FANGO Flashback: “PSYCHO III”Fearful Features,News Ken W. Hanley
Much like snowflakes and fingerprints, you’ll never find two horror fans with the same opinions about the PSYCHO sequels. Perhaps among the most divisive franchises in horror history, it’s difficult to find a critical consensus on the later tales of Norman Bates, whether it be Richard Franklin’s PSYCHO II, Mick Garris’ PSYCHO IV, the variations of BATES MOTEL or Anthony Perkins’ PSYCHO III. And while this writer has never been a fan of PSYCHO III, especially considering my love for PSYCHO and PSYCHO II, the time felt right to give PSYCHO III another shot, hoping to eschew the PSYCHO legacy and take it as a slasher in its own right.
Now, PSYCHO III has always been the most experimental offering of the PSYCHO series, and it certainly shows: if PSYCHO II was Franklin’s love letter to Hitchcock, PSYCHO III was much more reactionary and unique in its cinematic voice. And while the film isn’t quite the horror home run it deserves to be, there is something to be said about Perkins as a director, especially in his choice to paint a very particular picture of the world of PSYCHO, and in that sense, PSYCHO III is perhaps the most unforgiving of the series. Perhaps in Perkins’ and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue’s eyes, there not only is no happy ending for Norman Bates, but no happy endings period.
However, if there’s anything that really holds up about PSYCHO III, it’s the visual stylization as the film finds comfort in a colorful, sleazy and otherworldly direction. Taking cues from the likes of Dario Argento, Mario Bava and BLOOD SIMPLE, PSYCHO III is a visually darker film than PSYCHO II, but given a neon shine throughout its more lurid sequences. But at the same time, Perkins’ investment in Norman Bates also holds the character in a very sympathetic light, and in scenes such as the sinking car or his attack on Duane, Norman is presented in almost a terrified light. And that’s not to mention many of the stylistic flourishes to the performance driven moments as well, whether it’s Perkins’ coping with the unending screams of his victims or the tragic opening sequence at the church.
Yet what hurts PSYCHO III upon rewatching is that there are many times in which the film goes into two quite frustrating places: blunt familiarity or canon-correcting convolution. In the former category, the callbacks to the iconic moments of PSYCHO feel forced or, at their very best, awkwardly out-of-place; whether it’s Perkins’ restating “we all go a little mad sometimes”, the stylistic replica of someone falling down the stairs in the Bates household or the final frame of the film, PSYCHO III cheapens its strong individual content by aggressively making sure we all know what franchise we’re watching. And in the latter, the revelation of Emma Spool as the architect of Norman’s pain needlessly complicates Norman’s story while robbing the original PSYCHO of its agency, as if Norman never killed his mother, then him taking her mantle is all for naught. Hell, even the Spool revelation is reneged on in the film’s final moments, as Norman’s relapse into psychosis makes his declaration of freedom a needless and unsatisfying cop-out.
Though there are issues with PSYCHO III, the entry certainly is elevated by the performances on display as Perkins’ proved himself an skilled director of actors as well. In terms of his own performance, Perkins is pitch perfect as Norman Bates, embracing the role in a much more villainous way than he could in PSYCHO II while offering the tormented, broken side of Norman as well. On the other hand, Jeff Fahey’s Duane makes for a perfect foil, with the actor offering his natural charm and charisma to bolster his darker, more manipulative moments in spades. Yet the best addition to PSYCHO III would be Diana Scarwid as Maureen, whose emotional and incredibly physical performance is probably the most criminally unsung of ‘80s horror.
At the end of the day, this writer finds PSYCHO III to be a much stronger film when viewed as a slasher in its own right, but with a script so unfortunately devoted to the canon and strength of its predecessors, the baggage of PSYCHO and PSYCHO II certainly weighs down the film. Perkins certainly offers something different and disturbing in the franchise; in fact, it’s like the most genre-specific outing that the PSYCHO franchise has ever been. But much like Norman Bates himself, PSYCHO III is too awkward and needlessly controlled by its past to really reach greatness.