31 Screams in October, Vol. 3, #17: Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)

Posted: October 17, 2016 in Movie Review
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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.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    I see your point about the damage done by splitting the movie into prequel and sequel and not really doing justice to either. I have always loved Olivia Hussey’s passionate portrayal of Juliet and regret that she never really had many roles after that one which brought out her abilities. I still have not watched Psycho IV. Maybe your review is the nudge I need!

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