Directed by: Mick Garris
Written by: Joseph Stefano
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Henry Thomas, and Olivia Hussey
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“I've killed before, and now I'm gonna have to kill again.”
When a horror franchise is nearing its death, there are a few different directions the filmmakers can go to conclude the series. They can turn the series toward the comedic and self-referential (as in the Abbott and Costello monster movies of the 1940s and 50s), they can churn out one last grand “final” chapter of the saga (Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare), or they can continue along the same path as it is currently going as direct-to-video releases (the last several Hellraiser flicks). Then, of course, there is the prequel. The entry that seeks to explain or merely shed more light on a particular franchise and the history of its characters. The made for TV Psycho IV: The Beginning is one such prequel.
After the events of Psycho III, Norman Bates is living a somewhat normal life, complete with a loving wife, a nice house, and no more disturbances from dear old Mother. However, listening to a late night talk show host discuss the subject of sons who have murdered their mothers, dangerous thoughts and feelings begin flooding back, prompting Norman to actually dial in to the show’s host. Through a series of flashbacks, he reveals some of his darkest secrets (among which are a discussion of his very first victim as well as finding out the real relationships he had with his mother and her jerky boyfriend). Most shocking of all, however, is that he reveals to the talk show host that it is time for him to kill once more, and it’s up to the host to try and stop him before its much too late.
I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It doesn’t really try all that hard to be scary or effective as a horror film, but as a psychological character study full of backstory on one of horror’s all-time greatest characters, it is engaging all the same. It’s a bit misleading to label this movie strictly a prequel, as there is action occurring that takes place in present day. The movie alternates between flashbacks pre-dating Hitchcock’s original movie and Norman standing in his kitchen talking on the phone to the talk show host. In this respect (and perhaps only this respect) it’s a lot like Coppola’s The Godfather Part II. Despite some of his more lackluster recent works, Mick Garris shows here that he can turn in decent directorial work. I am a huge fan of his excellent TV miniseries based on Stephen King's epic The Stand. Four sequels into a series, here he gives us a fresh and interesting premise paired with his stylish eye for visuals. Returning to the franchise he helped shape with Alfred Hitchcock is screenwriter Joseph Stefano. Pretty much anyone else delving into the history of Bates would be blasphemy, so I'm glad that Stefano would up being the one Universal hired for this project. For a TV movie, the writing is actually quite good. Also returning to the series is the chilling and thrilling sounds of Bernard Herrmann's original instrumental score (this time, composed by Graeme Revell). For whatever reason, the second and third films decided a Psycho movie was better off not including one of the most memorable and effective horror themes of all time. Here, the familiar themes are used (but not overused) to great effect, giving this film a unique authenticity lacking in the previous entries. This film feels like a more genuine sequel than the rest.
Perkins turns in another fine performance as Norman Bates, although his scenes are mostly played solo with him talking into a phone and not interacting very much with any of the rest of the cast. The pair that steal the show are E.T.’s Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey (Black Christmas). Thomas is quite believable as an awkward, younger Norman, driven to lust and madness by his constantly flirting, crazed mother Norma (played to perfection by Hussey). The chemistry they have as mother and son seems almost genuine, making the ever-mounting sexual tension between them all the more uncomfortable for the viewer. A solid supporting cast turns up as well, though most of them aren’t on-screen for a great deal of time. The exception is CCH Pounder's radio host character. You've probably seen her in dozens of different projects over her career. She is probably the most famous for her regular role on the highly-acclaimed TV series, “The Shield”. An American Werewolf in London director and longtime Hitchcock fan John Landis appears in a small role as one of the radio show's producers.
The blood and gore levels are passable but not plentiful. What little there is on-screen is interesting, however, it’s not terribly graphic. There is a decent stabbing early on in the film, as well as a gruesome shot of the aftermath showing a bloodied blonde girl with stab marks all over her chest next to the still-embedded knife. Garris and company can’t really use the defense “We were a TV movie. We did the best we could.” Though, yes, it was a TV movie, footage shot but cut out and not shown on the original TV version was added back to the original VHS release and has also been carried over to the DVD (which is rated R by the MPAA). Another addition to the R rated version is a pair of nude scenes (one of which featurs Olivia Hussey). Don’t get too excited, however. It’s a quick shot as young Norman peeps through the hole in cabin 1. If Hussey’s goods are what you want to see, you’ll get much more satisfaction by watching her in Romeo & Juliet. So, although the DVD is rated R, it still feels a bit tame. I can’t imagine it took all that many cuts to show this on TV, and today, could likely get by as-is with maybe a couple of patches of blur and no further changes.
Psycho IV has been released on DVD as part of a 2-disc triple feature set paired with Psycho II and Psycho III. To have been a low budget TV movie, the transfer actually looks a lot nicer than Psycho III. Its far from perfect, but is fairly clear and watchable. Unlike II and III, though, IV does not include any sort of network promo trailer or other extra feature. While it’s not groundbreaking in the least, Psycho IV is a strangely fitting conclusion to a memorable horror franchise. After all, Hitchcock's original film was shot using the crew from his television series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents". What better way to end the franchise than with a TV movie. Though the final frames suggest another sequel could’ve been (and theoretically still could be) made, as of now this was the series’ swan song. Not the strongest horror sequel, but it’s extremely entertaining and interesting if you’re a fan of the series. I’ve seen the triple feature set for as low as $6.00 at Big Lots, and at that price, it’s an absolute no-brainer purchase. I think you too will be pleasantly surprised by howmuch you enjoy it. Psycho IV is a good time. By all means, Buy it!
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