The sheer audacity of shooting a sequel to Psycho seems inconceivable now. Follow up on a masterpiece? Continue the tale of the most perfect thriller ever put to celluloid? Blasphemy! And yet, as we’ve seen with A&E’s Bates Motel, you can still mine potent stories from this material. While Psycho II doesn’t come without a country mile of Psycho I, in and of itself it’s got some things going for it.
Getting out from under the first film’s shadow is key. You can’t pore over it obsessively or find new things about it every screening like you do with Hitchcock. It won’t inspire generations of filmmakers with its exquisite command of the medium, or scare generations into never showering again. It’s just a creepy little return visit to some familiar territory, with a few twists and turns to hold our attention. And as with its storied predecessor, it hinges on a strangely sympathetic killer to hold it all together.
Or in this case, a sympathetic former killer. After twenty-two years getting poked and prodded in the booby hatch, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) finally earns his release. He returns to his motel with a pledge to turn over a new leaf… though of course, we can’t be sure if he’s really cured or not. The film earns a lot of early interest by Perkins playing both sides of that question: sometimes appearing to genuinely want to put his past behind him, other times making creepy offers to young girls in exactly, precisely the sort of way that got him into all that trouble years ago. Oh, and he still gets notes from his mother from time to time, which will probably end in tears and hurt feelings before the final credits roll.
Director Richard Franklin has lots of early fun riffing on the tropes of the first film – Norman’s stammering offer of sandwiches and milk, for example – which carries its share of elegant tension. Vera Miles makes a nice cameo as Lila Crane (now Loomis), trying madly to get Norman locked up again, and Psycho II enjoys speculating on whether or not she may be right.
Eventually, however, the trip down memory lane wears out its welcome, leaving us wonder where the film can go next. By then, Perkins has come to the rescue with a repeat of his trick from the original: putting us solidly in his corner regardless of how nuts he may or may not be. Coincidentally, a fresh batch of bodies starts turning up, possibly from Norman, possibly from someone trying to drive him around the bend again.
The question of whodunit carries the film through most of its second half, bringing the tension to a boil and letting us relish the possible outcome. There’s a twist, of course, and it doesn’t work quite as well as it should, but it still sends a chill down the spine, and it earns that reaction on its own terms rather than its predecessor. It’s forced to borrow so much of what it has that such victories feel hard won.
Does it stand on its own? Yes and no. Try as it might, Psycho II can’t measure up to its own title, nor the legacy of the twitching nervous figure at its core. Judging it on the terms set forth by its predecessor can’t help but set it up for failure. But as a stand-alone thriller – borrowing from the first film but otherwise unbeholden to it – it can sneak up on you. Perkins knows the character too well to falter with him, and as curtain calls go, the slasher genre has definitely seen worse. You can chide Psycho II for its hubris, and the fact that it won’t ever get within shouting distance of a classic. But for a quiet summer escape with an old motel owner we used to know… yeah, it could be a lot worse.