Written and Directed by: Richard Rothstein
Starring: Bud Cort, Lori Petty, and Moses Gunn
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“And you’ll be staying with us for just one night?”
“Yes, how did you know that?”
“Oh, just a feeling…”
“Yes, how did you know that?”
“Oh, just a feeling…”
A year after the second Psycho sequel hit the big screen, Universal looked to take the franchise to the small screen by turning it into a weekly anthology series. This, of course, was a popular route for horror, as the late 80s and early 90s churned out an abundance of such shows; two of Psycho’s big-screen contemporaries even made it to TV in the form of Freddy’s Nightmares and Friday the 13th: The Series. We remember those two--perhaps not fondly, but that’s another discussion; however, whatever became of the Bates Motel series? Nothing. Like a trip to the motel itself, the franchise’s visit to TV was short, yielding only this pilot that offers but a glimpse of what viewers could have expected from horror’s most infamous motel.
When Alex West (Bud Cort, still playing a weirdo 15 years after Harold and Maude) was a child, he ended up in a mental institution after killing his abusive step-father. While he was there, his psychologist thought it’d be a good idea to leave him in the care of Norman Bates (I guess a cross-dressing psychopath is the most natural cure for a troubled young mind). They develop a friendship over a twenty year period in the asylum, and when Norman kicks the bucket, he leaves Alex his most prized possession: the Bates Motel. Even though everyone thinks he’s nuts, Alex decides to fix the place up and re-open it; however, it might already be occupied by the spirit of Mrs. Bates herself!
Bates Motel is certainly an interesting curiosity, but not a very good one. It belongs in the discussion of worst follow-ups to a classic film, which means it joins the ranks of Jaws: The Revenge or your choice of later Halloween sequels (or remakes). It barely feels like a Psycho film and instead plays out like an inspirational story of how one can successfully renovate and reopen an establishment whose previous owner was a maniac. The tone is ultra-cheesy and sappy, with tender moments often accompanied by soft piano music that felt like it was ripped from an after-school special. I guess you would call this a “very special episode of Psycho,” where we watch Alex overcome his demons and form friendships with the likes of Willie (Lori Petty), a young girl who’s wearing a chicken suit the first time Alex encounters her. This leads to an odd couple pairing, as the duo both commit to whipping the motel into shape (they even get a requisite goofy 80s montage scored by terrible music to let us know that they are indeed getting down to business).
When the scarce horror elements show up, things improve a bit. It’s always fun to see the old motel and the Bates house itself, and there are some cool, spooky moments involving the ghost of Mrs. Bates. Bernard Herrmann’s famous score occasionally creeps in as well to remind you of former glory. The last 30 minutes are also kind of spooky and give us an indication of what the show would have been like; it’s here that a middle-aged woman shows up as the motel’s first new tenant. It soon becomes clear that the old motel must have been built on the threshold of the Twilight Zone because she’s suddenly surrounded by a bunch of young kids swinging and dancing to the oldies (she doesn’t seem to catch on that these kids would rather do the doo-wop rather than the robot). One of these kids is a really young Jason Bateman, and the two share some pretty painful and awkward romantic exchanges. All the while, the characters we’ve followed for the past hour all but drop out of the film, leaving us with this weird little interlude.
Fret not, however--the film soon remembers what it was doing for most of its run time and tacks on five more minutes to wrap everything up and tie it all together. It seems like Wayne and Garth dropped by too and left the film’s Scooby-Doo ending, which is certainly in line with the film’s general silliness. The whole thing just ends up feeling like an obvious attempt to ride the coattails of a famous title and do something completely unrelated with it. There’s no real reason given why weird shit would have been happening at the Bates Motel each week--I guess we were just supposed to accept that it would. But hey, if you’ve ever wanted to see what a Psycho movie would be like without Norman Bates (he only shows up--not played by Anthony Perkins--in some brief flashback footage and photographs), Bates Motel is your ticket. On the other hand, it does feature a cameo from Buck Flower in his most famous (and only?) role of a homeless vagrant, so let’s call it even.
Psycho fans will certainly want to take a look at this oddball entry in the franchise. It obviously wasn’t successful, and a few years later, fans got to see Norman return (sort of) in Psycho IV: The Beginning. Bates Motel, on the other hand, owes its prolonged existence to whoever had the foresight to record it off TV two decades ago, as it still floats around if you look in the right places. Something tells me that Universal would rather forget it exists; maybe they should have thrown it onto the Psycho remake disc as a special feature--that way, the most die hard of Psycho fans could get two ill-conceived ideas for the price of one. At any rate, you might need a softer spot for cheesy 80s TV horror anthologies to enjoy this one; I kind of do, so I was charmed by a few things it threw at me. But maybe that was just Jason Bateman. Rent it!
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