Friday, August 30, 2013

PSYCHO II (1983) Blu-ray Review

Psycho II
d. Franklin, Richard (USA)

Being a dead-icated young pup, I dutifully read Robert Bloch’s 1982 literary follow-up to Psycho before seeing its celluloid counterpart on cable during its HBO run, even going so far as to ask the local bookmarm to conjure it via interlibrary loan. I found it satisfying enough, including its key twist of leaving Norman Bates by the wayside early in the narrative. However, with Anthony Perkins returning to the role that had loomed large over his career for the past two decades, it was even money that screenwriter Tom Holland would not be following Bloch’s game plan – even as a lad I knew that Hollywood couldn’t squander an opportunity like that for the sake of a clever plot twist. (Then again, Hitchcock had done something mighty similar 22 years earlier, to memorable success, so who knew...?)

As the film starts, Norman has finally been released from the mental institution where he’s been incarcerated since Lila Crane (Vera Miles) discovered him running around in Mother’s housedress. Despite Lila’s protests and petitions to the contrary, Bates does indeed seem to be rehabilitated and ready to return to the world – his conscientious psychiatrist (Robert Loggia) has wrangled him a job at the local diner and while he certainly has trepidations about returning to the house on the hill above a certain motel, Norman’s future seems filled with possibility. He even meets a cute young waitress (Meg Tilly) who is sympathetic to his plight. But then he starts seeing a certain female shape in the window, receiving ominous phone calls, and soon the bodies start piling up....

Under the direction of rising Australian director and Hitchcock scholar Richard Franklin (Patrick, Roadgames), Psycho II was SO much better than it had any right to be when in premiered in the summer of 1983 and continues to hold up to a modern eye today. On the audio commentary for Shout! Factory’s upcoming 30th anniversary Special Edition, Holland repeatedly lavishes praise upon his collaborator, crediting the film’s critical and commercial success to the care given and the skill displayed by the focused cast and crew. Watching the stately crane shots dipping high to low, one senses Franklin’s great respect for his idol and the commitment to getting it right, a sentiment that colors every onscreen moment.

For his part, Perkins is nothing short of brilliant, imbuing his iconic protagonist/antagonist with pathos, warmth and shy humor. (While it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, back in the early planning stages – when a modest made-for-cable production was in the cards – Christopher Walken’s name was reputedly bandied about as a possible successor.) The fresh-faced Tilly is equally wonderful to watch (as is her body double during a lovingly staged shower scene); despite reports of friction with her elder co-star halfway through filming, the two have incredible chemistry and their scenes together sing with longing and potential for what could be...barring madness and the cruelty of others, of course. Loggia, Miles, Hugh Gillen as a sympathetic sheriff and a very young Dennis Franz (as the skeeviest hotel manager one could ever hope not to meet) round out the superb supporting cast.

Holland, whose screenwriting credits at that point included The Initiation of Sarah, The Beast Within, and Class of 1984, crafted a superb mystery within the core of his character piece – is it possible that Norman has returned to his murderous ways or is someone else setting him up for the fall? There are endless possibilities, and the filmmakers tease each one out to its full potential. But in spite of the genre trappings and occasional gory bloodletting, our focus and sympathy remains with Norman, a testament to Perkins’ skill as a performer.

It’s easy to lose sight of what a magnificent creation Bates is – all the stutters and nervous glances are not present throughout Perkins’ large body of screen work. Though Norman might have eventually overshadowed his creator, the fact remains that it was a performance and a brilliant one at that. It’s also worth noting that franchise fever hadn’t yet set in at this point in time; the notion of revisiting a classic, while undeniably ambitious, didn’t generate the same note of cynicism it would in the latter half of the decade. With endless remakes and sequels in our collective rearview mirrors, the achievement rendered by Franklin & Co. now seems nigh miraculous.

The enjoyable and informative audio commentary track shared by Holland and Robert V. Galluzzo, writer/director of 2010’s stellar documentary The Psycho Legacy, is filled with enthusiasm and tantalizing trivia. (Watch quick for Holland as a sheriff’s deputy, Perkins’ son Osgood as young Norman, or the Hitchcock cameo around 25:10.)

As they point out Franklin’s elegant staging and callbacks to the 1960 original – as well as Albert Whitlock’s remarkable traveling matte shots – one’s appreciation continues to grow for the well-crafted and honorable tribute this is as opposed to a coldly calculated studio cash grab. Shout! Factory’s BR release also features a number of vintage video and audio interviews with Franklin, Perkins and Miles, as well as several trailers and TV spots. Plus, the 1080p hi-def presentation is absolutely gorgeous – you can almost make out the face in the window of that ominous house on the hill....

Psycho II hits streets September 24, and is available for pre-order now.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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