Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was a knife slash to cinematic history. It became the point of demarcation that changed how movies were made, exhibited, and viewed. From then on, movies were designated as before Psycho and after Psycho. So naturally, any attempts to make sequels to such a profoundly influential film would be met with trepidation to say the least. Over the years, Richard Franklin’s Psycho II seems to have been embraced as a worthy successor and is praised for its clever script by Tom Holland, strong visuals, and memorable performances. The third installment, however, still faces the uphill battle of acceptance.?
The story and structure of Psycho III relies heavily on callbacks to the original film, generally in order to subvert them. These include a murder in a phonebooth reminiscent of the shower scene, a character falling down the stairs in a manner very much like Arbogast (Martin Balsam) in the original, and the swinging lights on the stuffed birds on the walls of the parlor. There are several more subtle reminders sprinkled throughout as well. Looking back on the film many years later, Anthony Perkins admitted that perhaps it was unsuccessful at the time because it was too much like the original film. Though a valid criticism, I disagree. I feel the film strikes a balance between similarities to the original, which rarely feel like fan service, and subversion of those same points.?
The most potent callback to the original comes in the character of Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid). She is intended to remind Norman and the audience of Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane. The original Psycho and this sequel set these characters up as modern forms of Red Riding Hood. Both are “good girls” who have wandered from the path, literally and figuratively, and find themselves face to face with the Big Bad Wolf. Norman spies on both women through the peephole in the parlor, which sets off Mother in his mind. In the original, Marion encounters Mother in the famous shower scene. Here, Mother finds Maureen has beaten her to the punch and slashed her own wrists with a razor blade. This reawakens Norman who takes Maureen to the hospital. Maureen believes she has seen a vision of the Virgin Mary holding a crucifix rather than a mentally ill man who has dressed in his mother’s clothes holding a butcher knife.?
Religious themes and iconography like this are a key element of Psycho III. The film begins with Maureen’s voice over a black screen screaming “there is no God!” We then see that she is a nun who has come to an impasse in her faith and is about to kill herself by jumping from the bell tower of her convent as other sisters try to stop her. Another recurring religious theme is resurrection. As Norman is stuffing birds he has recently euthanized for his taxidermy hobby, the paper bag he has collected them in begins to move and shake and one of the seemingly dead birds flutters out. Norman than releases it outside like a macabre Francis of Assisi. He sees Maureen as something akin to the resurrection, or perhaps reincarnation, of Marion Crane, and a chance at redemption for his previous sin. Mother herself has been fully resurrected by the start of the film, both as the stuffed corpse of Mrs. Spool that sits in the upstairs bedroom, and in Norman’s fully returned dissociative personality disorder.
The film cuts the seriousness of its themes with healthy doses of dark humor. Norman spreads peanut butter (Peter Pan brand, naturally) on crackers with the same spoon he has just used to stuff sawdust into a dead bird. In one scene, Norman needs to dispose of a body while the motel is busy because of some reveling high schoolers after a homecoming game. To avoid getting caught, he pretends to be one of the randy teenagers making out with a girl before accidently dropping the corpse in the mud. Later, the sheriff chews on ice cubes from the ice chest outside the motel office, not noticing that a corpse’s frozen fingers are inches away and the ice is covered in blood. After Duke (Jeff Fahey) discovers Norman’s dirty little secret about his mother, Norman bludgeons him with his prized possession, a vintage acoustic guitar. After a particularly hard smack upside the head, Duke repeats his constant refrain of “watch the guitar” before losing consciousness.
Each of the three theatrically released films in the original Psycho series takes a decidedly different approach in how the audience views Norman. In Hitchcock’s film, we mostly encounter Norman from a distance. We generally empathize with him, but in order to maintain the film’s mystery, we are kept at arm’s length. In Psycho II, we know the reality of Norman’s story and psychosis. He is now sane as far as we know, but he is being gaslit by Lila Loomis (Vera Miles), the sister of Marion Crane from the first film, and her daughter (Meg Tilly) in an attempt to set him off again so he will be put away for good. Ultimately it works. He kills the woman who reveals herself to be his “real” mother, Mrs. Spool. In Psycho III, Norman is as heavily immersed in his psychosis as he was in the first film, but this time we know that he is the killer, and much of the movie is from Norman’s point of view.
Even more than that, we are privy to what is going on in Norman’s mind. We see him talking to Mother’s corpse and hear her speak in return. More than once, we hear the screaming of women who are not there. Before he spies on Maureen through the peephole, we see the picture that covers it change to reveal more nudity than the actual painting shows. Norman imagines that the laugh of Woody Woodpecker coming from the television is Mother laughing at him. When Maureen climbs the stairs to meet him in the house, Mother’s voice in his mind (which we as the audience hear) causes him to send Maureen careening down the stairs to her death. Because of his love for Maureen, this is ultimately what causes Norman to finally turn on Mother.
The love story between Norman and Maureen is simultaneously awkward and sweet. Both are relatively inexperienced in matters of the heart. They are two lost souls who have found each other and may indeed be each other’s salvation. Of course, this relationship also makes Mother jealous and causes Norman to go to extremes to hold her at bay. At one point, he grasps the butcher knife in his hand by the blade and punches a table, digging the sharp edge into his fingers, all in attempt to silence Mother’s voice.
This brings us to the most controversial element of Psycho III—the issue of who Norman’s mother actually is. Screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue insisted upon unravelling the twist of the previous film. He felt that Norman’s mother should be Mrs. Bates and that it was foolish to complicate the mythology of the original film by making Mrs. Spool Norman’s real mother. What gets lost in the debate is the fact that it doesn’t really matter who Norman’s mother is, but who he believes her to be.?
The act of killing Mrs. Bates set Norman on the path to where we meet him in the original film, and the killing of Mrs. Spool brought his psychosis back to full flower at the end of Psycho II. The “Mother” of Norman’s mind is neither Norma Bates nor Emma Spool but the twisted creation of Norman’s corrupted memories, repressions, and stunted emotional growth. It also stems from his fear and demented view of women. Throughout the course of Psycho III, Norman believes his mother is Mrs. Spool. It is her preserved corpse in the bedroom, hers that he stabs to end his nightmare, and her hand that he cradles and strokes in the back of the police car in the film’s Carrie-esque coda. Still, he uses the same clothes, wig, and knife, and speaks in the same exaggerated, shrill “old-woman” voice as he does in the first film—when he perceived Norma Bates to be his mother. So, the undoing of the Spool twist in this film is ultimately pointless.
Though not quite as strong as in the first two films, Anthony Perkins once again gives a fantastic performance as Norman Bates, exploring new territory with the character along the way. More than ever before, we see Norman fully as Mother on multiple occasions. In the original, there is a cry of “I am Norma Bates!” but Perkins lips are not moving to it as he descends upon Lila Crane. Here, for the first time in the series, Mother’s voice is seen issuing from his mouth. In a touch that is frightening and funny, Norman straightens a picture on the wall as he climbs the stairs toward Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell), the reporter investigating the disappearance of Mrs. Spool, with the knife. Perkins also performs beautifully in the scenes between Norman and Maureen. He is the awkward teenager in a grown man’s body. His performance is at turns sympathetic, frightening, and sad, coming from a man who intimately understood the role he was playing.
If Perkins’ performance is slightly less at ease than in the previous films, it is understandable due to the pressures of the actor also making his directorial debut. He proves to be a strong visual filmmaker with a flair reminiscent of some of his favorite directors, many of whom he had worked with. The opening sequence is a direct homage to the bell tower scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). He had recently worked with Ken Russell on Crimes of Passion (1984) and the scene between Duke and a young woman in Cabin 12 in which he uses purple cellophane and table lamps is reminiscent of his work. Perkins also clearly admired Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut film Blood Simple (1984) and emulates a few flourishes from it as well as its new-noir tone. Transitions in particular, such as the light under a door becoming a knife edge and Norman leaving Maureen’s hospital room then walking straight into Mother’s bedroom, are highly evocative of that film.
Perkins was wise to surround himself with great talent in front of the camera, but even more so behind it. He sought out crew who had worked at Universal during the time that the original Psycho was made to give the film a feeling of heritage. Psycho III is produced by Hilton A. Green, who also produced Psycho II, and was Hitchcock’s assistant director on Psycho and other films. The great Henry Bumstead, who had worked on several Hitckcock films and would go on to work on many of Clint Eastwood’s best, was brought on as production designer. Bruce Surtees worked extensively with Don Siegal and Clint Eastwood and was the perfect choice for director of photography. The one major relative newcomer that Perkins hired was Carter Burwell as composer, who’s only other feature at that point had been Blood Simple, once again proof of Perkins’ admiration for that film.?
Psycho III, for all its flaws, is a captivating psychological thriller, an odd love story, a sleazy exploitation film, a visionary neo-noir, and a lean, compulsively watchable slasher.? Its mood and unique explorations of Norman’s psyche are particularly fascinating. I would also argue that it is the most fun of any of the Psycho movies. Its twisted sense of humor and subversion of iconic elements from the original while still revering it make the film a compelling watch. It feels much more like an exploitation film than either of its predecessors and I mean that in the best possible way. It is the pulp novel version of the story, but that’s more or less what Hitchcock intended with the original. In recent years, the film has finally begun to grow a cult following that continually urges its reevaluation. My hope is that this faction will continue to grow, and finally in its 35th year, Psycho III will receive its due as a film worthy to stand alongside its esteemed predecessors.?