No mere Psycho was he.
Norman Bates, according to the man who played him four times, was the Hamlet of horror roles. An American Film Institute poll a decade ago named him the second greatest villain in the movies, behind only Hannibal Lecter, and the scene in the 1960 movie in which Norman slashes Marion Crane to death is the foundation of countless horror films.
But, like Lecter, Norman invited a complicated response from audiences. Film critic Geoff Andrew, on the British Film Institute site, says that even while seeing Norman as a monster, “we want him to get away with it. … Our emotions about him are very mixed.”
Because so many people still want to understand Norman Bates — to see why he again and again turned to murder — people keep going back to Bates-ics. Is it all just about mother issues? And, because of those issues, is Norman less horrifying — or more, a Freudian nightmare on the loose? Is his evil inexplicable — and is it really evil at all? What on earth made Norman Norman?
The latest attempt to wrestle with this is Bates Motel, a drama series premiering at 10 p.m. March 18 on A&E. It brings us a 17-year-old Norman (played by Freddie Highmore) and his widowed mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) as they begin a new life running a small-town hotel — a world in which, according to the network, Norman’s “psyche unravels through his teenage years.”
The series blends touches of teen drama, suspense and one extremely violent scene with some big questions about where the show is going and some familiar tropes from previous Normans. (Highmore hits a distinctly Perkins-ish note of sheepishness.)
It follows the original movie, three sequels, director Gus Van Sant’s re-creation of the original film, at least one documentary, several books about the movie, and an old Bates Motel TV-series pilot in which a young man inherited the motel from Norman. There are roots in real-life horror, and rumors in abundance. (One, long since debunked: that a house in Kent was the basis for the Bates home.)
But any new Normans rest on the shoulders of the old one. After all, getting those mixed emotions out of people required, at first, not only master director Alfred Hitchcock but an unforgettable performance by Anthony Perkins as Norman.
Remember that first Norman? He does not even appear in Psycho until the movie has focused at length on another story; it appears that the movie is about Marion (Janet Leigh), who has stolen a small fortune from her boss in order to help her lover. On her way to meet her man, Marion has to stop for the night at the Bates Motel — setting up the most famous shower scene in cinema history, and becoming much more about Norman, a man who in his madness is both himself and his dead mother.
While Leigh and Perkins would appear in many other productions over the years, headlines for Leigh’s 2004 obituary cited Psycho. Perkins was treated the same way after his death in 1992, but he was even more tightly tied to Psycho, having revisited Norman in three more, less artful films (although Psycho II has a good ending) and directing one of them, Psycho III. His resume is also dotted with other menacing characters taking advantage of his unsettling old association.
After all, that first Perkins performance remains unequaled. “Possibly no actor could have matched the Perkins performance, which is one of the unique creations in the cinema,” Roger Ebert wrote in a review of Gus Van Sant’s remake of the original Psycho in 1998.
Vince Vaughn, who played Norman in the Van Sant film, did not measure up, in Ebert’s view. The critic preferred Jeremy Davies, then getting attention for Saving Private Ryan, and more recently seen as Dickie Bennett on Justified and Daniel Faraday on Lost.
But in keeping the idea of Norman alive, where do you go? The saga, after all, has spread over more than 50 years, dating back to Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho, which inspired the film, and before that to Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, whose horrible deeds had inspired Bloch.
In the crime anthology The Quality of Murder, Bloch summed up Gein as “the gray-haired, soft-voiced little man who may or may not have been a cannibal and necrophile [and] was — by his own admission — a ghoul, a murderer, and a transvestite. … Yet for decades he roamed free and unhindered, a well-known figure in a little community.” (In a nod to Gein, when Norman calls a talk-radio show in Psycho IV, he says, “You can call me Ed.”)
Although Bloch would later realize that his Norman had a host of similarities to Gein, at first “what interested me was this notion that a ghoulish killer with perverted appetites could flourish almost openly in a small rural community where everybody prides himself on knowing everyone else’s business.” (The new Bates Motel is as much about the town as it is about the Bateses.) Bloch’s inventiveness extended even to Norman’s name, “nor man,” which in his autobiography Bloch said was “a pun which contains the secret of the story: my killer is neither woman nor man.”
Along came Hitchcock, who through an intermediary paid Bloch $9,500 for the screen rights. Other writers came in, though Bloch would proudly note that Hitchcock maintained the movie “all came from Robert Bloch’s book.” And Joseph Stefano, who received the final screenplay credit for the movie, was not all that impressive when he wrote Psycho IV. But the original movie still works as a tale of crime, horror and sexual repression and confusion, which would be a repeated element of its successors. The Perkins-directed Psycho III, with its pairing of sex and violence, is an homage to the first Psycho as filtered through decades of less inspired slasher films.
Still, Norman prevails. Yes, even the first Psycho is problematic. The critic David Thomson, in his book-length consideration of Psycho, saluted the film as a breakthrough in the way Hollywood treated sex and violence, and possibly the most “excruciating skillful film ever made” — at least as “an experiment with suspense.” But when Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade critics’ poll of the world’s greatest films deposed Citizen Kane from the top spot in 2012, it was for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, not Psycho, which was in a tie for 35th place.
In the end, as deft as Psycho is, large parts of it can slip from the memory, overwhelmed by a few scenes — and by Norman’s at times tormented, at other times terrifying face. It is the face that keeps Psycho alive.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.