22. Hatchet (2006)

Director: Adam Green

Starring: Joel David Moore, Tamara Feldman, Deon Richmond, Mercedes McNab, Parry Shen, Joleigh Fioreavanti, Joel Murray, Richard Riehle, Patrika Darbo, Joshua Leonard, Tony Todd, Robert Englund, Kane Hodder

Before Sylvester Stallone got a bunch of his buddies together for the “Expendables” series of action films, the horror genre had already conceived of “Hatchet,” a virtual who’s-who of genre actors made by horror fans for horror fans. Having much in common with the “Friday the 13th” series, “Hatchet” is never once meant to be taken seriously. It’s just a bloody, often hilarious way to spend 80 minutes of your time.

Sampson Dunston (Robert Englund) and son Ainsley (Joshua Leonard) are fishing in a Louisiana swamp when they are attacked and killed by a monstrous, unidentified assailant. The next day, during Mardi Gras, Ben (Joel David Moore) decides that the festivities aren’t his kind of thing and instead elects to go on a haunted swamp tour. Despite his better judgment, Ben’s best friend Marcus (Deon Richmond) decides to accompany him. Sadly, the tour has been closed due to negligence. The tour’s guide, Rev. Zombie (Tony Todd) recommends a similar tour down the street run by Shawn (Parry Shen), who neglects to tell his customers beforehand that he’s only done this once before. Marcus nearly leaves, but changes his mind when two amateur porn actresses, Misty (Mercedes McNab) and Jenna (Joleigh Fioreavanti) join the group. Also along for the ride are the girls’ director, Doug Shapiro (Joel Murray), and Jim and Shannon Permatteo (Richard Riehle and Patrika Darbo). The final guest on the boat ride to Hell is Marybeth Dunston (Tamara Feldman), sister of Ainsley and daughter of Sampson.

Along the way, a homeless man warns them not to go any further, but Shawn dismisses him entirely. Soon after, the boat hits a rock and starts to sink, forcing the passengers to continue on foot. During the tour, Shawn had been reading from a set of cards the legend of Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder), a horribly deformed creature who once lived in this very swamp. But he’d apparently been getting several of his facts wrong, including the location of the Crowley home, as Marybeth corrects him at every turn.

Once it’s established that the crew is indeed stranded, Marybeth details the true legend of Victor Crowley. In an origin story which sounds (deliberately) similar to that of Jason Voorhees from “Friday the 13th,” Victor Crowley was a horribly disfigured child who was constantly tormented by kids his own age. As a result, his father kept him hidden away in the house in which they lived. The house accidentally caught on fire one night when a group of mean teenagers threw fireworks at it to scare Victor. His father tried to free Victor by breaking down the door with a hatchet, but accidentally killed his son by driving the hatchet into Victor’s head. His father later died of a broken heart. That would be the end of the story, except that the legend says that Victor is alive somehow, and one can still occasionally hear him calling out for his dead father.

The legend proves to be true, as Victor emerges from the house and kills both Jim and Shannon. Marybeth tries shooting Victor, but he just gets right back up. Shapiro, who has gone off on his own, is hunted down and killed by Victor. The others go looking for weapons. In the process, Marybeth discovers the corpses of her father and brother. Victor returns and kills Jenna and Shawn. While Ben goes looking for a gas can to set Victor on fire, Marybeth and Marcus try to lure him in while Misty stands as a lookout. Victor dismembers Misty off-screen, throwing the pieces at Ben. Ben discovers one can with gas left in it, which he throws onto Victor. Marybeth and Marcus set him ablaze. Unfortunately, at that precise moment, the heavens open up and it starts to rain.

The trio starts to run away, but Marcus is caught and killed. Victor pins Ben’s foot to the ground with a gate pole, which Ben and Marybeth then use to impale Victor. Seemingly escaping with their lives, Marybeth and Ben board her father’s boat. Marybeth is somehow pulled underwater. Nearly drowning, she spots Ben’s arm and grabs hold… but finds that the arm has been severed and is being held by Victor Crowley, who roars in Marybeth’s face as the movie abruptly ends…

Apart from the lame non-ending, “Hatchet” is at times over-the-top, but entertaining. Love slasher films of the 1980s? The people who made this movie do, too, and it shows. As bloody as “Friday the 13th Part VII” was supposed to be before the censors got to it, the real treat is seeing all the genre actors in one place: Robert Englund (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”), Tony Todd (“Candyman”), Kane Hodder (“Friday the 13th” Parts VII-X), Joshua Leonard (“The Blair Witch Project”), John Carl Buechler (director of “Friday the 13th Part VII”) and Mercedes McNab (TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”).

The best way to experience “Hatchet” is to get a bunch of your friends together. For optimal viewing experience, it’s best to marathon this with the sequels. Doing this also makes certain that the ending that’s not really an ending won’t annoy you at all. If you’re not already a slasher fan, I don’t even know why you’d be reading this review, much less watching “Hatchet.”  Extremely stupid? Of course it is, but that’s exactly the point. If that’s you’re thing, “Hatchet” delivers.

21. Wolf Creek (2005)

Director: Greg McLean

Starring: John Jarratt, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips

At what point do we stop and ask ourselves when what we’re watching is no longer entertainment? The answer changes depending on whom you ask. I can watch some of the most brutal horror films out there. I can watch last Sunday’s episode of “The Walking Dead.” No problem. I don’t even mind when the bad guy wins. Horror almost demands it. But then you have movies like 2005’s “Wolf Creek,” which presents you with a plot that is so irritatingly stupid that the fast forward button becomes your best friend.

Set in Australia in 1999 (so you’ll know that it’s “based on actual events”), Liz Hunter (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy Earl (Kestie Morassi) are two English citizens on a backpacking trip with Australian friend Ben Mitchell (Nathan Phillips). The movie wastes its first 10 to 13 minutes on a prologue showing these friends partying before the trip. Already, “Wolf Creek” is trying your patience. Skipping ahead, the group makes their way to Wolf Creek National Park, where they have a giant crater to gawk at. Liz and Ben also use this time to get close to one another, but don’t think for an instant that any of this fraternizing is going to matter.

When they get back to their car, they notice that both the car itself and all of their watches have stopped working. Resigned to spending the night in their dead car, the trio notices a truck coming from the other direction. The driver, a man named Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), offers to tow their car back to his garage for repairs. Despite the fact that this will take them in the complete opposite direction from where they had intended to go (and despite understandable apprehension), the friends agree. Very stupid.

Sitting around a campfire, Mick has several stories to tell which leaves the girls feeling a bit unsettled. Trust your instincts, ladies! This nice man then offer the trio some water, which they take without hesitation. It is, of course, drugged. Liz wakes up the next day, bound and gagged. It takes hours, but Liz finally frees herself and is just about to run off. But then she hears Kristy screaming as she is being tortured by Mick. She sets her car on fire to distract him long enough to cut Kristy’s bonds, but Mick returns soon after. Liz gets the drop on him, shooting him in the neck. Of course, the thing to do next would be to shoot him again while he’s down. Instead, Liz and Kristy leave Mick there and steal his truck.

Mick is, of course, not dead, and gives chase in one of the other multiple cars he’s collected over time. In their haste to put some distance between them and Mick, Liz and Kristy almost run off the edge of a cliff. Instead of backing the truck up and finding a new path to take, they get out of the truck and push it down the cliff. Now without a means of escape, Liz knows that it’s only a matter of time before Mick figures out that they weren’t in the truck when it crashed. She then decides to go back to Mick’s garage on her own to find another vehicle.

Liz’s plan might be a good one provided she wastes no time in collecting a new car. So of course she diddles around, looking at the piles of possessions from previous victims, which includes video cameras (one of which is Ben’s). For some reason, she has to watch the film on them as well. Even if she had found a car with a key already in the ignition, there stood a pretty good chance that Mick was going to head back to the garage and catch her in the act. But all of Liz’s time-wasting BS simply ensured that, by the time she got one of the cars started, there Mick would be in the backseat waiting to stab her. Furious about his truck, Mick slices off three fingers from Liz’s left hand, headbutts her, and then severs her spinal cord.

Off-screen, Mick is able to extract info from Liz regarding the whereabouts of Kristy, whom he tracks down and shoots dead on the highway, along with an innocent bystander with a car, burning the evidence as he drives away. Some time later, Ben is able to escape and reach help, severely dehydrated. The credits reveal that no evidence of either Liz or Kristy was ever found, and that Ben himself was eventually cleared of any suspicion. As for Mick himself, he continues to remain at-large.

Despite the fact that actor John Jarratt gives a genuinely terrifying performance as Mick, it does nothing to distract from the fact that “Wolf Creek” is an extremely frustrating movie. I don’t expect that Mick’s victims could ever act rationally when under the degree of stress that his presence commands. But what I do expect is for a person’s will to survive to result in quick decisions. Doesn’t matter if they’re the right ones or not. Just act like your life depends on it, for goodness sake! So… yeah… “Wolf Creek” is most decidedly not a movie I enjoy all that much.

20. Pulse (2006)

Director: Jim Sonzero

Starring: Kristen Bell, Ian Somerhalder, Christina Millian, Rick Gonzalez

We all have certain kinds of movies that just don’t work for us, no matter how hard we might try. Among the horror genre, mine is ghost stories. The ones where the ghosts live in inanimate objects fall under a particular level of scrutiny. Japanese favorites like “The Ring” and their Americanized remakes have to work extra hard to impress me. Only one has ever succeeded. That one (which we’ll get to) is not 2006’s “Pulse,” itself a remake of a 2001 Japanese film.

Mattie Webber (Kristen Bell) is growing concerned because it’s not like her boyfriend Josh to just drop off the face of the Earth as he seems to have done for the past few days. Her friends are making noises like she’s been ditched, but Mattie isn’t buying it. She finds him in his apartment, days later, doing nothing. His cat hasn’t been fed in quite a while, and the apartment itself is in disarray. Josh appears to have no energy, as though the life has been sucked out of him. Without much warning, Josh hangs himself with an Ethernet cable.

Some time following Josh’s death, Mattie and her friends all receive the same “HELP ME!” message purporting to come from Josh. Surely, this must be some sort of computer virus, they think. Believing that Josh’s computer is still turned on, Mattie returns to his apartment to shut it down. In fact, the computer has been illegally sold. The buyer, a man named Dexter (Ian Somerhalder), still has it in the trunk of his car and hasn’t bothered to turn it on yet. Mattie receives a package in the mail from Josh, sent two days before he killed himself.  Inside are rolls of red tape, and an attached message explaining that… somehow… it keeps “them” out. “They” are ghosts, but exactly why the red tape is so effective against them is never explained, not even vaguely. It just is.

Dexter finds video messages which Josh had been sending to a guy named Ziegler. He shows them to Mattie. They detail how Josh had somehow created a computer virus which acted as a gateway for the ghosts to cross into our world. While you’re absorbing that absurd little nugget, Josh also explains that he thinks he’s created the perfect anti-virus. Dexter and Mattie find the memory stick containing the anti-virus and go looking for Ziegler. By this time, Ziegler is completely paranoid, having covered every square inch of his apartment in red tape and hiding in his closet. He’s well within reason to be paranoid. All around him people are either vanishing into a pile of ash or are committing suicide. He tells Dexter and Mattie where to find the main server in the basement of the apartment complex.

The anti-virus is uploaded, and it appears to work as Josh hoped it would. However, the system then reboots and the ghosts keep coming. Effectively, everything since the discovery of the memory stick has been a complete waste of our time. The paranormal invasion is complete and total, spanning the entire globe. The only thing left for Dexter and Mattie to do is to find a corner of the United States which has no Internet or cell phone coverage, as that’s the only way for the ghosts to get to you.

Despite casting the always adorable Kristen Bell in the lead role, “Pulse” is a cliched, boring mess of a movie. Ghosts in the Internet is an interesting, if bizarre concept. It’s a shame it’s not handled better. “Pulse” gets points for the cameo from Brad Dourif as the eccentric, “the end is nigh” character, but little else redeems it. Perhaps if they’d concentrated a little less on the visuals and focused their time and energy into making us care about the characters and giving us a much better understanding of just what the hell is going on and why, then maybe… just maybe… “Pulse” might have been onto something.

19. Just Before Dawn (1981)

Director: Jeff Lieberman

Starring; Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry, Deborah Benson, Ralph Seymour, Jamie Rose, Mike Kellin, George Kennedy

You know you’re in trouble with a movie advertised as being from the director of “Squirm,” a bad horror movie which became the subject of a very good episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Jeff Lieberman also wrote “The NeverEnding Story III,” one of the worst movies of the last quarter-century. With the bar set so incredibly low, it should come as some surprise that 1981’s “Just Before Dawn” is… inoffensive. As much of a predecessor of the “Wrong Turn” series as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Deliverance,” “Just Before Dawn” chooses the spooky woods of the Oregonian mountains as the setting for its violence.

A group of five friends drive by van up into the mountains. Along the way, they are met by forest ranger Roy McLean (George Kennedy), who tries his best to warn them against traveling any further up the mountain. They get similar, less coherent warnings from Ty (Mike Kellin), who appears more drunk than frightened (actually, being frightened is what led to him getting drunk). We know it’s because he’s already witnessed one murder. Of course, old man Ty “doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about,” so the group presses on. No need to worry about a thing. Even the large number of identical twins that the group notices shouldn’t register as alarming in any way. Once the group gets where they are going, they meet a timid young girl whose father doesn’t take kindly to outsiders messing around anywhere near his piece of land. Still, the group acts as though nothing is unusual… that is, until Megan (Jamie Rose) notices an unidentifiable hand touching her while she and Jonathan (Chris Lemmon) are skinny dipping.

The group splits up to go exploring, soon after which Jonathan encounters the girl again. She’s frightened, and Jonathan should be too. The killer makes his presence felt when Jonathan is crossing the rope bridge. The killer cuts it down, and prevents Jonathan from being able to climb back onto the ledge, causing him to fall and be carried away by the current. Unaware anything is wrong, Megan and Daniel (Ralph Seymour) come across a church. The killer shows up again. Without his glasses on, Daniel mistakes the killer for Jonathan, his brother. Daniel pays for his mistake with his life when the killer stabs him. Megan sees this and attempts to hide inside the church. This is when the movie reveals its big secret: There are two killers, and they are identical twins. Unfortunately for Megan, there is no way for her to combat both of the twins on her own, and she is killed.

This leaves the macho Warren (Gregg Henry) and the virginal Connie (Deborah Benson) as the only members of the camping group still alive. They start to worry when they can’t find the others. Eventually, Jonathan’s body washes up. Ty finds Roy and tells him about the twins, which prompts Roy to go looking for the campers on horseback. Warren, in an attempt to retrieve the car keys from Jonathan’s body, leaves Connie by herself. At this time, Connie is attacked and chased up a tree by one of the twins. She’s just about to be killed when Roy shows up and shoots the twin dead. He Connie and Warren to start packing. Shortly afterwards, the other twin attacks them. Warren is incapacitated by a combination of a stab wound and his own fear, while Connie is nearly bear-hugged to death. Freeing an arm, she kills the twin by ramming her fist down his throat, effectively choking him to death.

Even though the woodsy setting typically works in these kinds of movies, “Just Before Dawn” isn’t as visually engaging as it should be. I’m not sure who or what is at fault there. Still, the film is not without its pluses. Gregg Henry shows signs of the winning personality that would make him appealing in movies like “Body Double,” “Payback” and “Slither” (to name but a few). There’s also a decent score from Brad Fiedel, whom everyone knows as the guy who created the theme from “Terminator.”

You’ll see worse horror movies (and indeed I have just this month), but you can do better than “Just Before Dawn.” It’s not interesting enough to warrant the cult status it has achieved, and yet not bad enough to provide sufficient material for people to riff on it. If you’re looking to see as many early 1980s slasher films as you can find, it’s worth being able to say you’ve seen it. Otherwise, pick something else.

18. Vacancy (2007)

Director: Nimród Antal

Starring: Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry

You would think that, by now, horror movie characters would be wise enough never to stay the night in some cheap, middle-of-nowhere motel. They certainly had not as of 2007. “Psycho” will be foremost on most viewers minds when tuning in to watch “Vacancy.” But the comparisons both begin and end with the film’s setting. The actual plot of “Vacancy” plays out more like a home invasion angle, except that the home in question is the villains’ domain, and it’s up to the protagonists to figure out all of its little nooks and crannies.

David (Luke Wilson) and Amy Fox (Kate Beckinsale) are a estranged couple whose marriage has never recovered from the tragic loss of their son. Not even reaching the violent part of the story, and already the film is taking a downbeat tone. On their way back from some family get-together, their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere (i.e. where their cell phones are of no use). They had stopped at an auto repair garage, but the friendly mechanic (Ethan Embry) appears to have not found the car’s actual problem. Making their way back on foot, the Foxes decide to stay the night at the motel across the street from the garage. Immediately, they can hear a woman’s screams coming from the office, which the motel’s manager (Frank Whaley) insists are coming from the TV. The manager, who looks like a cross between Ned Flanders and Walter White, offers the honeymoon suite. But all that Amy and David really want is a place to get some sleep.

Once in their room, which is as disgusting as one can imagine, the couple is prevented from resting by someone in the adjacent room banging on the walls and the doors. The phone keeps ringing as well. Unwilling to put up with such harassment, David goes to the manager to inform him of the situation. At first, his story is met with confusion, as there are allegedly no other guests booked for the night, but the manager swears to look into it. No longer sleepy and bored out of his mind, David notices the stack of VHS tapes on top of the TV (which does not appear hooked up for cable channels). Each tape is unmarked, and contains on them scenes of unspeakable violence. Amy demands that the TV be turned off, but something about the tapes has caught David’s attention. It’s not the scenes of violence, but the location in which they are filmed… right inside the very room in which David and Amy are staying!

Finding cameras hidden throughout the room, they realize that their every move is being watched, and that they are the intended victims for the next snuff film. They try to run, but find men in masks waiting outside. Returning to the room, Amy attempts to distract the men while David bolts for the pay phone outside. But David quickly discovers that the phone is connected to the motel’s front office, and exits the booth just in time as the masked men crash into the booth with their car. With David now back in the room, they hear a truck pull up in the parking lot and try to get the driver’s attention. But David and Amy soon come to realize that the driver is a customer who is there to pick up copies of the videotapes. Realizing that they won’t find help from outside, David and Amy continue to work on a plan of escape. David starts to think about how the killers on the video seem to appear out of nowhere and figures out that they’ve been using a system of trapdoors. One of these tunnels up through their motel room’s bathroom floor.

Using the tunnels, David and Amy make their way over to the main office, where they find the manager’s surveillance system and a working phone. But they don’t get very far with the emergency call before they have to bail, leaving the phone off the hook, thus alerting the manager to their presence. He sends the masked men into the tunnels to go after them, forcing them to follow an alternative route. This leads them across the street to the garage, where they barricade the trapdoor with a heavy shelf. Just then, a sheriff’s deputy arrives in response to the emergency call. Asking the manager to allow him to inspect the motel rooms, the officer discovers what really goes on in this place, and that seals his fate. He tries to leave with David and Amy, but is killed, forcing the couple back to one of the rooms.

David has a plan which involves Amy hiding inside the ceiling, where she is forced to watch helplessly as David is stabbed moments after opening the door. The assailants, including the manager, film David as he appears to pass out from the pain. As morning arrives, Amy climbs down and commandeers the killers’ car. One of them jumps onto the roof. In an effort to fend him off, Amy crashes the car into one of the motel rooms. This not only kills the masked man on the roof but also crushes the one standing inside the room… who turns out to be the auto mechanic.

Running to the main office, Amy finds a gun, which had been David’s plan. She almost reaches it, but is attacked from behind by the irate manager. The manager has the upper hand, but he makes the mistake of tossing Amy right where the gun has landed on the ground. Amy picks it up and fires several times. The manager drops dead. Incredibly, David has survived the night, barely, and Amy stays with him as she waits for the police (whom she has just called for) to arrive.

“Vacancy” is a mostly unremarkable horror movie which is aided heavily by its talented, small cast. Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale are both likable no matter the quality of the film they participate in. Beckinsale has proven in the past that she is fully capable of playing strong female characters, which is why it comes as no surprise when Amy is able to fend for herself against her would-be attackers. Perhaps understated is Frank Whaley’s performance as the motel manager. Known mostly for goofy, weak characters, he also can play psychotic well enough. He’s no Anthony Perkins, but he makes for a creepy villain whose eventual death you cheer on.

The only thing stopping you from getting something out of watching “Vacancy” is the notion that this will all seem familiar. Indeed, “Vacancy” doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. It’s rare these days for any horror film to touch on a subject which hasn’t been covered over and over (and over) again. It won’t do anything for motels that “Psycho” didn’t do first. If that doesn’t particularly bother you, and if you like one or all of the cast members involved, then “Vacancy” doesn’t have to work very hard to hook you.

17. Psycho IV The Beginning (1990)

Director: Joseph Stefano

Starring: Anthony Perkins, Henry Thomas, Olivia Hussey, CCH Pounder

The disappointment of “Psycho III,” both creatively and financially, meant that if Norman Bates were to return again, he would be forced to do so on the small screen. That’s how we got “Psycho IV,” which was first broadcast on Showtime on November 10, 1990. It’s a very strange bird, indeed: Half interesting, and half not. Because the narrative switches back and forth between two time periods, it acts as both a sequel and as a prequel. The smart thing to do would have been to simplify things by filming the thing as a prequel only, but that would have meant leaving Anthony Perkins out of what was effectively the 30th anniversary celebration of the original “Psycho.”

Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder) is a radio talk show host whose program’s topic of discussion on this particular day is matricide. During the course of the show, she takes a call from Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who initially refers to himself only as “Ed.” Norman is now married to a psychiatrist he met while institutionalized. But Norman alarms Fran by telling her he has to kill his wife. Fran asks “Ed” why he would want to betray his wife’s faith in him, and to destroy the work he has put into rejoining society. Norman has grown concerned over his wife’s pregnancy, which he was against, fearing that a continuation of his bloodline will only result in another monster like him.

During the course of the phone interview, Norman tells Fran (in non-linear fragments) his origin story. It starts with the death of his father, after which he and Mrs. Bates (Olivia Hussey) live alone together, mostly isolated from the outside world. All goes well for a while, but soon Mrs. Bates begins showing signs of a personality disorder, often becoming hostile toward her son. The abuse worsens once the young Norman (Henry Thomas) reaches the age of puberty, when Norman is often forced to wear a dress to punish him for becoming sexually aroused. The boiling point comes when Mrs. Bates brings a new man into the equation whom she intends to marry. Chet is no prize, and does nothing to ingratiate himself toward Norman who, to be fair, was probably not going to accept any new father figure in his life.

Ultimately, Norman elects to poison both Chet and his mother by putting strychnine in their iced tea. Immediately, Norman misses his mother, stealing the corpse so as to preserve it through taxidermy. He then develops the infamous “Mother” personality as a way of avoiding his guilt over murdering her. Routinely, he will dress as her and speak to himself in her voice (as closely as he can approximate it). Encounters with young women at the Bates Motel always end with the “Mother” personality taking over and murdering the “sluts.”

Back in the present day, just as Norman told Fran he would do, he takes his wife to the Bates’ house and attempts to kill her. But Connie does manage to talk him down. After all of this, she forgives him. Norman, this woman is a keeper. Hold on to her! Instead of killing Connie, Norman decides to set fire to the house… something he probably should have done a long time ago… nearly perishing in the flames before escaping at the last minute. This act appears to have symbolically released Norman from the shackles of his decades-long mental torment.

With the exception of one throwaway line, “Psycho IV” appears to have done away with the plots of the previous two films entirely, making this film a direct sequel to the original “Psycho.” While this does tidy up the messier parts of the series’ overall plot, it can be a little jarring when you’re watching these movies back-to-back. The “will he/won’t he kill his wife?” parts of the movie are actually very dull. The finale is particularly ineffective.

Considering the milestone of the 30th anniversary of “Psycho,” I get why the need was felt for Anthony Perkins to be on board, but I would have personally enjoyed a more fleshed-out version of Norman’s origin story. In the parts of the movie set in the 1940s/1950s, both Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey are excellent as the young Norman and his mother. These two deserved to have their own movie. Sadly, because “Psycho IV” opts to divide its time, neither one of its two stories is given the care they required, leaving it a sad end to a series which began as strongly as any horror film series ever has.

16. Psycho III (1986)

Director: Anthony Perkins

Starring: Anthony Perkins, Diana Scarwid, Jeff Fahey, Roberta Maxwell

The danger in crafting a sequel to “Psycho” lay not only in the impossibility of it living up to the original, but also in the very real possibility that it couldn’t do enough to pique the audience’s interest. The series got lucky with “Psycho II,” but the luck finally ran out with “Psycho III.” Not even the promise of Norman Bates himself sitting in the director’s chair can offset the bland story and questionable casting decisions. Like a nun who has turned her back on her faith, nothing could save this one.

Speaking of nuns, “Psycho III” begins with one such sister named Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid), whose mind is almost as fragile as that of Norman Bates. A genuine freak-out leads to another nun’s accidental death, resulting in Maureen being cast out. It’s a truly awkward opening scene that might play well in a high school drama production. Maureen later hitchhikes with a creepy musician named Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey) who tries to put the moves on her during a rainstorm, after which she gets out of the car and starts walking.

It’s been a mere month since the events of “Psycho II,” and concern is growing as no one has seen Mrs. Spool in all that time. No one yet suspects that Norman Bates is the one responsible for her death (as shown via flashback from the end of “Psycho II”). It was Lila Loomis and her daughter Mary who pushed Norman over the edge again, and he’s still not right in the head. Now, he’ll have nosy reporter Tracy Venable (Roberta Maxwell) to deal with. She’s doing an editorial piece on the subject of serial killers, and she’s convinced that Norman is up to his old tricks. She’s not wrong, but her abrasive personality suggests she’s never learned how to approach someone with a mental disorder.

Further complicating things for Norman is the arrival of Maureen into town. At first, Norman thinks he’s seeing the ghost of Marion Crane, especially when he sees Maureen’s suitcase with the initials “M.C.” on it (just like Marion’s). Arriving at the Bates Motel, Maureen is shocked to find Duane working the front desk as the assistant manager, having just been hired by Norman. He gives her the key to Cabin 1 (the same room where Norman killed Marion Crane). Some time later, Norman (in his “Mother” guise) walks into Maureen’s room wielding a knife. Entering the bathroom, expecting to find Maureen showering, Norman instead finds her bleeding to death in the bathtub, having slit both wrists. Snapping back out of the “Mother” personality, Norman acts quickly to get Maureen (who in her delirium has mistaken “Mother” for the Virgin Mary) to the hospital. The shared experience brings the two close together.

Afterwards, Norman’s jealous “Mother” personality reasserts herself, and the body count starts to pile up. As if that weren’t enough of a complication, Tracy continues her investigation, hiring Duane to help her spy on Norman while she goes snooping around in Mrs. Spool’s former apartment. After a young guest at the motel goes missing, the sheriff comes to speak to Norman about the matter. Norman has hastily stuffed the girl inside the motel’s ice chest. The sheriff goes up to the house, which makes Norman extremely nervous about the chance of him discovering the mummified remains of Mrs. Spool, which Norman now calls “Mother.” To Norman’s surprise, the corpse has gone missing!

Interference from Tracy continues. First, she fills Maureen in on the gory details of Norman’s past, which causes her to leave. Next, it is discovered that it was Duane who moved Mrs. Spool’s remains. Duane thinks he’s got Norman dead to rights. He demands cash payment, otherwise he’ll tell the authorities about “Mother.” Norman struggles with Duane, eventually hitting him several times over the head with his own guitar. Duane shows signs of life as he and his car both sink into the swamp, at which point it can be safely assumed that Duane drowns.

As Tracy interviews the owner of the diner, Maureen returns to the Bates’ house to proclaim her love for Norman. They embrace, but Norman becomes startled by the voice of “Mother,” losing his grip on Maureen’s hands. She falls down the stairs and dies, enraging Norman, who blames “Mother” for it. Tracy shows up at the house to find Maureen dead and Norman dressed as “Mother,” ready to attack her with a knife. As a way of talking him down, Tracy explains her findings: that Norma Bates was in fact Norman’s real mother, and that the reason Mrs. Spool had been institutionalized years ago was that she had killed the man she loved (Norma’s first husband and Norman’s father) in a jealous rage. Mrs. Spool had then kidnapped Norman as a baby. Restored to himself again, Norman removes the dress and wig and destroys Mrs. Spool’s corpse with the knife. Ultimately, Norman is taken away by the sheriff, who expresses his disappointment and declares to Norman that he’ll likely never be released from the mental institution this time. Norman finds this agreeable.

Despite providing answers to the lingering questions which “Psycho II” left open, “Psycho III” does very little to avoid becoming just another average, forgettable slasher film. Anthony Perkins is still great, of course. Didn’t hurt his case that the director knew his character as well as he did… *wink* The scene stealer of “Psycho III” is Jeff Fahey. He plays Duane Duke as a completely selfish and sexist jerk, but he’s funny enough that you wind up loving every disgusting second of his performance.  On the other hand, Diana Scarwid is miscast as Maureen. The supposed chemistry between Maureen and Norman is tough to buy into, and she doesn’t play unhinged half as effectively as Perkins can. Her death scene is frustrating… not because it shouldn’t happen, but because of how awkwardly it is set up.

The screenplay for “Psycho III” was written by Charles Edward Pogue. I can sort of give the guy a pass on this one since he has the excuse of pouring all of his creativity into his script for David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” also released in 1986. I cannot do the same for the movie itself. “Psycho III” had most of the ingredients necessary for a decent sequel, but just doesn’t quite use them all to their fullest potential. I’ve seen plenty of horror movies that were legitimately awful with no redeeming values whatsoever. “Psycho III” at least has a few of those, but can’t escape its own mediocrity.