After three films, the Psycho series had seemingly explored all the terrain possible for Norman Bates… but an exploitable property must be exploited to the limit so Universal decided to make one last Psycho film with Anthony Perkins for Showtime. Joseph Stefano, screenwriter for the original Psycho was tapped to write the fourth installment, but the results weren’t more of the same. Instead, Stefano and director Mick Garris came up with a film that has a tricky structure and uses its prequel concept to create something that is more of an inner journey for one of the screen’s most interesting serial killers.
Psycho IV: The Beginning starts in the present, with Norman (Anthony Perkins) pseudonymously calling into a radio talk show covering the topic of men who kill their mothers. Norman engages in a dialogue on the topic with show host Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder) and casually admits he’s thinking about killing his new wife (Donna Mitchell). Fran tries to keep him talking to defuse the situation, leading Norman into a reverie where he tells tales about how he became the troubled soul he is. Along the way, we learn about his childhood relationship with his domineering mother Norma (Olivia Hussey) and the pattern of emotional abuse that led to matricide.
The resulting film is interesting if not entirely successful. The big problem with Stefano’s script is that its take on the dark psychology that drives Norman is too clean and linear, with Norma painted as an overt, cruel lunatic from the jump. Thus, it’s hard to invest in the relationship and why it continues to have such a pull over Norman because we never really see much of the good side of Norma. It also occasionally gets bogged down in the trickiness of its structure, with a few too many flashbacks to superfluous killings, and sometimes has trouble juggling all the characters in the present day side of the story.
That said, Psycho IV: The Beginning remains worth a look to Psycho fans for a few reasons. The first is its dedication to bringing Norman’s journey full circle, complete with a third act that focuses on Norman coming to terms with the past rather than a bunch of slasher killings. Perkins’ performance is another key benefit, investing the character with a soulfulness and depth of emotion that makes Norman’s journey always compelling.
There’s also nice work from the supporting cast. Hussey does her best with a simplistically written “madwoman” characterization but she gives it both energy and charisma – and Thomas is fantastic as the young Norman, slyly incorporation some Perkins-style mannerisms but giving the character his own thoughtful touch. Finally, Pounder holds the viewer’s attention well in a crucial role that drives the narrative, bringing curiosity and humanity to her role as Norman’s de facto analyst.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Mick Garris’ direction lends a nice cinematic touch, particularly in the colored hues of the flashbacks, and often achieves some spellbinding moments. The sequence devoted to the killing of Norma is particularly effective, with Garris getting some phenomenal work from Hussey and Thomas in a very dark and grueling primal scene of Oedipal conflict.
In short, Psycho IV: The Beginning might not be the pitch-perfect close to the Psycho series that fans wanted but it does a lot of interesting experimentation, both structurally and thematically, and has enough powerful moments to make it worth a viewing for Norman Bates fans.