The idea of making Psycho II must have seemed like a fool’s errand to many people.  It was a sequel to a film over two decades old that arrived in the midst of a slasher-film boom detested by virtually every film critic.  To make matters even more challenging, Alfred Hitchcock was long gone and none of the creative principal players involved in the original film, except actors Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles, was involved in the new film.  Despite all these doubt-inducing factors, Psycho II rose above all the potential pitfalls and became a well-regarded hit.  In fact, it might be the best horror sequel ever made.

Psycho II begins with Norman (Perkins) being released after a two-decade stint in a mental hospital.  Lila Loomis (Miles), the sister of his former victim, fumes from the sidelines and is determined to have him returned to the hospital.  Norman tries to resume a normal life but he soon sees signs of “Mother” coming back to torment him as he tries to rehabilitate his old family motel.  There’s one sign of hope in Mary (Meg Tilly), a young woman who takes an interest in his wellbeing.  Unfortunately, bodies start to pile up around the Bates Motel as Norman feel his grip on sanity starting to slip. There will be plenty of surprises before the culprit – or culprits – are revealed.

Psycho II succeeds because it offers a carefully-mixed combination of reverence for past traditions with a high level of invention.  The root of its success is a rather ingenious script by Tom Holland:  it’s a carefully structured piece that is designed to keep the audience guessing about who is responsible for the killings throughout and keeps delivering breathtaking plot twists right up to its final minutes.

It also does well with the character of Norman Bates, treating him as a dimensional, oft-sympathetic character instead of a faceless slasher boogeyman.  On a deeper level, Holland’s script also incorporates a number of interesting themes between the shocks: you could consider it a treatise on how the sins of a bad parent are often visited upon their children and how family ties can shape a person’s life no matter how hard they resist them.

Holland’s script realizes its promise in Psycho II thanks to crafty direction from Richard Franklin, an Australian suspense specialist who actually spent time with Hitchcock as a film student.  He quotes Hitchcock’s style with great skill, particularly in his effective use of “God’s eye” overhead shots, and his old-fashioned yet stylish approach to screen direction applies the right, sparing amount of shock devices without ever shortchanging the performances or script.  His staging of the film’s twist-and-shock third act is particularly impressive, including a wickedly funny/creepy coda.  His work is aided immensely by slick lensing from Dean Cundey, who gets the right Hitchcockian look, and Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent musical score, which replaces Bernard Hermann’s astringent string-score with a more melodic, melancholy main theme that reflects the film’s tone.

Finally, Psycho II benefits from stellar performances across the board.  Perkins could have sleepwalked through his role if he wanted to but he rises to the level of Holland’s script, offering a richly-textured performance that mixes creepiness, dark humor and surprising warmth.  The film relies on his ability to make the audience alternately fear and be sympathetic towards Norman and Perkins handles each shift with disarming ease.

Tilly’s performance is also worthy of note: her role is a quietly demanding one that includes a lot of changes in how the audience perceives her but she never misses a beat.  Elsewhere, Miles offers a vigorous turn in a role that demands scenery chewing, Hugh Garlin is charmingly subtle as a sheriff whose folksy manner hides a certain amount of savvy and Dennis Franz is amusing as a sleazeball motel manager who runs afoul of Norman.

Simply put, Psycho II is one of the great horror sequels.  It respects its inspiration while also finding smart, insightful ways to build upon its mythology – and any filmmaker trying to do a sequel should study it.