“I’ll finally be free” – Psycho III at 35

Psycho III

Anthony Perkins – Norman Bates himself – stepped behind the camera to make a morbidly funny and surprisingly moving sequel.

After spending more than two decades living in the shadow of Norman Bates, the character that he played to such indelible effect in Alfred Hitchcock’s groundbreaking classic Psycho (1960), Anthony Perkins finally came to terms with the character that ensured his place in cinema history by electing to appear in Psycho II (1983), which picked up the story of his character with his release after spending 22 years in an asylum and his ill-fated decision to return to his childhood home and its adjacent motel.

While perhaps a little better than some expected/feared, Psycho II was a largely forgettable mashup of sub-Hitchcockian pastiche from director Richard Franklin and slasher movie hijinks. Its only notable aspect was Perkins’ legitimately strong and nuanced performance.

Despite the payday, the excellent reviews for his performance and the strong box-office results, Perkins had no interest in returning to the Bates well again. When Universal proposed doing another sequel, he turned them down. While the producers might have gotten away with recasting the role for Psycho II (there were rumors at the time that Christopher Walken might take the part if Perkins passed), they realized at this point that without Perkins, there would simply be no movie.

Psycho III succeeds not so much through its script as its attitude.

Perkins, however, had been nursing an ambition to move into directing. He offered Universal a proposal – if the studio allowed him to direct Psycho III as well as star in it, he would do both jobs for just his acting fee. Realizing this would get the picture made and figuring that no one had a better grasp on Norman Bates than Perkins himself, Universal agreed. The result was Psycho III (1986), a largely forgotten but underrated work that would, next to the 2013-2017 Bates Motel television series, prove the best and most interesting of the various Psycho spinoffs.

Set approximately one month after the events of the previous film, Psycho III begins with Norman once again running his motel and living up at the house with the preserved corpse of Emma Spool, a waitress who, at the end of Psycho II, informed Norman that she was his real mother just before he clobbered her with a shovel. But Norman’s idyll doesn’t last long – his peace and quiet are soon disrupted by a host of new faces, each with their own agenda.

Psycho III

The local police are still searching for Emma. L.A. journalist Tracy Venable (Rpberta Maxwell), hopes to interview Norman for a piece she is working on about serial killers returning to society. Sleazy drifter Duane (Jeff Fahey), hires on as Norman’s assistant manager. The most significant arrival is Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid), a mentally unstable former nun running from her past who Norman offers to put up for the night, no doubt inspired by her resemblance to the late Marion Crane, right down to her initials.

When Norman saves Maureen from dying by suicide, a tentative romance begins to blossom between the two. But love alone cannot curb Norman’s vicious side. And when his guests begin to meet gory ends, Norman’s fragile shot at finding happiness and peace is placed in grave peril.

In crafting Psycho III, Perkins and screenwriter Charles E. Pogue (who also co-wrote David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly) had to overcome two key problems. The first was that basic audience curiosity over the fate of Norman Bates had been essentially sated by Pscyho II – ill-conceived parentage plot twist and all. The second was that by 1986, the slasher movie boom had long since passed by any film along Pscyho III’s lines, no matter how well-crafted, risking the dreaded “been there, seen that” reaction from crowds.

Psycho III succeeds not so much through its script as its attitude. Instead of blatantly trying to emulate Hitchcock as Franklin did, Perkins and Pogue instead took inspiration from a more recent film that Perkins had loved, the Coen Brothers’ 1985 debut Blood Simple—to the point of screening the picture for Psycho III’s cast and crew and hiring its composer, Carter Burwell, to do the score. The Coens’ style of bloody, occasionally outrageous black comedy proved to be a good fit for the picture, granting a welcomely offbeat edge to the proceedings.

Perkins’ Coen-esque approach is most obvious in Pscyho III’s most infamous moment. Mother has murdered another guest. Norman quickly hides the body in the motel’s ice chest just before the sheriff arrives on an unrelated matter. The Sherrif, hoping to beat the heat, reaches into the chest for some ice to suck on. He fails to notice the body inside, the blood on his ice, and Norman’s twitching at how close he is to being exposed. It’s a gruesomely hilarious sequence.

Perkins, however, used it (Psycho III) as a chance to experiment and explore the role that had defined his life.

As a first-time director, Perkins was interested in the psychological aspects of the story and the character over carnage. In front of the camera, Perkins was again wonderful as Norman, finding new ways to shade the character that he had lived with for so long. Even as the bodies begin to stack up, Norman is always seen as someone compelled to kill due to forces beyond his control, ultimately more pitiable than conventionally scary.

Although Psycho III proved to be more skillfully conceived and executed than it probably had any right to be, the audiences that came out for Psycho II felt no burning need to see a third film about Norman Bates. While it earned decent reviews for Perkins’ performance his oddball humor as director), it was a flop. Its failure scuttled Perkins and Pogue’s plans for a potential Psycho IV. A year later, an attempt at a weekly anthology series entitled Bates Motel (1987), never made it past a terrible pilot.

Psycho IV was eventually made for television in 1990, directed by frequent Stephen King adapter Mick Garris. Perkins would direct one more film, the misfire cannibal comedy Lucky Stiff (1989), and appear in a few more films, including Psycho IV, before dying of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1992.

In theory, Psycho III was as unnecessary as a sequel can be—it was a project that existed for no other reason than for Universal to try to squeeze a few more bucks out of one of their well-known properties. Perkins, however, used it as a chance to experiment and explore the role that had defined his life. The result is fascinating. While Psycho III does not match Hitchcock, it proves to be a smartly conceived and executed project that works both as comedy and ultimately as a tragedy. It honors its predecessor rather than reheating it. One suggestion— if you decide to have a drink while watching it, consider ordering it neat.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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