Psycho 3 (1986)
Anthony Perkins’ directorial debut represents an unexpectedly stylish take on the Psycho franchise, eschewing the mystery-thriller approach of Richard Franklin’s admirable Psycho 2 (1983) and forging a Giallo-hued entry which has been rather unfairly treated down the years. Psycho 3 is partly Psycho a la mode of course.
The look of the film, and in particular the lighting and European-lensing, is distinctly different to its predecessor. Dean Cundey’s work on Psycho 2 is solid in its own right – and particularly the look of the storm clouds set above Norman as he stands outside the Bates house – but the combination of Bruce Surtees as director of photography and Perkins in the chair this time manages to result in a visual style too interesting and eccentric for a paint-by-numbers slasher film. Primarily, that’s because Psycho 3 is not such a slasher film. Yes, the gore and smut factor has been elevated for the 80s audience but the talent behind the production means this is a different kind of movie.
You’d never guess that this is Perkins’ baptism of fire in the art of directing given he pulls off some tantalising camera-placing and engineers numerous dutch angle shots. There are two pieces of camerawork which stand-out even today. The first is a seamless fading shot as we switch between the movie on a TV screen in a bar to the same movie on a TV screen in Norman’s parlour as he gazes out of the window, illuminated by a green table lantern – it’s absolutely gorgeous. (There’s also another fading shot in the film as we move directly from a hospital room to Mother’s room, through the simple act of Norman opening and closing a door). The second is a transformation of a shaft of light under a door into a gleaming kitchen knife.
Perkins the actor, perhaps laid bare in all his typecast glory, comes close to japing the audience with that all-knowing smile and blank – nearly icy – stare. As in Psycho 2, Perkins now appears a rather gaunt and unkempt version of the boy-next-door who initially haunted Vera Miles in Hitchcock’s 1960 classic; but the strength of his performance is – as always with his Norman persona – in effortlessly displaying the complete madness and underlying vulnerabilities of the “child-within-a-man”. Jeff Fahey’s character “Duke” is the mirror image of Norman – he’s confident with women, carefree but also a sexual predator – and it’s with Norman where the audience’s sympathy remains. The elemental reason being that at the heart of the Psycho franchise – and particularly the sequels – is tragedy not horror. Perkins’ Bates is no monster but a pitiable antagonist, a key difference between him and the likes of the deliberately faceless slashers who characterised 80s horror cinema.
Explicit attention is once again given to Norman’s heartfelt desires, this time love and companionship with Diana Scarwid’s “Maureen” – a runaway nun who has turned her back on God (and an uncomfortable doppleganger for shower scene victim Marion Crane) – and at some points in the film you actually begin to believe this is going to work and free him of his tragic split-personality. Both Norman and Maureen are having a crisis of faith; Maureen in her god and Norman in his sanity. The religious themes of restitution and atonement are heavy (perhaps even too heavy) with frequent symbolism, the best of which being the large window in the Bates house’s hallway resembling a stained-glass window in a church. The similarities between Scarwid’s Maureen and Perkins’ Norman are strongly reminiscent of those between Janet Leigh’s Marion and Norman in the original film. In fact the first half of this film is thematically alike – and intentionally so – to Hitchcock’s film. Fans will notice the route that Janet Leigh took to the Bates Motel; running away from a crime, driving through pouring rain and seeking shelter; is markedly analogous to that taken by Scarwid in this picture. The script also wallows in self-reference with Perkins delivering my favourite line in response to Mauren’s hospital-bedside-apology for her suicide attempt in the shower of Cabin 1:
Maureen: Sorry, I did leave the bathroom a mess.
Norman: I’ve seen it worse.
There are further nods to Hitchcock from the off, beginning with an opener which is nothing short of a gushing tribute to Vertigo’s bell-tower moment. There’s a reworking of the iconic shower scene from the original film, only here it’s a phone box rather than a bathtub. Perkins clearly picked up on Hitchcock’s black humour and memorably stages a police chief unknowingly sucking blood-spattered ice cubs from an ice box as he defends Norman in front of his detractors.
Carter Burwell’s soundtrack has claim to be one of the most under-rated scores in the genre. The main theme is jealously eerie as it plays over the opening credits of Maureen drudging through the barren wilderness surrounding the Bates motel. The incidental scores are just as strong, and really add to the picture’s togetherness.
What Perkins doesn’t get quite right is the mood of the picture; certain scenes fly just a little close to self-parody and modern audiences may decide the sight of a cross-dressing killer snarling from the dark is more jocularly camp than anything else.
In a sentence, Psycho 3 is a well-shot sequel that is far superior to anything it *should* have been. Perkins himself later claimed that he didn’t really have the requisite technical skill to do the film justice; how wrong he was. Furthermore, it’s unfortunately now remembered by most as just another slice ‘n’ dice movie from a decade soaked in them. How wrong again.
Hotdog rating: 8/10