THE FILM 3.5/5
“Matricide is probably the most unbearable crime of all…
but most unbearable to the son who commits it.”
A seemingly rehabilitated Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is drawn to a late night radio show where the host (CCH Pounder) encourages him to share his views on the topic of matricide. Reliving his childhood, Norman recounts his trials of a young boy (Henry Thomas) living with his widowed schizophrenic mother (Olivia Hussey). These haunting memories are more than just disturbing visions of the past; they threaten to rekindle his killing urge in this spine-tingling thriller directed by Mick Garris.
At one point during Psycho IV: The Beginning, when a young Norman Bates is doing what he does best in the darkness of the night, lit only by the red taillights of a nearby car, Mick Garris jokes on the audio commentary that he likes to think that scene’s lighting scheme inspired Martin Scorsese for his opening scene of Goodfellas. (It’s tempting to laugh at the idea of Martin Scorsese looking to Mick Garris, the director of Sleepwalkers, for inspiration, but Scorsese has seen more films than you, me, and the guy behind you combined, so it’s totally possible.) The reason I bring this up is because at no point during that commentary track do its participants even say the words “Bates Motel,” A&E’s smash television hit currently prepping to film its fifth season, and which while purporting to be inspired only by the original Psycho has certainly lifted more than a few things from its first official prequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning.
Unless you are a hardcore horror fan, people are often surprised to learn that there was more than one Psycho film (not even including its terrible remake.) “I had no idea they made sequels to that!” they often exclaim. Take that, add in the fact that The Beginning never played in any American theaters, intended as being just a Showtime original movie, and I guess it’s easy to understand why Psycho IV is the least heard-of entry in the series.
When dealing with sequels, it’s always tempting to talk about which entry is the best, as there are numerous criteria to consider. Which honors the original the best? Which is the most entertaining, the most insane, the most violent? For similar horror series, like Halloween or Friday the 13th, these are acceptable debates in which to engage, being that though they all tried new things, they were all largely the same in construct. But with the Psycho series, each sequel strived to be incredibly different from the first, and from the sequels that came before. Psycho II played with the audience’s preconceived notions of who Norman Bates was, not allowing them to trust their own eyes, as they were convinced the unseen knife-wielder could only be their titular madman. Psycho III, directed by star Anthony Perkins, goes full gonzo, ramping up the blackly comedic elements of the original while guiding it into a sleazy, dark, and somewhat uncomfortable direction. Psycho IV, written by original Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano (without input from original novelist Robert Bloch), brushes aside all the accumulated baggage of its previous sequels and opts to focus back on the core of what made Psycho so interesting–the psychosis of its “leading man.” (Garris confirms on his commentary the intent to ignore the sequels, but an in-film reference to the motel being closed down after the last murders “a few years ago” seems to fly in the face of that. If by “a few” you mean “thirty,” well, okay.)
Norman Bates, now somewhat unrealistically living free and married to a staff member of the hospital where he’d been committed, is calling into a radio show (remember those?) to put in his two cents on the subject of matricide: the killing of a mother by her child. Using the name Ed (as in Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer who inspired the character of Norman Bates, along with scores of other fictional cinematic killers), Norman delves back into his never-discussed childhood, finally fleshing out his mother, Norma, beyond just a stuffed corpse in a rocking chair. After thirty years, the audience gets a taste of the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse he suffered at her hands until the iced tea/strychnine cocktail he eventually served her.
The cast–in the past and in the present–do a fine job of sliding into Bates family history. Henry Thomas is remarkable as a young Norman Bates, unafraid to tackle some taboo topics and frankly a handful of uncomfortable scenes to film (popping a B while rolling around on top of your “mother” certainly qualifies). In terms of younger iterations, his take is far better than Freddie Highmore’s somewhat irritating, mush-mouthed version currently found on A&E. Olivia Hussey as Mama Bates offers the strongest performance, with a character even more complicated than Norman. While the son is the fucked-up progeny of his mother, it’s the creator of his psychosis who must come off even more unhinged. Hussey’s take on the character has to be so many things: loving and happy, but sad and resentful; sexual, but puritanical. She’s manic depressive, bi-polar, and emotionally manipulative, all at once. (Again, somewhere, Vera Farmiga was taking notes.) CCH Pounder, an actress as awesome as her name, does typically great work as a radio show host slowly transitioning from skeptical and slightly amused to invested and even personally responsible for the bloody path Norman is threatening to cut. And of course, there’s Anthony Perkins stepping back into his most famous role. Much of his limited screen time is relegated to him hugging a phone to his face and providing segues into the past, but the amount of emotion he’s capable of conveying is highly effective.
Much of Psycho IV is very well made–it’s certainly the best film in director Garris’ mostly underwhelming career–and it’s really only during the final act where it falters, intent on giving present-day Norman some knifery to do (or consider doing). The idea of him struggling with whether or not to kill his wife–and by proxy, his unborn child–in an attempt to avoid passing off his madness to someone else comes off just slightly obligatory (not to mention certainly put a damper on the marriage); the same emotional catharsis could have been had in Norman’s burning down of his family home while confronting the ghosts of his past, leaving a doubt in the audience’s mind he might make it out of the inferno alive, without resorting to cheap and unnecessary slasher film territory to bring it all home.
Exploring the backgrounds of our favorite cinematic killers has become more and more prominent in recent years, with the remakes of Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and coming soon, another Friday the 13th, robbing from their respective boogeymen their sense of mystique, and thus, their potency. The same cannot be said of Psycho IV, as nothing within it was fabricated beyond what was already spoken of or alluded to in the original film. While Psycho IV might not be the best of the sequels, it certainly treats the original film with the most reverence, unafraid to embrace the more icky subjects that the sequels opted to avoid. It was a worthy send-off for the character of Norman Bates, who, despite all the women-stabbing, has proven consistently to be the most sympathetic movie maniac of them all, with The Beginning making him even more so.
THE PICTURE 3.5/5
Compared to the excellent video presentations by Shout! Factory of the previous sequels, this particular sequel’s (sorry, prequel’s) presentation leaves a little to be desired. The colors are certainly strong, preserving Garris’ intention to create a hyperrealistic, almost stylized film (being that most of The Beginning is compromised of half-remembered flashbacks), but the picture itself offers up a conflicting look. Even though it was intended for television, Psycho IV was shot in a widescreen aspect ratio on 35mm, with all the grain that comes with it. The grain can be pretty overwhelming at times, and moments of stillness are ruined by a shuddering picture. There is a softness that’s detectable in background images, along with occasional flutters of unidentifiable print damage. (The first appearance of a ’50s-era Bates house is bouncing all over the place.) All in all, the video presentation here isn’t going to send anyone screaming back to their DVDs, but it’s not quite the picture collectors were likely hoping for.
THE SOUND 4/5
No issues to report with the audio presentation. Dialogue is clean and clear and receives fair prominence. Graeme Revell re-orchestrates the original film’s score by Bernard Herrmann, slowing it down just a bit, and it sounds pretty fantastic. There’s not too much dynamism until the film’s closing moments, in which the infamous Bates house burns (mostly) to the ground, although one of Norman’s early murders set to a fireworks-ridden sky works damn well.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 3/5
Not to beat a dead horse, but if we are using Shout! Factory’s previous releases of the Psycho series as indicators, then the supplements included in this release come off a little light, especially when considering that most of Psycho IV‘s participants are still with us. The included commentary track with director Mick Garris and actors Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey is certainly interesting, however. A lot of ground is covered as Garris discusses the somewhat complicated working relationship he had with Anthony Perkins, but he also prods his actors about their memories of the shoot. (Hussey seems to have forgotten most of it.) The track is light and breezy and very informal. Garris discusses his film and certain shooting choices with a surprising intelligence and technicality, as his body of work–past and present–ain’t exactly celebrated.
The interview with Tony Gardner is fairly long, coming in under a half hour, which has him discussing his early career as well as his work on Psycho IV. His recollection of the “fly speech” that caps off the ending of the original film apparently left an indelible mark on him, as he claims he couldn’t sleep for weeks after having seen it.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
— NEW Audio Commentary With Director Mick Garris, Actors Henry Thomas And Olivia Hussey
— NEW The Making Of Mother – An Interview With Make-up Effects Artist Tony Gardner
— Rare Behind-The-Scenes Footage From Director Mick Garris
— Photo Gallery Of Rare Photos From Mick Garris
STUDIO: Universal Studios / Showtime
DISTRIBUTOR: Shout! Factory
THEATRICAL DATE: N/A
VIDEO STREET DATE: August 23, 2016
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC; 1080p; 1.85:1
AUDIO: English 2.0 Stereo
RUN TIME: 96 mins
DVD COPY: N/A
DIGITAL DOWNLOAD: N/A
After three long years, Shout! Factory finally completes the high-def series collection of Psycho, following their releases of Psycho II and Psycho III. Why The Beginning wasn’t released at the same time is anyone’s guess (it’s suggested that Shout!, personally, weren’t fans of the film, which sounds too petty to be accurate), but that no longer matters, as it has finally arrived. One could argue that the groundwork for exploring Norman Bates’ backstory was laid during the original film in its final moments, and The Beginning is as respectful to that as it can be without coming off as exploitative of the Hitchcock classic. This release wasn’t the slam dunk that collectors were hoping for, as the supplements are a little light and the PQ presentation doesn’t look as good as its predecessors, but we can always fall back on the adage that this is the best Psycho IV: The Beginning has ever looked, and is leaps and bounds above its DVD. This release definitely comes recommended for completists.
Shout!/Scream Factory, LLC is a diversified multi-platform media company devoted to producing, uncovering, preserving and revitalizing the very best of pop culture. Shout! Factory’s DVD and Blu-Ray™ offerings serve up feature films, classic and contemporary TV series, animation, live music and comedy specials in lavish packages crammed with extras. Shout! Factory also owns and operates Westchester Films, Inc., Timeless Media Group, Biograph Records, Majordomo Records, HighTone Records and Video Time Machine. These riches are the result of a creative acquisition mandate that has established the company as a hotbed of cultural preservation and commercial reinvention.