Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the best horror movies ever made. It’s often cited as the best and for good reason. It’s the kind of feature that was not getting made in America at the time. It brought horror out of the gothic castles, out of the atomic age monsters and into every day life. It’s a murder mystery with one of the best, most infamous twist endings of all time. While it’s said that no movie is perfect, Psycho still almost feels like it is. The technical side of the production is flawless, as is the acting. There’s something new to notice every single time you watch the film. Anthony Perkins gives one of the best performances in any genre as Norman Bates. Needless to say, Psycho II was a daunting task and that’s a large part of why it took over twenty years to get made. In a lot of people’s minds, it was automatically a disaster from the get-go, simply for being a sequel to a beloved classic. It’s not hated so much for the movie itself but simply for being Psycho II.
This is a shame, because Psycho II is a legitimately great movie. Writer Tom Holland, who would go on to direct Fright Night and Child’s Play makes incredibly smart decisions on where to take the story and director Richard Franklin crafts it as a completely separate film from the first. It’s about Norman Bates as a character and the way he both has changed since the events of the original and the way that he wants to change. The ongoing question is not “who is the killer?” but “is Norman the killer?” and these two things are very different.
Anthony Perkins is fantastic as Norman Bates, stepping into the role as though he never left it. We meet up with a very different Norman. He’s recovered, or at least he is trying his best to recover. Naturally, given his past, the audience is suspicious.
The movie is very aware of the audience and feeds into this by having most of the film’s supporting cast eagerly waiting Norman’s insanity to reveal itself. Nobody wants to believe that he’s recovered. Yet all he wants is some semblance of a normal life.
One of the best things about Psycho II is its reversal of the protagonist/antagonist roles from the original film. While Marion Crane started out as the protagonist, her sister Lila took over after Marion’s death in the infamous shower scene. Norman was clearly covering for the crime and was then revealed as the killer at the end.
Here, Lila is as much a suspect as Norman is, if not more. She is so livid that Norman has been released from the state mental hospital that she plans to prove he is still insane at any cost. There’s a vindictive, extremely cruel side to her that shows up in this picture. Even if she’s not the killer, she proves that she is perfectly willing to let people die as long as people think Norman is responsible for the crime. She is trying to prove that Norman Bates is insane by driving him insane.
This really reflects the way that people with the way real mental health concerns are treated in society. As soon as something happens, as soon as they do something awful everyone expects them to do it again. Worse, even people who have never done anything wrong in their lives but still suffer from some sort of personality disorder, or even something as common as bipolar disorder, are stigmatized and viewed as unstable.
Of course Psycho II isn’t just focused on commentary, it’s an effective and superbly shot thriller, like the original. The gore is expectedly a little higher than the first, but that just comes with being a sequel and a more modern film. Psycho really pushed the boundaries of what could be shown in American cinemas in the early 1960’s. Smartly, this one isn’t as focused in that area. It’s still quite restrained for the time of its release but that doesn’t make it any less shocking. Like the first, it keeps you guessing from beginning to end, not only in terms of who is doing the killing but in terms of what is happening in general.
Psycho II is one of the best horror sequels and just a great movie in general, and it’s a shame that people can’t see past the stigma of it simply existing. Anthony Perkins’ performance is strong and layered, almost as much as his powerhouse performance in the first one. But the character he’s playing here, while still the same Norman Bates, is very different.
It’s great to see the resurgence of popularity for this film in recent years. It will probably never gain a huge audience, but that should only make the people who love it embrace it even more. For anyone who may have overlooked the movie the first time, or want to check out more of the Psycho legacy after viewing the TV series, I urge you to give this one a look. Even if you haven’t seen it in a while, take a look at it on its own and make a return trip to the Bates Motel. You will be glad you did.