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.