being firmly on one path, the movie straddles the serious and the campy, leaving this viewer satisfied to an extent, but disappointed at what could’ve been.
Tomorrow…ugh, Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake. Although, this is a pretty sweet trailer.