I’ve said it repeatedly a number of times throughout the years: I’m so incredibly envious of anyone seeing Psycho for the first time who has no idea of the film’s now infamous secrets. I’m not sure if such a person still exists. The idea of being led through one of the darkest and thrilling psychological tales in all of cinema is an experience that still remains unforgettable, no matter how many times a person watches that film. However, after revisiting Psycho 4: The Beginning, I’m equally envious of those who have never seen the fourth and final film in the series, which despite being absent of some of the scares which made the original such an iconic classic retains enough riveting darkness to make it a memorable experience in its own right.
Psycho 4 opens on a radio call-in show in which late night host Fran Ambrose’s (CCH Pounder) latest show deals with men who have murdered their mothers. When Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) calls in, under the alias Ed, he immediately grabs Fran’s attention with stories of his dark and twisted childhood, which are illustrated through a series of flashbacks featuring a young Norman (Henry Thomas) and his monstrous mother Norma (Olivia Hussey).
A number of reasons point to Psycho 4 as being the superior installment among all the sequels. To begin with, the film brilliantly pays homage to the original film by using Bernard Hermann’s famous theme and juxtaposing it with a bunch of quick images that set the stage for the film’s framing device, such as a birthday cake being decorated, a cigarette being lit, and blood from a cut finger dripping down the drain. The framing device in question, which largely alternates between Norman’s current home and a radio station, is incredibly strong because of its real time-like set-up, Pounder’s character (who undergoes a surprising transformation), and because of Perkins, who is given plenty of room to go further into his iconic character. It also helps that director Mick Garris (who knows how to deliver a horror film) was working from a script written by Joseph Stefano, the writer of the original Psycho. Featuring the original psychiatrist character from the first film and even director John Landis in a supporting role, Psycho 4 makes audiences forget the previous so-so sequels as they welcome this true companion piece to the original classic.
The fact that Psycho 4 bypassed theaters in America for a release on cable’s Showtime network would lead most to believe that the film remains a stale and safe horror entry. And yet, in every way possible, the film goes beyond the trappings of a forgettable horror sequel. Thanks to its unusual nature, Psycho 4 functions as both a sequel and a prequel and does so beautifully, mainly because of the twisted nature of its characters. The storyline of Norman trying to enjoy a normal life, yet remaining unable to forgive himself for the past, is fascinating. Meanwhile, the good, dark look into what made him the way he turned out to be is as upfront as it needs to be. It’s certainly bold and admirable in the way the film doesn’t shy away from the semi-incestuous moments such as Norma and Norman rolling around on the ground playing; a moment which quickly turns when Norma discovers her son’s slight erection, causing her to put him in one of her dresses and lipstick before locking him in a closet.
Perkins outdoes himself as Norman, going even further into the psychology and embodying Norman as if he’s never left him. It’s difficult to tell who had the harder job between Thomas and Hussey with regard to their characters. Besides nailing specific tics and mannerisms, Thomas brings the right kind of torment to Norman, absorbing and understanding everything that’s made him what he is. Hussey enjoys her wonderfully showy role and perfectly makes Norma the kind of monster audiences always imagined her to be. For me, Psycho 4 was the first time I ever saw Pounder and I remember thinking how impressive she was in what should have been a purely side character. As I watched her greatly elevate both the part and the film through her work, I remember hoping she would get a big break later on worthy of her talents, which she thankfully did.
The best part about the final installment in the film series is how it cares about the character of Norman as much as it does. Norman Bates has always been a fascinating character for audiences to explore and observe, and the minds behind Psycho 4 know this. Overall, the pull of the character that was felt by audiences from the beginning remains intact thanks to a screenplay that does right by him. It’s almost impossible to not root for Norman as he so desperately tries to exorcise his demons and fight for his life against his horrendous past. Even if Psycho 4 loses a little power when it enters into slasher/chase territory in its final scenes, it quickly pulls itself back together for an appropriate enough ending to the series.
A new interview titled The Making of Mother with Tony Gardner features the film’s special makeup effects artist describing the joy of working on the film and designing a modern day version of mother. There is also some raw behind-the-scenes footage of Garris on the first day of shooting as well as the film’s scoring process.
Hussey and Thomas join Garris for a fun group commentary. Thomas recalls the advice Perkins gave him in playing the young Norman, while Hussey talks about the opportunity to create her character from the ground up. Garris talks about the challenges of working with the sometimes-eccentric Perkins, whose disappointment with being turned down as director of the film influenced his relationship with him. Other topics of discussion include the experience of shooting the film at the then-new Universal Orlando theme park and the filmmakers’ aim to respect what Alfred Hitchcock had done with the original film.
Psycho 4: The Beginning earns its place as the superior sequel of the classic series thanks to the stellar job it does of going into the psychology of one of horror cinema’s most infamous characters.
Psycho 4: The Beginning is now available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory!