Psycho II Is Your Weekend Cheesy Movie
by Erik Amaya
Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Psycho II
While studio ownership was handed over to conglomerates long ago, the legacies and spirits of the old Hollywood days remain in many of the surviving film companies. And the legacy of Universal Pictures, long before it was owned by the likes of Seagram, Vivendi, and Comcast, was that of a rickety studio on a hill overlooking both Hollywood and Burbank where very cheap Westerns were made by the wagon-full. Prestige pictures and box office glory would occur in the studio’s 100+ year history, but a certain cheapness continued to appear even as budgets increased to the $100 million range. Which shouldn’t suggest cheap pictures are inherently bad; they just continue the tradition Universal’s inexpensive Westerns.
In the 1980s, that cheapness took on the form of its Jaws sequels. Warming over the leftovers of the original blockbuster was good business sense, even if it proceeded from a certain cynicism. And seeing the returns on that cynical investment throughout the 1980s, the studio decided to warm over another well-regard film in their library: Psycho.
When you look closely at Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated yet problematic thriller, its cheapness is obvious. In fact, he designed the film with cost-cutting in mind to appease his employers at the time, Paramount Pictures. He even dismissed his usual crew to work with the television unit tasked with producing Alfred Hitchcock Presents on a weekly basis. When they refused to accept his budget, Universal stepped in to aid Hitchcock produce the film while Paramount stayed on as distributor. That it is considered a classic demonstrates how cheapness may not necessarily translate to terrible movies. And, curiously enough, Psycho II proves not all cynical sequels are cut from the same mediorce cloth.
The plot concerns Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) as he returns to his home 22 years after being certified insane following the murders of Marion Crane and several other people at or near his home. Despite the protests of Marion’s sister Lila (a returning Vera Miles) at his release hearing, Norman is released and takes up residence in the famous Psycho house. Adjusting to freedom is not easy as he is haunted by his actions in the 1960s, but he begins to work as a short order cook at a nearby diner while the Bates Motel is managed by a lowlife named Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz). At the diner, he meets a fellow employee named Mary Samuels (Meg Tilly). Needing a place to stay, she ends up in a guest room at Norman’s house. As the two become friendly, Norman begins to have visions of blood and hear the voice of Mother warning him to stay away from the pretty young thing. He also starts receiving phone calls and notes from Mother despite her death decades ago.
When Toomey is killed by someone in a black dress, suspicions arise that Norman’s relapses. Norman begins to believe it himself when a young man is murdered in the basement while Norman is locked in the attic. Mary attempts to console him, but it is soon discovered that she is Lila’s daughter and has been aiding her mother in driving Norman crazy. After another series of murders eventually blamed on Mary, Norman confronts his real mother; an old woman who also works at the diner. Hearing her confession, Norman kills her and lays her in his mother’s bed. He also resumes stewardship of the Bates Motel.
And if the plot sounds like an interesting if somewhat pedestrian potboiler, that’s part of the charm. Director Richard Franklin and writer Tom Holland (who would both go on to make Cloak & Dagger) wanted to honor the limited ambitious and relative cheapness of Hitchcock’s original film. Utilizing standing backdrops on the Universal backlot and various soundstages on the campus, Franklin recreated many of Hitchcock’s shots while Holland devised a story which effectively extends the Psycho world even as it cheats a little to resolve the plot. The film was even original conceived as a direct-to-cable project until Perkins’ initial refusal to return saw it upgraded to a theatrical release.
In getting Perkins back, the film is elevated over its cheap and cheesy trappings. As an older Norman, Perkins is very effective as a man dealing with mental disorders. His increasing anguish works on both the viewer and Mary as she becomes convinced that he would never hurt a fly. Tilly, for her part, offers the exact performance the role requires. Her growing concern for Norman is believable even if the plot demands she become both perpetrator and victim. Franz, in his few scenes, is a delight as scumbag using the motel for illicit activities which would have upset Mother a great deal. Rounding out the main cast is the dependable Robert Loggia, who plays Norman’s court-appointed shrink Dr. Raymond. Knowing that the film exists in a twilight zone between television production and film, he offers an expertly maintained guest star role.
Nonetheless, the film cannot completely escape a cheesiness born of its cynical roots. The film is still a needless sequel to a classic no matter how well the craftsmanship is executed. Not helping matters are the truly terrible third and fourth entries in the series; which take every awful preconceived notion of what a Psycho sequel could be as mission statements. The film also received a funny treatment by Rifftrax, which found plenty of humor in its plot and the overall presentation of Norman’s madness. At the same time, the Rifftrax commentary underscores the surprising amount of craft on display in this unusual slice of cheese.
Psycho II is available for rent at the usual streaming platforms. The Rifftrax version is available at Rifftrax.com.