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Psycho II & Psycho III

Psycho II

While reviewing Douglas Hickox’s Zulu Dawn, a prequel to Zulu that was released 15 years after the original, I wondered if the space between them set some kind of record. I came to the uninformed conclusion that the 16-year period from Return of the Jedi to The Phantom Menace’s must’ve been the longest stretch, entirely forgetting that Richard Franklin’s Psycho II was released a whopping 23 years after Hitchcock’s original redefined cinematic horror. I’m sure there’s an even longer gap out there somewhere, but I can’t imagine a sequel to a film as important and influential as Psycho having its accepted, canon sequel (not an Italian cash-in) released as late as Psycho II. The Star Wars analogy isn’t even appropriate, because by the time that franchise reached Jedi it was already dealing with diminished returns. Psycho went out on top. It was a phenomenon when released and its reputation has only grown with time. In addition, The Phantom Menace was released (initially) to unbridled enthusiasm – it was a social event. When Psycho II opened (against, no kidding, Return of the Jedi) it was met with muted skepticism. In the end, Franklin’s film made enough money at the box office, but the major critics weren’t particularly supportive. But, like the original, Psycho II’s reputation has improved with time.

Screenwriter Tom Holland (writer/director of Fright Night and Child’s Play) took on the challenge with a conceptual slant that made use of the huge gap between films and paid deft homage to the original’s major themes (so many evil mothers!). The film begins with Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) being found sane and released from the psychiatric hospital. His attempts at re-entering a normal life are interrupted when Lila Loomis (Vera Miles) and her daughter Mary (Meg Tilly) conspire to drive him insane. But the plan is complicated when Mary realizes she cares for Norman and someone starts offing interlopers with a big, sharp, butcher knife. For his part Franklin, who got the job after he made a particularly Hitchcockian Australian thriller called Roadgames, creates a doom-soaked mood and keeps his direction simple (save some outrageously Welles-ian crane shots), so that Holland’s clever and at times touching screenplay can do its job. For the sake of context, it’s important to note that the film was made at the height of the early ‘80s slasher boom, yet it does not conform to many of the genre’s conventions. Franklin’s certainly earns his R-rating with some spectacular scenes of violence, but doesn’t revel in the gore, nor is Holland’s script over-populated by a cadre of nubile college students. In fact, the one scene featuring heavy-petting teenagers (which appears to be poking fun at the genre’s conventions) actually serves the story, because it is the audience’s first clue as to what’s happening in the Bates Motel basement. Beside this one scene, the mystery surrounding the murderer’s identity and Norman’s ‘mythology’ are really the only particularly ‘slashery’ things about this straight-faced mix of melodrama and suspense. Sometimes the melodrama veers into soap opera territory, but the tone serves the film’s intent to make us pity poor Norman right up to the shovel-to-the-head surprise ending.

This disc marks Psycho II’s first Blu-ray release and is presented in 1080p video, framed at the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio (most of the earlier DVD releases were pan & scan). It is a particularly handsome film thanks in large part to the efforts of John Carpenter’s favourite cinematographer, Dean Cundey. Cundey’s expert use of colour and contrast makes it a prime candidate for an HD upgrade. Psycho II is slightly less stylized than some of Cundey’s work, but follows the lead he set for himself, including hard shadows, soft highlights, and vivid blue & orange gels. The darkness is not a problem, thanks to the differentiations created by sharp edges, and the more surreal colours pop nicely against the warm brown base palette. The film does look its age – it has a constant stream of fine grain and a few flecks of print damage, but it also offers plenty of complex details and patterns that were missing on SD versions. Scream Factory has included a 5.1 remix and the original 2.0 sound here, both presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. This isn’t the film’s first 5.1 release, but it is the first time this mix has been released stateside. The remix is subtle enough that I’m going to recommend it over the 2.0 track, if for no other reason than the discrete center channel. The surround speakers are left relatively quiet, but the stereo speakers offer plenty of ambience and texture. There’s also no notable difference in the incidental effects between the two tracks. The only real ‘problem’ with the remix is that Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds so outrageously great that it doesn’t quite match the ‘age’ of the rest of the track. The extras include an audio commentary with screenwriter Tom Holland, an optional audio track featuring 15 minutes of vintage interviews with Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Janet Leigh, Richard Franklin, and Alfred Hitchcock, cast and crew interviews from an EPK (35:20, SD from a video source), two trailers, four TV spots, and a still gallery.

Psycho II & Psycho III

Psycho III

Psycho III picks up right where the last film left off – with Norman attempting to regain normalcy after murdering another mother figure. After establishing the essential ingredients of previous film, Charles Edward Pogue’s screenplay returns to Hitchcock’s original formula to turn it on its head. The first act recasts the Marion Crane character as Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid), a pixie-haired nun who leaves her convent, following a crisis of faith (and some involuntary nunslaughter). Maureen finds herself at the Bates Motel, where Norman immediately notices that she bears a striking resemblance to someone ‘Mother’ once killed. Norman watches through his peephole as she strips for a bath, then, like clockwork, grabs his favourite wig, enters the bathroom with a butcher knife overhead, and…notices that Maureen has slit her wrists. This is more than a simple twist on the theme – it’s a clever way of giving Norman a second chance, which helps to preserve the audience’s sympathy for him as he goes about his dirty business (there’s no question as to who is doing the killing this time).

I have to admit that I’m far less familiar with Psycho III than I am with the first two films in the series. I was under the impression that it was mostly respected simply because Anthony Perkins was given a chance at the helm and didn’t totally muck it up. Watching the film again for the first time in probably 15 years, I’m pleasantly surprised to see not only that Psycho III is the most entertaining of the sequels, but that Perkins took on the challenge with all the piss and vinegar of a first-time filmmaker half his age. It makes sense that he would know what he was doing, because he spent his acting career working with some of the best directors in the history of the medium, including George Cukor, Stanley Kramer, Orson Welles, René Clément, Stephen Sondheim, Mike Nichols, John Huston, Sidney Lumet, Ken Russell, and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock. He had to have learned something along the way. Some critics have compared his work here favourably to Hitch’s (he makes references to Vertigo, The Birds, and, of course, the first Psycho), but he appears to have also been inspired by filmmakers that were known for their Hitchcock mimicry, chiefly Brian DePalma, Dario Argento, and even Michael Mann – all filmmakers with much more of an ‘80s mentality. Franklin mostly avoided period specifications, but Perkins dives head first into the MTV Generation’s affection for rapid editing, long shadows, and neon gels. He’s also more willing to include gratuitous T&A and graphic violence than Franklin was. Sometimes all of this style gets in the way of the central story, which splits the film between a traditional dramatic thriller, a music video, and a typical, post- Friday the 13th slasher.

Psycho III’s first ever 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray transfer is solid, but slightly mushier than the Psycho II disc. The overall image quality is a little uneven, which makes me assume less effort was put into cleaning the print. Some scenes appear nearly perfect, while others are notable more grainy and dusted with artefacts. Details are crisp and robust, though, sometimes, over-sharpening causes minor edge haloes. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees, who made a name for himself shooting early Clint Eastwood movies, keeps his foundation palette relatively brownish, but saturates the more ornate sequences in hyper-vibrant and clean neon hues. These only feature a hint of low level noise during the grainier, less constrasty moments. This Blu-ray features the first R1 version of Psycho III’s 5.1 mix and it is presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio, alongside another DTS-HD track in the original 2.0. Again, the discrete center channel dialogue and stronger musical track are enough for me to recommend the 5.1 remix over the 2.0 original, but neither is weak. In fact, both are even stronger than their Psycho II counterparts. The basic volume levels are keyed a little higher, leading to minor distortion on the loudest dialogue, but the effects work is warmer and more natural. Composer Carter Burwell, who you probably know from his with work with the Coen Brothers, avoided almost any comparisons to Bernard Herrmann with this unique and eerie score that blends electronic and symphonic elements. The extras include an audio commentary with screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue, Watch the Guitar, an interview with actor Jeff Fahey (16:50, HD), Patsy's Last Night, an interview with actress-turned-director Katt Shea (8:40, HD), Mother's Maker, an interview with special make-up effects artist Michael Westmore (11:10, HD), Body Double, an interview with Diana Scarwid’s body double, Brinke Stevens (5:10, HD), a trailer, a TV spot, and a still gallery.