Monday, 30 July 2018

Psycho II: Adventures in Sandwich Slicing

This is fine.

At the end of my longish analysis of Psycho II, I included a small footnote about a scene in which Norman is required to cut a sandwich in half for Mary and has an unsolicited brush with a macabre artifact from his past. I regretted not being able to go into this scene in slightly more detail, because it unquestionably sticks out as one of the sequel's centrepieces (the two best scenes in Psycho II both involve sandwiches for some reason). It's a scene where very little happens and yet the weight of everything we understand about our slasher-cum-protagonist is visibly hinging on it. Psycho II deals extensively with the disconnect between the twentysomething Norman who regarded his housebound Mother with an idiosyncratic reverence and the fortysomething Norman who's desperate to make a clean break of it, and the overwhelming extent to which they are eternally one and the same. It's in the sandwich slicing that various facets of the past and the present are brought together in an unholy amalgamation, transforming an action as banal as taking apart a sandwich into a waking nightmare, one that's by turns cruel, comic and just plain nauseating. It's a conflict that plays out almost entirely beneath the surface, for all that actually happens is that Mary gives Norman a knife for cutting up a sandwich, a task that Norman wavers on but ultimately carries out without incident, only for both characters to be left so rattled by the unspoken tension that the sandwich goes uneaten.

If you own the Arrow Video Blu-Ray release of Psycho II, then you might have been fortunate enough to get hold of a copy with a booklet containing writings on the film by Jon Robertson, as well as excerpts from Richard Franklin's unpublished autobiography about the making of the film (although I believe this booklet was exclusive to the original pressing). Robertson does have some really neat insights into the film, including a highly appreciative analysis of the one scene I was really critical of (the scene involving the teenage lovebirds who get caught out down in the fruit cellar), so I might even be tempted to go back and reevaluate that some time. In the meantime, here's what Robertson has to say about Norman's culinary practices:

"Even the way he cuts the sandwich for Mary, sliding the blade through with an unnerving deliberacy and, rather unpleasantly, pushing down with most of his hand on one side of the bread, raises the audience's hackles. (It also poses the question: if he can't even divide a sandwich inconspicuously in polite company, what hope is there for a successful integration?)"

I hadn't noticed until Robertson pointed it out, but as Norman is slicing the sandwich his method of holding it in place is to virtually flatten one half of it with his right hand, as if purposely pinning down a writhing victim, and Franklin certainly milks the sound of the blade being scraped against the plate for all its ear-splitting worth. The way in which the top slice of the bread presses upward during the process, revealing the sandwich's meaty innards, is also pretty sickening (granted, I am a vegan, but this scene is deftly constructed to ensure that, whatever your dietary leanings, you'd never feel the inclination to put that sandwich anywhere near your mouth). It is a wonderfully repellent payoff for what effectively amounts to a fake out on the film's part (although only ostensibly so - I don't think we really expect there to be any truly ugly business quite this early on in the running time, even following on from its predecessor's example).

Despite his brutality toward the unfortunate sandwich, I maintain that the viewer's sympathies do lie with Norman throughout this sequence (as I maintain they do for much of the original film - the fact is that he's so damned lovable) and on that note I would also hesitate to describe Mary as "polite" company. Even without knowing of her nefarious intentions, there are times when her ostensible innocence borders on grotesque obtuseness; for example, she apparently fails to pick up on the telltale manner in which Norman practically dry-heaves out the word "cutlery", and persists in finding him a knife with which to bisect her sandwich. She appears to so willfully put herself in harm's way that poor Norman is up to his neck in potential tipping points (as it turns out, this is exactly what Mary is doing - her method of attack is to make herself as defenceless as possible). There's a thread of wicked comedy to Mary's almost impossible naivety, which in itself should be enough to arouse our suspicions about her from the start - having pulled that extremely ominous-looking knife out from the drawer, why does she insist on giving it to Norman anyway? Why can't she slice her own goddamned sandwich? At least she has the basic courtesy to put the knife into Norman's left hand and not his right hand (see below). It is a fascinating scene for the means by which it gets under your skin, despite the actual level of threat being fairly low - for one thing, I don't think there's a sense that Norman is especially tempted to stick the knife into Mary (there is only one very slight betrayal to the contrary - as his wayward right hand is steadying the sandwich plate, it budges it subtly in Mary's direction, so that the blade comes about an inch closer to her). As thickly as Mary lays on the ingenuousness she's not really our concern here. Our concern is rooted less in what Norman could potentially do to his latest dinner companion than it is in Norman's own apprehension of what he could potentially do. We've seen the original Psycho, so we know what he's capable of. Norman lived the original Psycho without the penny ever quite dropping, but he's been brought up to speed within the past twenty-two years and he and the viewer are now firmly on the same page. Mary is gulping down milk in what looks to be witless obliviousness, having just forced Norman to take hold of a knife that he blatantly doesn't want anywhere near. It's obvious which character we're meant to identify with here. We recognise that the mere sight of the knife hurts Norman (and that, as such, he is the truly vulnerable one in this equation) and that hurts us in turn.

The question weighing intrusively on one's mind throughout this sequence is whether or not this is intended to be the exact same knife with which Norman eviscerated Marion twenty-two years ago. Norman has already run into one familiar murder weapon whilst getting reacquainted with his family kitchen (the poisoned tea leaves he'd concealed at the back of his cupboard), so the implicit suggestion is certainly extended to us. If so, then that is beyond ghoulish, for what could be more chillingly, comically revolting than seeing Norman reunited with the instrument with which he carried out his most infamous murder (not to mention, one of the most iconic cinematic slayings, period) and being tasked with utilising it in something as thoroughly mundane as food preparation? It gets particularly grisly in the borderline surreal close-up shot where light shimmers across the blade, revealing a collection of blood stains hidden upon it, as if it were possible for this scenario to become any more stomach-churning. I joked about the hygienic implications of this in my previous piece, but even if the knife had been meticulously cleaned several times over, would you really want to eat food that had been prepared with it, knowing that had it had been inserted several times into a naked woman's torso? (My first thoughts were that the police plainly didn't do a good job raiding Norman's home and seizing evidence back in 1960, but then that's actually pretty consistent with how they're portrayed in Psycho II - check out Deputy Pool's thorough analysis of the potential crime scene when he and Sheriff Hunt go down into Norman's fruit cellar following the teen lovebird's murder. Slow but not incompetent, you say?)

Whereas the tea leaves seem content to wait passively at the back of the cupboard for Norman to stumble across them, when the knife first appears it practically leaps into frame with the frenetic energy of a dog excited to see that its master has finally returned to manor. The knives encountered early on in Psycho II have an almost cartoon-like presence (Robertson notes that "knife blades gleaming regardless of nearby light sources become something of a running gag") which imbues them with a will and a character virtually all of their own. When the knife does gleam and reveal its dirty little secret, it practically translates into a conspiratorial smile directed toward Norman, a winking reminder of their former partnership (Mary appears to have her own extrasensory connection with the knife, for she uncovers it with almost comical ease, as if she knew that it was lurking there all along, which fits in with the idea that she, being Marion's spiritual and genetic successor, has an established relationship with the world she is entering). It is not just Norman's own knife that seems determined to beguile him back into his old habits; during Toomey's attempt to bait Norman at the diner, the cake knife also gleams, as if sharing a tacit dialogue with Norman about how this confrontation could potentially go down. And yet, the very first appearance of a knife in Psycho II (outside of the truncated replay of Marion's murder) occurs so fleetingly that many fail to notice it at all, not least the characters themselves. During Norman's induction at Statler's Diner, Mary accidentally (or not) knocks over and shatters a pie plate, and amid the ruptured ruins we catch a momentary glimpse of a knife smeared with the foreboding red of pulverised berries. Norman claims responsibility for Mary's breakage, for it is entirely within his nature to do so. As Perkins said of Norman, he is very trusting and generous of spirit. But even this benevolent gesture calls to mind the darker forces in Norman's psyche, for covering up for transgressions of others was something he was well-accustomed to doing in the original film, where his resolute dedication toward clearing up his Mother's illicit debris (unwittingly in service of his own homicidal urges) brought him into escalating conflict with everyone who stopped by the Motel. The berry-coated knife might not have the gleefully demonic presence of its peers, but it gives us a gruesome pointer as to where this relationship is ultimately headed, in foreshadowing the climax where Norman and Mary come to harrowing blows over the possession of a knife, following a far messier accidental wreckage caused by Mary, for which Norman feels morbidly compelled to assume responsibility.

 This is not fine.

Getting back to Robertson's observations about Norman's unusual sandwich-slicing techniques, it is entirely appropriate that what his right hand is doing should bother us more than the left. Psycho II adheres to a motif used in Hitchcock's film in which Norman's right hand is depicted as his "bad" one; in fact, so long as the knife stays firmly in Norman's left hand then it's a pretty good indicator that Mary is not in any immediate danger (his right hand's efforts to edge the blade closer to her notwithstanding). Norman cuts the sandwich and performs various other mundane tasks with his left hand because he is left-handed, as was Anthony Perkins. Mrs Bates, though, was apparently not - in the original Psycho, sharp-eyed viewers may notice that in all three sequences where Norman appears in his murderous Mother guise he invariably wields the offensive weapon with his right hand. Ergo, we can deduce that the closest Mary comes in Psycho II to being directly endangered by Norman occurs shortly before the toasted cheese sandwiches dialogue, when Norman, believing that Mother is close by and out for Mary's blood, insists on staying with her and watching over her in her sleep; while ostensibly protecting her, there is a sinister moment where Norman is steering the knife in Mary's direction and unconsciously passes it from his left hand into his right. Norman continues to keep both hands clasped against the knife at this point, which tells us that he is still teetering on the brink, although during his momentary outburst, when he calls Mary out for her dishonesty, control of the knife switches very decisively to his right hand. Inevitably, I think of Peter Walker's 1979 slasher film Schizo, with its promotional tagline, "Schizophrenia...when the left hand doesn't know who the right hand is killing." Which, needless to say, is a hideously inaccurate and insensitive definition of actual schizophrenia, but it does apply quite aptly in Norman's case.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #5: Taco Bell Chihuahua

With so many brands and restaurants out there all vying for the privilege of becoming your trusted turn-to for an empty calorie pick-me-up, what sort of an atmosphere can we expect to be living in every time we pick up our remote or stroll down the high street? One of all-out warfare, of course. Just as there were "Cola Wars" between Coca Cola and Pepsi and "Coffee Wars" between Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts, so too there have been "Burger Wars" in which various fast food chains have pulled out as many marketing guns as they can muster in a never-ending battle for junk food supremacy. In 1997, Taco Bell, a chain dedicated to serving up McDonaldized Tex-Mex, hurled a whole new weapon into the fray in the form of something cute, cuddly and instantly merchandise-friendly, and one of the defining (if flash in the pan) advertising fads of the 1990s was born. Taco Bell banked on the fact that everyone loves pint-sized dogs with disproportionately huge ears, and this being the late 1990s, we were still highly enamored with the novelty of real animals "talking" by way of digital effects which made it appear that their lips were moving (a gimmick popularised by the 1995 movie Babe).

As I noted in my piece on advertisingdom's other famous flesh-and-blood canine, Spuds McKenzie, the Taco Bell Chihuahua was portrayed as a male in the campaign (where he was voiced by Carlos Alazraqui) but was actually a female who went by the name of Gidget. The character's shtick was that he was a feisty soul who had a nose for cheap Mexican-style fast food and a tendency to weird out twentysomething males by hovering beneath them just as they were about to tuck into their Gorditas, pestering them with his catchphrase, "Yo quiero Taco Bell!" (I want Taco Bell). Unlike Spuds McKenzie, whose campaign carried the implicit hint of there being seriously kinky business between himself and the Spudettes, the TBC didn't give a fuck about sexual conquest. Or, more accurately, his libido and his insatiable appetite for greasy fast food were intertwined. The TBC was a heck of a horny devil alright, but he channeled all of his lusty energies into the veneration of Taco Bell, as was illustrated in ads where the dog watches a Taco Bell commercial and compulsively hits the rewind button on his remote like a desperate singleton ogling over a primed spot in their favourite porno rental, calls a hotline where a sensual-sounding female voice asks the dog if he's "into zesty pepperjack sauce", or gazes into a montage of close-up shorts of a taco shell being torn to shreds and whines, "Hurt me!", to it. Equating erotic satisfaction with biting into a cheap, greasy taco is one way of winning your product into the hearts of consumers, but have that eroticism be exhibited by a cuddly dog with an enchilada fetish and you've hit all the right levels of absurdity.

The Taco Bell chain never really caught fire in my homeland (or many foreign markets, for that matter), so the Chihuahua is one of those cultural phenomenons that might have passed me by completely if not for a fortuitous trip I took to the States in July 1999. There, I encountered at least half a dozen people walking around wearing the same t-shirt of a chihuahua standing beside a crudely-constructed cardboard trap, with the slogan, "Here lizard, lizard, lizard..." And on the back, "Uh-oh, I think I need a bigger box." It was a bewildering experience to say the least, for I had no idea why a chihuahua would be conspiring to trap a lizard in a cardboard box, and I was vaguely creeped out by the implication that this unseen lizard was ultimately too much for the chihuahua to handle ( the lizard ate the chihuahua?). When I left the States, I still didn't get the significance of that t-shirt, but I had figured out the origins of the chihuahua character. For he was absolutely everywhere. The ads were playing non-stop, and you couldn't turn around without seeing all these little bobblehead dogs bearing the Taco Bell logo, or plush toys that spouted the chihuahua's catchphrase if you squeezed its ear. So much so that I developed a strange affection for the little guy, despite never once setting foot inside a Taco Bell throughout my visit, since I associated him with my first ever trip to the US. When I returned, exactly two years later (my parents were really intent on spending their 21st wedding anniversary on Alcatraz island, for some reason), I saw absolutely no trace of the little dog. The t-shirts had clearly dropped out of fashion and the current Taco Bell TV campaign instead featured some guy in an elevator chanting a ditty about his love of steak tacos to the theme from Bonanza. It was as if the chihuahua had upped and vanished from the face of the Earth, having dominated it (or at least the North American part of it) just two years prior. Obviously the campaign had run its course and the chihuahua-less San Francisco of 2001 was a testament to just how rapidly a craze can dissipate and zeitgeist move on. I'd had very limited first-hand experience with the campaign and yet I still felt its absence sorely.

Human beings, being the sick creatures that we are, have a tendency to create our own narratives where the actual one either isn't self-explanatory or is just a little too self-explanatory for our liking, and inevitably various stories seeped out about sweet little Gidget meeting all manner of gruesome fates, from being squished by a ham-fisted boom mic operator to falling into a deep-fat fryer and ending up as the secret ingredient in some unsuspecting chump's Gordita. It was the exact same deal with Spuds McKenzie about a decade prior. In reality, Gidget lived to the ripe old age of 15 and passed away after suffering a stroke on 21st July 2009. After her career as a taco shill was cut short, she landed additional gigs in an advertisement for Geico car insurance and in the movie Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (2003). According to this Snopes article, Gidget's abrupt jettisoning by Taco Bell was rooted in the fact that, despite the enthusiastic response to the character, the campaign didn't actually work magic in convincing the public that their tacos were any good. A chihuahua might appear to like them, but then chihuahuas like licking their nether-regions.

So what makes the Taco Bell Chihuahua a candidate for the "horrifying" tag (other than the dubious grub (s)he was shilling)? In this case, it's in the company you keep. That "Lizard" shirt I mentioned earlier...well, I figured out its origins eventually.

Roland Emmerich's all-American take on Godzilla (1998) isn't too fondly remembered. Whenever people do bring it up, it's usually to cite it as an epitome of the kind of commercial crassness that characterised Hollywood blockbusters in the 1990s - because what could be more odious than the Hollywoodization of a beloved Japanese property (complete with one of the most unashamedly obnoxious promotional taglines of all-time) that seemed every bit as intent on shoving tacos down our gullets as diverting us with the spectacle of a giant lizard stomping on buildings for over two hours (good grief, was Godzilla really 139 minutes long?). So oppressive was the Godzilla-Taco Bell coalition that the Taco Bell Chihuahua was effectively pigeonholed as Godzilla's promotional sidekick, appearing in an additional spot in which TBC was seen placing an order through a drive-thru intercom on Godzilla's behalf. "Hey, Godzilla, want something to drink?" the dog casually shouts out to his reptilian chum, as if they were a couple of college roomies out on a bender. The especially prominent nature of the product tie-ins was singled out by many critics as symptomatic as everything vile and wrong-headed about the film's aesthetic, with Peter Bart of Variety remarking that, "To many, Godzilla has become the ultimate example of a marketing campaign in search of a movie. The movie was seemingly made, not to entertain audiences, but to help sell tacos and T-shirts." Once Godzilla had been marked out for the trash heap of regrettable late 90s pop culture novelties (right down there with TY's Beanie Babies), the unfortunate little chihuahua was inevitably destined to have its own image tainted through association.

Ah well, nostalgia displaces all nausea eventually, right? A lot of what we agreed at the time was destined for the trash heap of 90s culture is now suddenly regarded as the height of cool, so on that basis, I wouldn't rule out a reappearance from the chihuahua some time in the future (even if Gidget herself is no longer with us). Assuming the backstage legal disputes involving the character haven't left too bad a taste in Taco Bell's mouth, that is.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Psycho II: We Are All Recycled Psychos Now

Before we begin, a SEVERE SPOILER WARNING, for both the original Psycho (1960) and its sequel Psycho II (1983). I want to stress this because, when I was twelve years old, I had the twist ending to Psycho spoiled for me in advance by some thoughtless individual* and so never had the opportunity to see it truly fresh. I do not want to become that thoughtless individual for you, so if it's not too late, run now and preserve your ignorance. Then come back when you're good and ready.
(*that was my mother.)

Psycho II (Richard Franklin, 1983) is a highly unconventional sequel in many regards - not least because, as far as I'm aware, it is the only thriller/horror sequel out there to promote the villain of the original film to the role of protagonist and focus on their attempts to go straight and lead a normal life. I would hesitate to say definitively that it is the only one of its kind, but it's not a scenario we tend to see play out too often, and that in itself makes it something very grand. A belated follow-up to Alfred Hitchcock's ground-breaking 1960 suspense thriller about murder and mayhem at a secluded Californian motel (the film often credited with blazing the trail for the modern slasher pic, which was already knee-deep its heyday around the time the sequel came along), Psycho II was originally conceived as a made-for-TV project but got a major upgrade thanks to Anthony Perkins' willingness to reprise his infamous role as timid taxidermist Norman Bates. The film went ahead with the blessing of Hitchcock's daughter, Pat Hitchcock, and was helmed by Australian director Richard Franklin, a lifelong Hitchcock admirer, whose previous directorial credits included the Ozploitation thrillers Patrick (1978) and Road Games (1981). It was produced by Hilton A. Green, who worked as assistant director on the initial Psycho, and based on an original screenplay by Tom Holland, who would go on to to write and direct the cult horror film Fright Night (1985). Robert Bloch, author of the original novel on which Psycho was based, wrote his own Psycho II in 1982, although this emphatically was not used as the basis of Holland's script (a good thing too - I've never read Bloch's sequel, but from what I know about the plot I suspect it would make my eyes water). Some Hitchcock purists may cry sacrilege at the prospect of sequelising any of the director's classics, although truthfully, if we were going to have a sequel to any works from the Master of Suspense, Psycho would always have been my first pick. Before I saw Psycho II, I often wondered about the longer-term fate of poor, deluded Norman, last seen resolving to spare a fly in the hopes of convincing his imagined audience that he was harmless. Having him yield entirely to his Mother half perhaps makes sense from a thematic standpoint, but in narrative terms I never found it terribly satisfying. Was Norman doomed to spend the rest of his days locked in his Mother personality, in deep paranoia about the eyes he believed were constantly trailing him, or did some friendly psychiatrist manage to jog him out of it eventually? Franklin's film provides the answer (hint: it would be awfully challenging to milk a full-length feature out of the former scenario - although Hitchcock himself managed perfectly well with the premise of a man confined to a single locale slowly losing his marbles) and with it a surprisingly empathetic (if still darkly twisted) attempt to have everyone's favourite stammering knife-wielder join the modern world.

Psycho II takes place twenty-two years after the events of the original Psycho; Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has spent the entirety of that time locked up in a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, but the courts have finally deemed him well enough to go home - much to the chagrin of Lila Loomis, née Crane (Vera Miles), who had clearly banked on Norman's institutionalisation being permanent. It was, of course, Lila's sister, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who was eviscerated in the original's most infamous sequence, a brutal shower slaying (which is featured in the opening of Psycho II in a slightly truncated form), so Lila won't exactly be throwing him a welcome party when he returns to his old family stomping ground just outside of Fairvale, California. We also learn that Lila and Sam Loomis (John Gavin) were married following the events of the original film. Gavin was unable to return to reprise his role as Sam, so he's been casually written out of the present-day picture. And he's not the only familiar face we missed out on seeing again. The role of Dr Bill Raymond (Robert Loggia), the psychiatrist who advocates in favour of Norman's release, was originally intended to be Dr Richmond (Simon Oakland) the psychiatrist from the original Psycho, only that idea fell through when it became clear that Oakland was now too old to reprise the role. Personally I am quite happy that they went with a whole new character, because I do not like the psychiatrist who appears at the end of the original film and if I'm honest I've never met a single person who does. The major problem that most people have with Oakland's character is that he spends a torturous amount of time expounding details that any reasonably thoughtful and attentive viewer would be able to piece together by their own initiative. It's often said that Hitchcock was forced to lay on the final denouement so thickly in order to circumvent the censors, who would have fretted that audiences might assume that Norman was a transvestite if they didn't have the difference between a regular transvestite and a cross-dressing psychotic with Oedipal leanings very carefully and very explicitly laid out to them at the end. So we must regard Richmond's long-winded, cringe-inducing monologue as a necessary evil, or else there'd be no Psycho. But really, the main reason why I couldn't buy Richmond in this particular role is because so many of Raymond's choices throughout Psycho II are rooted in a very clear and genuine compassion for Norman, and I don't really get any sense of that from Oakland's character at the end of the original Psycho. He's just a smug bastard who essentially writes Norman off as a hopeless case when he suggests that he's already lost his battle to his Mother half. Raymond, on the other hand, is a lovely soul, one who goes out of his way to watch Norman's back while the state shirks its own responsibilities (unfortunately, Norman has picked a bad time to be facing the world again - it's now Reagan's America, and there have been a series of cuts to vital services which might have made his reintegration a whole lot easier). He's the one really wholesome character who remains firmly on the side of good throughout (well, maybe not to Lila Loomis). The film doesn't get overly explicit on this point outside of one early scene, but the real villains of Psycho II are the Reagan era policies which have slashed support for the needy and vulnerable as mercilessly as Norman cut up Marion.

The antagonist of the equation is initially a little less clear cut. Lila Loomis shows up to Norman's hearing to protest his release on behalf of the seven people* he murdered and the 743 living individuals who don't want him returned to society. Norman killed Lila's sister and attempted to kill her, so her feelings are entirely understandable. You might even sympathise with her complaint about the lack of formal representation being given to the victims' voices in the matter. And yet, for all of Lila's conviction, her diatribe at the general apathy of the courtroom toward the prospect of allowing a homicidal maniac back onto the streets is immediately offset by Norman's unassuming sweetness. The fact is that Norman has always been one heck of an endearing homicidal maniac, even in Hitchcock's original, where the narrative called for him to be a cautionary tale on the perils of mixing with the kinds of solitary figures who live off the beaten track and beyond the pale. This was in no small way thanks to Perkins' interpretation of the character, which brought out Norman's tics and eccentricities in a way that made him seem more fragile and forlorn than outright frightening (he was like Bambi, right down to the plaintive doe eyes). In Hitchcock's film, the twentysomething Norman was an accomplished killer but an innocent nevertheless, one who had isolated himself from the world so that he could remain perpetually frozen in his role as the good son, oblivious all the while to the darker impulses that were consuming him. There's a scene where Lila, having infiltrated the Bates house, wanders into Norman's bedroom and gets a very telling snapshot of his psyche - the room does not appear to have changed much since Norman was a child, to the extent that he still sleeps with a fluffy stuffed rabbit, but it doesn't take the prying Lila long to discover some slightly distasteful material tucked away in there too. In Psycho II we pick up with Norman now well into his forties, but he is unmistakably still a kid at heart (although the rabbit regrettably does not make an appearance in the sequel), with a docility that, if anything, makes him more ripe for exploitation than dangerous. Said Perkins of Norman: "He's very trusting and generous of spirit. He's a likeable guy with some very winning qualities." The greatest difference between the Norman of past and present is that here his guilelessness is tempered by a harrowing self-awareness. Norman understands as well as the viewer what he has lived through and what he is capable of, and it is this mutual understanding that brings himself and the viewer together into a strange but very effective alliance. We may have opened the new chapter with Lila's passionate broadside, but it is Norman we stick with once we move beyond the courtroom; we're on this journey with him as he attempts to reconcile with the world he left behind, recognising as much as he does how the nightmares of the past continue to reverberate in the present.

Despite Lila's interjections, Norman is mainly just relieved to have the case go in his favour and very sincere about wanting to make a new life for himself, although paradoxically in order to do that he needs to return to his old haunt and demonstrate (to himself, more than anyone) that he is capable of living alongside his demons and staring them into submission. Inevitably, there have been some changes in the twenty-two years he's been away. In Norman's absence, the Bates Motel has been run by a state-appointed manager named Warren Toomey - he's played by Dennis Franz, which tells you all you need to know about what kind of a motel it is now. The Bates house, however, has been lying dormant for pretty much all this time, as if waiting for Norman to return and pick things up right where he left off. Norman is anxious for things to go differently this time, and the house seems more than willing to take him up on his challenge; when he returns, one of the early artifacts he finds lying there to greet him is the old stash of poisoned tea leaves he squirreled away following the double homicide that started him down his twisted path.

With Psycho II, Franklin set out to pay homage to the original Hitchcockian style while also updating the mood and feel of the film by weaving it into the fabric of contemporary 1980s horror. As such, the character of Mary Samuels (Meg Tilly), Norman's new best friend (or not), is constructed to serve as a kind of missing link between the two. Mary, a young waitress Norman befriends during his short-lived stint at a local diner, is the kind of spunky modern heroine one could expect to encounter in slashers like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and their ilk - strong-willed and resourceful, yet also vulnerable-looking enough for us to believe that she could be sliced to ribbons in an instant if she made a single misstep. For much of the time, however, Psycho II functions as more of an inversion on conventional slasher dynamics, particularly in the early scenes where Norman and Mary first strike up their unlikely rapport. Mary is despondent because her fiance, Scott, has suddenly terminated their relationship and forced her out of their apartment, leaving her without a roof over her head. So Norman, being trusting and generous of spirit, offers her a room at the Bates Motel (FOC, of course). Mary, being young and naive and not appreciating the potentially darker significance of Norman's gesture (or not), willfully goes along with him. It is sequence that trades heavily on the viewer's understanding of what has gone before, and as such there are numerous callbacks to the original Psycho, partly to draw tension from our assumption that Mary doesn't know what she's getting herself into, but mainly to emphasise the terrible burden that is Norman's newfound self-awareness. His kindhearted gesture is replete with unwelcome echoes of his homicidal history - for example, upon arriving at the Motel, Norman reflexively reaches for the key to Cabin 1, thus nearly packing Mary off to the very locale where he butchered Marion all those years ago, but he thinks better of it and chooses a different room. Thus, we find ourselves in the somewhat novel position of sharing the pain of a former knife-wielding maniac looking to transcend the role he played on the previous go-around. And it is Norman's plight that really engages us. We might feel uneasy about Mary's obliviousness through all of this, but at the same time we never get the sense that there's anything knowingly predatory about Norman's actions (he does have an ulterior motive for wanting Mary to come back with him, but it's not as sinister as one might first think). The dialogue, "I own a motel not too far from here, and you'd be welcome to spend the night in one of the empty rooms if you'd like", sounds ominous as hell to our ears, because it's spoken by a character with one mother of a reputation, but in practice we end up less fearful for Mary's safety than we do concerned that Norman might do something to compromise his prospects of overcoming the past and living a healthy and functional life. Norman has clearly come an awfully long way just to get to this point, and the last thing we want is for it to fall apart for him now.

Norman (Anthony Perkins) convinces new blood (Meg Tilly) to stay at the Bates Motel. FOC indeed.

Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of the original shower victim Janet Leigh, was allegedly considered for the role of Mary, but she had already appeared in proto-slasher Halloween and its first sequel, Halloween II (not to mention, Franklin's own Road Games), so there was concern that audiences might not accept her as a young innocent who had yet to learn what a scary and violent place the world can be. Ultimately, newcomer Tilly was favoured for her lack of prior audience familiarity (although Tilly also starred in a low-budget horror, One Dark Night, which received a theatrical release a few months ahead of Psycho II). Besides, casting Curtis as Mary would likely have telegraphed the major plot twist regarding her character, which is already hinted at strongly enough in the moniker Mary Samuels. This is near-identical to Marie Samuels, the false name Marion Crane scribbled in the Bates Motel register upon her arrival in the original film, so sharp-eared viewers might pick up on this and deduce, correctly, that this Samuels is also a fraud. (Some viewers question why the name doesn't appear to set any alarm bells ringing for Norman, given that he did get a couple of good hard glances at Marion's alias in the original film, although I find it plausible that he might have forgotten one or two details during his twenty-two years of intensive psychiatric intervention). As it turns out, Mary is a continuation of the Loomis line, the daughter of Sam and Lila Loomis and the niece of the long-deceased Marion Crane, blood ties which by default make her a nemesis of Norman. As such, it transpires that Mary entered into her relationship with Norman fully aware of who he was and of his troubling history of murderous psychosis. It is Mary's mission (as dictated by her mother) to bring out that murderous psychosis in him again, so that Norman will be exposed as unrehabilitatable and recalled to the hospital for good.

At the opening of the film Lila challenges the courts' decision to release Norman, on the basis of his restored sanity, with the statement, "What about his victims? Can you restore them?" And yet one of the nexuses on which the entire Psycho series rests is the notion that the dead never do go away. Every generation is molded by the one that came before it, and what happens in one lifetime has the capacity to majorly reverberate in those that follow. Norman is a particularly extreme example of this, having already spent much of his life under the delusion that he had restored his Mother because he'd retrieved her corpse from the ground and was willing to act out everything on her behalf. He may have killed her, but being a dutiful son he attempted to compensate by splitting his personality and allowing her to inhabit one half of his own life. But he is far from alone in being a reflection of what was imprinted on him by the world he inherited. Mary has likewise been burdened with a role long preordained for her by the misfortunes of the previous generation. On the one hand, Mary is a symbol of healing, and of life restoring itself. She represents a kind of rebirth for her aunt; her age is never specified, although based on Tilly's real age at the time it presumably didn't take Sam and Lila terribly long to get to work on replenishing the population that Norman had put a dent in. Even Norman, who does not initially know Mary's true identity, sees the parallel between herself and Marion, and with it the opportunity to conquer the horrors of the past by doing things right this time. Mary brings hope for a new beginning, yet her being and intentions are too heavily grounded in what has come before to be capable of delivering as such. Lila uses her as a vessel for continuing her family's longstanding (and one-sided) conflict with Norman, and while Mary's goal remains focused on healing, paradoxically (and not unlike Norman's own need to return to his old haunt in order to truly move on) she is called to reopen a number of old wounds to achieve it; to replay the scenario in which her aunt was a participant twenty-two years ago, but rigged to produce a very different outcome. Mary does so as more than just a stand-in for Marion. In the original film, Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) deduces that Marion derived the alias "Samuels" from the name of her boyfriend, Sam Loomis. It's now 1982 and, due to Gavin's unavailability, Sam Loomis is also dead, so in Mary's fresh assumption of the moniker she effectively carries a double torch for both her aunt and her father. And the Psycho universe welcomes the prospect of further roughhousing. In the original film, the Bates Motel is a location you tend to arrive at only when you are lost; Marion ended up there precisely because she made such an impulsive effort to flee the straight and narrow. Here, though, there is a strong element of fate to the meeting between Norman and Mary; that both characters are exactly where they should be (although whether they are in the correct roles this time around is a separate matter). As Mary accepts Norman's offer, rain begins to fall, much as it did when Marion first pulled up outside the Bates Motel. It is as if the skies themselves are reacting to the cycle having finally renewed itself, having been waiting for twenty-two years for all the right pieces to fall into place.

If Mary is not the literal reincarnation of Marion Crane (as Maureen Coyle from Psycho III is, for all intents and purposes), then she certainly acts as an avenging analogue for her murdered aunt throughout the first third of the film, retracing her footsteps in order to face down and conquer the demons that have been haunting her own family for the past two decades. Norman is not the only one to be returning to the scene of the twenty-two year old crime with the burden of self-awareness. This is also a reinstatement for Marion, who now has the chance to rematch her wits against Norman's in Round Two of their protracted relationship, albeit by proxy through her niece. Rewatching the film with an understanding of who Mary is and of her real agenda, it becomes apparent that what we are actually witnessing in those early, awkward interactions between herself and Norman is the most bizarre game of reverse cat and mouse unfolding. We see multiple instances in which Mary taunts Norman with assorted triggers and reminders of his past, as if implicitly daring him to try it all over again. Nowhere is this more evident than in the scene where Mary announces her intention to move into the Bates house indefinitely, before informing her stupefied host that she'll be retiring for the evening, "right after I take a shower...if that's alright with you." Indeed, Mary makes it all the way up to the house (once Norman has determined that he hasn't happy with Toomey's management of the motel and fires him, thus netting himself a 744th adversary on the outside) and as such enjoys an intimacy with Norman's fragile psyche that Marion herself was strictly barred from. Not only does Mary get the dinner of sandwiches and milk at Norman's kitchen table that was offered to Marion (but denied by Mother) in the original Psycho, she has the pleasure of getting to sabotage said dinner herself by forcing Norman to slice a sandwich in front of her (using a knife very similar to the one he hacked Marion to death with, if indeed it is not the same one**), an act he understandably finds triggering. And yet Mary does not entirely have the upper hand in this dynamic. There comes a point where she appears to lose her nerve and wants to back out of the situation, as if momentarily alert to the fact that she is merely a pawn in a conflict that never directly involved her; it is a private trap that she was born into, as Norman might have put it twenty-two years ago.

At this point, Mary lowers her facade of ignorance just a little; she admits to Norman that she does have an inkling of his checkered past, for she was privy to workplace gossip about him being fresh out of a psychiatric hospital. Norman is crestfallen to have his proverbial cat stripped from the bag so quickly, but he salvages the situation when he learns that Mary doesn't know (or so she claims) what his hospitalisation was all about. This gives him the opportunity to open up and establish a degree of trust with her. And he does - to a point. Norman admits to one murder out of his grand total of seven, which is a tad disingenuous of him for sure, but it is nevertheless the all-important murder that he confesses to; Norman tells Mary that he poisoned his mother as an adolescent. Norman now accepts that his mother is gone and that this was by his own hand; it is his ability to face this inconvenient truth that has made his entire rehabilitation possible (as such, it is the realisation that Lila and Mary must attack if they are to obliterate Norman's newfound grip on reality). Mary is still not convinced that a matricidal poisoner makes for the best evening companion, so Norman makes his second gambit, opening up to Mary about how frightened he is at the prospect of having to spend his first night inside the house in years by himself. Thus, the subversion of traditional horror dynamics culminates with the revelation that the (former) knife-wielder is actually the more terrified of the two and that his only recourse is to appeal to the sympathy and compassion of his would-be victim. Of course, the real punchline to this sequence occurs the following morning, when it transpires that Mary didn't last the full night inside the Bates house; at some point or other she lost her nerve again and scarpered. This leads to an awkward exchange later on when she and Norman resume their professional relationship at the diner, and Mary declines Norman's casual attempts to entice her back into his accommodation; she does so politely, but the tension in her voice is evident nevertheless. It is a strange paradox in which we find ourselves - we understand only too well that Mary's anxieties are not unfounded, and yet we are still seeing the situation primarily from Norman's perspective, and feeling his dejection as he contends with the fact that his reputation isn't going anywhere.

Does your Mother know that you're out?

To the residents of Fairvale, Norman's past is hardly a secret and, all things considered, he is met with a surprising amount of tolerance on his return. He gets his job at the diner with the support of Ms Emma Spool (Claudia Bryar), an outspoken sixtysomething woman, on the basis that "it's very Christian to forgive and forget." Statler (Robert Alan Browne), who runs the diner, is a tough gentleman but very fair to Norman. Local law enforcer Sheriff Hunt (Hugh Gillin) was around when Norman was brought in twenty-two years ago and understands exactly what he is capable of, but has sympathy for his struggles with psychosis and his desire to start fresh. Toomey is the only one who openly insists on hanging around to make life difficult for Norman, and on bringing up his history of mental illness in order to belittle him. So when Norman starts receiving written notes and phone calls from someone claiming to be his dead Mother, angry that Norman has allowed Mary into the house, he naturally assumes that Toomey is the culprit. We know, however, that there are at least 743 other individuals out there who aren't charmed by the idea of walking into a diner and seeing a person of Norman's calibre carving up lettuce (in fairness, there are probably a good number of people who wouldn't have opposed his release who'd still consider that a step too far), so he might have some narrowing down to do yet. It certainly never occurs to Norman that Mary herself is among the 743, belying his insistence in the first film that he is "not capable of being fooled, not even by a woman." Mary appears to have a change of heart about Norman after watching him resist Toomey's efforts to bait him into a confrontation, and agrees to take Norman up on his offer of accommodation, although in reality she returns out of an obligation to finish the fresh cycle that has already been started.

As the film goes on, Mary comes to the realisation that she is not Marion Crane, or at least that her own identity does not have to be determined by that of the dead aunt she never met, and her desire to right the wrongs of the past ends up gravitating in a completely different direction. After spending several days living inside the Bates household and witnessing Norman's never-ending struggle to hold onto his sanity first-hand, her allegiances begin to shift, and she questions if what she and her mother are doing is really so ethical. Rather than allow the cycle to repeat itself, Mary aspires to transcend altogether it by abandoning the role that has been preordained for her by her elders. She gives up on being Marion's avenger and instead becomes interested in assuming a new role as Norman's keeper. Mary realises that there is a vacant role in the Bates household, for "Mother" is the one major player who has not yet been reinstated in this homecoming, which is not to say that her presence is not felt; she too is lying dormant, waiting for someone to accommodate her (or supplant her), and Mary understands that whoever assumes the role of Mother will have the power to influence Norman for better or worse. She abandons her goal to expose Norman as still crazy after all these years and have him rehospitalised, to the extent that she even provides him with a false alibi when the police take a renewed interest in Norman's activities. As the bond between Norman and Mary grows tighter, their interactions shift from that initial, inverted game of cat and mouse and into the film's emotional backbone. We sense Norman and Mary's mutual entrapment and their yearning to walk away from their troublesome backgrounds, and it is in the characters' affinity that Psycho II becomes something surprisingly affecting - a plea for compassion and for the understanding and acceptance of outsiders. Even so, the film cannot resist slipping in the occasional jarring reminder as to just what kind of an outsider we are dealing with; in a sly in-joke, Mary can be seen reading a copy of In The Belly of the Beast by Jack Henry Abbott in one scene (the same book later appears, discarded, in Norman's yard in the opening to Psycho III).

Remember you're a Loomis! Mary and Lila (Vera Miles) butt heads before a familiar mise en scene.

Mary finds that she cannot back away from her own roots any more easily than Norman. Recognising that her daughter's loyalties are wavering, and angry that she chose to alibi Norman for a murder in which he could have been implicated, Lila attempts to reassert Mary's commitment by reminding her that she is also acting on behalf of her father. Lest we forget, Marion was the original object of his affections (his first marriage notwithstanding), and Norman killed her,*** so odds are that Sam wouldn't be too thrilled about Norman's release had he lived to see it - although we do not know for sure because Sam is not around to represent his own views. Lila speaks on his behalf. (On that note, I do have to wonder just how happy Sam and Lila's marriage actually was - I mean, it's not hard to read between the lines and come away with the impression that Sam settled for Lila as a substitute for her sister. Perhaps Lila has also spent too long filling in for someone she is not). Mary renounces her preordained identity as Marion Crane reborn when she tells Lila that she has no intention of living for dead people any more, a declaration that echoes Norman's own desire to purge himself of his Mother's toxic hold. In the end, Gavin's absence probably did end up benefiting the film, for in addition to simplifying the dynamic between Lila and Mary, it creates a more obvious parallel between Norman and Mary's respective predicaments. Both lost their fathers and wound up under the control of a bullying and manipulative mother. As noted, Lila's opinion on Norman is understandable and she clearly does see herself as the righteous party in this scenario, but the viewer cannot get behind her on this point - particularly as it grows increasingly apparent that her aspiration to have Norman rehospitalised is motivated less by a sincere belief that he is a danger to the local community than it is by good old-fashioned spite. She betrays this much when she assures Mary that Norman's guilt or innocence in any subsequent murders is immaterial, so long as it gets him back behind bars. Lila's outlook is gloomier than that of Mary, for she believes that people cannot change who they fundamentally are, although her own arc in Psycho II would appear to both contradict and bear that out. On the one hand, Lila recognisably still has all of the qualities she exhibited in the previous film - she's daring, determined, no respecter of limits and very, very inquisitive - and yet she has blatantly taken these same traits down a darker path within the past twenty-two years.

There are no literal ghosts in the Psycho universe - Mary points this out to Norman early on when she forces him to enter his Mother's bedroom against his wishes. But this makes little difference in practice, for the dead - Mother and Marion alike - persist in haunting the characters for every last frame of the film. Mother's spectre still lingers and Norman continues to live in fear of her, but for the time being she is prevented from making a full homecoming because Norman himself is no longer in a position to keep her alive. There is an extent to which Norman, for all of his sincerity in wishing to liberate himself from his past traumas and be the best person that he can be, almost appears to regret this much, and we sense increasingly that there is a part of him that's tired of having to carry around this glut of self-awareness and desperately wants his Mother back. The excision of his murderous Mother half has enabled him to regain control of his life (to a point) and to return to society, but it hasn't come without a price. Oh sure, he's rid of her tyrannical hold over his every private impulse and of those ominous blackouts which would result in him coming round to find blood all over the shop, but he also doesn't have the reaffirming embrace of his Mother to retreat into whenever the harsh reality of his world becomes too overbearing for him. Norman laments this to Mary in arguably the sequel's most popular (and bizarrely poignant) scene, when he compares Mary's body odor to the toasted cheese sandwiches his Mother used to make for him when he was sick. It's certainly a side to Norma Bates that we don't hear about often. When Mary suggests that Norman should remember his Mother for only the good things she did for him, Norman tearfully protests that he no longer has access to those memories. His line "the doctors took them all away, along with everything else," is troubling, for it reminds us of how fundamentally powerless Norman has always been, whatever his circumstances, but it also casts doubt on how much Norman truly accepts that his Mother is gone because of his own actions, as opposed to the world not permitting him to keep her around in his idiosyncratic fantasy life. Apparently, this scene was not included in the original script and was added at the request of Perkins, who felt that there needed to be an emotional moment between Norman and Mary, but I find it impossible to imagine the film without it. Nowhere else is Mary's willingness to step up and become Norman's new surrogate mother figure more aptly illustrated than with the image of her pacifying the weeping Norman by holding him in a none-too-subtle breastfeeding pose. It fulfills Perkins' demands for an emotional moment alright, but as emotional moments go it's so endearingly off-centre. Leave it to someone as socially stunted as Norman to pay a girl a heartfelt compliment by telling her she smells like a sandwich. It's one level up from telling her she eats like a bird.

Mary may have aspirations of being Norman's replacement mother, but she also gives Norman the opportunity for the romantic relationship that his Mother always denied him, although the film doesn't explore this point too explicitly. Norman and Mary's relationship remains largely platonic throughout; Norman does indicate at one point that he has hopes of taking things further (when, having learned of Mary's true identity, he asks her for the real reason why she wanted out of her mother's scheme), although it is not clear to what extent Mary reciprocates his feelings. Toward the end, she does envision an idealised alternate ending for herself and Norman which has overtones of a romantic getaway, when she suggests to Norman that they drop everything and flee while they still have the chance. I think we end up regretting that the story doesn't actually go this route - not simply because we care about Norman and Mary and would like for things to work out for them, but because what Mary is proposing is so egregiously impractical (that is, hitchhiking to freedom with a wanted murder suspect whose sanity is rapidly deteriorating in tow) that it would be intriguing to see how it would actually play out. Still, Mary's biggest challenge is not in keeping the law off of Norman's back, but in keeping Norman from succumbing to the demands of that higher authority still, for Mother isn't willing to relinquish Norman quite so easily. She is a slippery adversary and has more than one method of worming her way back into Norman's mind.

If a reconciliation between Norman and his estranged Mother is to be achieved, then Norman must first get past the inconvenient truth that he murdered her. But then he managed that once before. We know that Norman's hold on reality is disintegrating when, beleaguered by Lila's relentless harassment and frightened by the suggestion that he may have been responsible for a whole new murder, he begins to suppose that Mother is still out there, having survived his attempt to poison her. Raymond, wise to what Lila up to, attempts to counteract by having Mrs Bates' coffin exhumed in order to prove to Norman that she is dead (thus supplying the infamous corpse with a walk-on cameo for the sequel), but the only conclusion Norman ends up drawing from this is that Mrs Bates is dead; Mother is an entity unto herself, and exists independently of her earthly remains. So when Norman receives an anonymous telephone call informing him that Norma Bates is not his biological mother and that his real Mother is still alive and watching over him, he responds not with anger or confusion, but with eerie calmness, relieved to have confirmation that Mother has not truly gone away. The problem is that he still cannot locate her; when Mary asks Norman who his real Mother is, Norman responds only with a moderately vexed, "I don't know...she won't tell me." Is this Lila's revised tactic, now that she has lost the support of her daughter? Is it Norman's new coping mechanism for erasing his Mother's murder from his mind? Or might an additional party be involved?

Although Psycho II does subvert many conventions of the modern slasher genre, there are other occasions when it plays them entirely straight, and these typically constitute the weaker moments of the film. Notably there is a tribute to the original film's most infamous sequence, when Mary takes a shower in the Bates house and, unlike Marion in the original, gets to flash some very clear and gratuitous tits in a moment that feels thrown in purely for the fan service, but more problematic is a sequence involving two teenage love birds (Tim Maier and Jill Carroll) who've inexplicably chosen the Bates' fruit cellar as their make-out point (???). Actually, their appearance isn't quite so left of field, as earlier in the film Toomey told Norman that he caught a couple of kids making out in his basement a few weeks ago ("If it isn't the parents, it's the kids," quips Toomey, unwittingly summing up the entire Psycho ethos in a nutshell), but nevertheless it is awfully jarring when the camera suddenly pans away from Norman's story and we find ourselves focusing on these two random characters we know nothing about. And goddammit, these kids are stupid. Breaking into the fruit cellar of the local knife-wielding maniac to knock boots is just a dumb idea, period. It's not altogether clear to me if these kids are unaware of what went on in Norman's fruit cellar or if they find its entire history a turn-on. Either way, Franklin and Holland are clearly making their concession to the modern slasher convention in which horny teenagers make great sacrificial lambs (whores get tore, and all that). The male teen, who was more hung up on his sexual conquest than on heeding his girlfriend's warning about there being something else down there with them, is the one who gets cornered and violently splattered like an over-ripe tomato.

The teen's murder is integral as far as the plot is concerned, but doesn't fit in so tightly with the killer's motives as laid out in the final denouement. For at the end of the film, the killer is revealed to be Emma Spool, the ostensibly friendly older lady who gave Norman his induction at Statler's diner. Spool is a professed believer in forgiving and forgetting although paradoxically she also feels compelled to act as a dispenser of judgement upon those who cannot do the same. But she has a vested interest in Norman besides, for she is the younger sister of Norma Bates, and she and Norma had a longstanding dispute as to who had motherhood rights to Norman. At the end of Psycho II, Spool tells Norman that she, and not Norma, is his biological mother, although this is undone in Psycho III, where Spool is revealed to be a pathological liar who merely coveted Norman as her own. Either way, it becomes apparent that Norman's mental problems are at least partly hereditary and that his entire family tree is contorted in ways that the backstory given in the original Psycho barely scratched the surface of (we learn comparatively little about Norman's paternal line, but I'll wager they were also characters).

In truth, Norman is a fairly passive character for much of Psycho II; he doesn't really drive the action so much as get caught up in the middle of it while various other characters go to war over his fate. If the plot of Psycho II ever appears convoluted, it's because so much of it hinges on a four-way conflict between Mary, Lila, Raymond and Spool, each of whom have their own individual agendas and are guiding and/or manipulating Norman accordingly. There is also some occasional overlap where it is not altogether clear which character is pulling what strings in a particular situation (for example, we know that both Lila and Spool have been contacting Norman claiming to be his Mother), or where Norman's psychosis is merely coming into play again. Ostensibly, the main conflict is between Raymond and Lila and is established in the initial courtroom sequence. The film's pivotal conflict is ultimately between Mary and Spool, both of whom are competing for wardship of Norman's psyche, although ironically the two characters have very little direct interaction. They each embody one half of the Mother dynamic that Norman himself had always struggled to consolidate. Mary aspires to be the kind and nurturing mother figure who'll pacify Norman with talk of toasted cheese sandwiches and keep him out of trouble. Spool on the other hand is a ruthless disciplinarian; a savage mama bear who'll tear up anyone who comes between herself and her offspring, at the risk of leading Norman down the dark path he's determined to avoid.

Spool has a fairly low-key presence throughout the film; the only really prominent hint we get as to her involvement in the murders is that she is visibly incensed by Toomey's attempts to provoke Norman at the diner, although odds are that you won't even notice this on your first viewing. Although the viewer is encouraged to see the reappearance of the knife-wielder in a dress as the return of Mother, Spool has really been acting on Norman's behalf all this time (much as Norman acted on Mother's behalf in the first Psycho), in taking out those who were conspiring to make life difficult for Norman but whom Norman himself, deprived of his Mother, was unable to hit back at. She gets rid of Toomey, who sought to remind Fairvale of the "psycho" among them (there is a tremendous amount of catharsis, incidentally, in seeing the character who taunts Norman with the titular slur be the first to go). She corners that meddling Lila in the fruit cellar and dispatches her, thus completing the job that Norman started at the end of the original but was prevented from finishing by Sam Loomis. The Stupid Teenage Love Bird is the only one whose death is a bit baffling from this perspective - he and his companion were being disrespectful to Norman but were certainly not out to hurt him. Then again, they were trespassing in one of the most sensitive areas of Norman's personal territory and using it to act out their depraved teenage games, and maybe that's transgression enough. Upon returning home, Norman cannot face going down into the fruit cellar where he twice concealed his decaying mother (and where he himself was eventually captured and exposed), so Spool takes it upon herself to patrol the dark recesses of his psyche in the meantime, keeping his murderous impulses alive while he stays disconnected from them. She also stalks the upper regions of the house, keeping a watchful eye on Mary while Norman's guard is down. Although Spool sees herself as acting in Norman's interests, she is another woefully misguided zealot (a la Lila, only greatly more deadly), for not only does she produce a trail of bodies that could potentially be pinned on Norman, she also ensures that there is no escaping from the spectre of Mother. Her goal is not to free Norman from the horrors of the past, but to keep him subjugated by them, as she goes about violently eradicating whatever evils threaten their private world.

Since Norman is able to stave off his homicidal urges for most of the film, it falls to the four active combatants to effectively start cannibalising one another as it reaches its climax, and their warring agendas finally lock together in a full-blown collision course. Of the tetrad, it is Raymond who has the purest intentions, and he is the only one who has been entirely upfront and honest with Norman about these intentions all along. So obviously he has zero chance of getting out of this incredibly twisted situation alive. Nevertheless, the fate he meets is still rather shocking, for he is stabbed to death by the least probable candidate (Mary, albeit accidentally). Lila has already been taken out by Spool before the real mayhem begins, but Spool herself does not stick around for the climax, meaning that Mary is up against that all-important fifth player, Mother, for the final battle. Mother has come awfully late to this conflict, but when she does rear her head, her supremacy is unmistakable. In the absence of her embalmed corpse, Norman attempts to reestablish his relationship with Mother via the vessel of communication she has apparently chosen in the present day - that is, the telephone. Norman is so beleaguered by calls from people claiming to be his Mother that his resistance is eventually whittled down entirely and he comes to embrace every incoming call as an indication that Mother has not deserted him. Psycho II regularly exploits the fact that, whenever the telephone rings, we generally do not discover who is on the other end of the line (this is true not only of most of the calls that Norman receives, but also those made by Lila and Mary toward the start of the film). Absolutely anybody could talking to Norman, and anybody could use the guise of Mother to control Norman, if they aspired to. But ultimately Norman's yearning for his Mother has a trajectory all of its own. The critical moment occurs when Mary catches Norman talking to a dead line. The conversation is entirely one-sided, as Norman is still not in a position where he can switch over to his Mother personality and supply her voice on her behalf, but he has slipped to the point where he is capable of sustaining Mother's dialogue inside his mind.

Once Norman and Mother are reunited, there can be no place for Mary in this equation; obviously Mother would never allow that. Norman admits to Mother that he likes Mary and then, on realising his mistake, assures her, "No, of course not, not as much as you..." But it is too late. Mary realises how rapidly the situation is escalating when she hears Norman entering into a debate with Mother as to whether or not she has to die. Norman still hopes that he can convince Mother to spare Mary, but we all know that Mother will win if she retains her hold on him for long enough. So Mary fights back the only way she can - by attempting to assume and commandeer the identity of "Mother" for herself. (Note that Mary does so because she is in danger of losing Norman forever, and not because of the threat on her life - there was little between herself and the entrance to the Bates house at the time, so she could easily have escaped if that's what she'd wanted). Mary attempts to become Mother, firstly by donning all of the gear (knife, dress and wig) and secondly by picking up the upstairs telephone and attempting to interject her own voice into Norman's one-way conversation, but to no avail. Only when Norman sees Mary standing over the butchered body of Raymond, bloodied knife in hand, is he willing to accept her as the Mother he will answer to. For Norman immediately understands his own purpose in all of this; he is the dutiful son who must cover for his Mother's transgressions, however much they shock and repulse him. History is destined to repeat itself and attempting to break away from such is futile, so all one can do is play one's designated part in the unending cycle. This is the realisation Norman has when he asks "Mother" how many times they've been through this process already. In narrative terms this represents Norman's complete and utter slide back into insanity, but thematically he has never been more lucid.

A physical confrontation breaks out between Norman and Mary for possession of the knife; Norman needs it if he is to deflect all suspicion of wrongdoing from Mother, while Mary cannot afford to lose it with Norman's sanity this badly eroded. She attempts to fend him off as he forces her down into the fruit cellar, causing him multiple injuries; Norman does not relent, although he does become increasingly anemic from loss of blood, which distresses Mary - that is, until she discovers Lila's body concealed down in the cellar and, assuming Norman to be responsible, decides to help him shed even more blood. And Mary suffers dearly for her last minute loss of faith in her best friend. She proceeds to attack the anemic Norman with the knife just as police arrive (having pulled Toomey's body out of the swamp and desiring to have a few words with Norman) and is fatally shot when she fails to comply with their instructions, oblivious to just how incriminatory were her final actions. With Mary dead and Norman unable to account for what happened, the police are left to draw their own conclusions, and in a scene which functions as a direct send-up of the much-loathed psychiatrist's denouement at the end of the original film, Hunt is satisfied in pinning all of the killings on Mary, whom he'd already deduced was working in league with her mother to reverse Norman's rehabilitation. He is unclear to what extent Lila herself was complicit in the murders, but the testimony of an eyewitness in Fairvale would appear to support the hypothesis that she and Mary had a major dispute and that Mary turned against her mother before offing her. Hunt's assessment of events is painful in its facileness, calling to mind the frustrations we felt in having Oakland's monologue spoon-fed to us at the end of the original Psycho, but this time round, the viewer is on the joke. We hear the voice of authority and it completely fails us. When Hunt told Mary, earlier in the film, "We're a tad slow around here, young lady, but not incompetent," he was practically setting himself up for a fall.

In contrast to the original Psycho, Norman is turned loose at the end of the sequel. Technically, he hasn't done anything untoward this time, although we still sense that nothing good can come of this, for the second he's slipped out the back of the station he has nowhere to go but to a life of spirit-crushing solitude. Both of his allies are dead and it's still Reagan's America, so that social worker won't be calling in on him any time soon. He ends up more vulnerable and alone than he's ever been. Still, Norman is savvy enough to know that someone else will be dropping in at the end of the film, for there is still one loose end yet to be resolved. He sets a spare place at his table and, sure enough, Ms Spool appears at his door that evening. Being the last combatant left standing, she has come to claim what she sees as her prize in the form of Norman's devotions. She asks Norman to accept her as his Mother, thus finally completing the mother and child reunion she claims to have been anticipating since almost as far back as Norman's birth, and securing her a victory over her deceased sister. Norman is more than ready for his Mother's return, for he has no one else in the world he can turn to, but he wants his "real" Mother back, and not an imposter whom he hadn't met until a week or so ago. But he can fix that. As it turns out, Norman never did get round to disposing of the poisoned tea leaves that he still had stashed away in his cupboard, and which were waiting there to greet him, soon after he arrived home from his lengthy hospitalisation, as a taunting reminder that his past would always be right there hanging over him. Norman now accepts the gesture, for he infers that this is the only role available for him to play. And if Spool is eager to play the part of Mother she is welcome to do so, but first she has to undergo the correct initiation process. Norman feeds her the poisoned tea, then bludgeons her with a shovel the second she starts gagging. He has taken his first major steps toward reconciling himself with Norman Bates as we knew him from the 1960 film. But then he never really changed that much to begin with. Sick or healthy, he's still the same sensitive and guileless man-child he's fundamentally always been. Lila was correct about that much.

Norman carries Spool's freshly-deceased corpse back upstairs and, as he disappears with her into his Mother's bedroom, we are finally rewarded with the familiar voice that has been conspicuously absent for almost all of the feature (outside of an early flashback of Norman's), but which we anticipated would have to factor in eventually; the voice of Mother, who has now resumed her place, both physically, in her chair at the bedroom window, and psychologically, in Norman's fractured psyche, for he is now able to accommodate her and resume their two-way conversation. Mrs Bates still lies deep in her grave, but Mother has returned in yet another new form, as she refuses to die and can always be restored so long as the traumas of the past continue to echo across the present. This is Mrs Bates' legacy, although Psycho II ultimately emphasises the disconnect between Mrs Bates and Mother, who has been reborn and reincarnated so many times, be it through her son's psychosis, her sister's usurpation or the Loomis line's masquerading, that she has become a vessel that anyone can assume and adapt according to their individual needs and losses. By now, Mother is essentially an analogue for a cursed past, a lingering malaise that will not dissipate and continues to be felt by all who have inherited it, even when it has long been divorced from its original context. We sense that "Mother" has been around for longer even than this particular story lets on, for from where did Norma Bates inherit her own nightmares, which she so mercilessly instilled into her son, in the first instance?

Mother orders Norman to re-open the motel (which Norman had temporarily closed for renovation following Toomey's dismissal) but warns him that she will be watching should he be tempted to become involved with "filthy girls" again. She gives Norman the affirmation he craves, assuring him that "Only your mother loves you"; it is a typically cruel condemnation of Norman, serving to sever him from the healthy relationships in which he could otherwise participate if he weren't so subjugated by Mother, but it offers him certainty and assurance with regard to his place in the world, and he is more than willing to accept that following the disarray he's been through lately. The film ends with Norman standing outside the house, as Mother's motionless silhouette gazes down at him from the window, and Norman looks up at the skies in anticipation of the storm clouds on the horizon. It is about to rain, which means, ominously, that Norman's favourite filthy girl/eternal soulmate Marion Crane will likewise soon be back in yet another of her forms. The Crane/Loomis line has obligingly snuffed itself out, but there will always be more Marions out there who will stray from the beaten track and end up at the Bates Motel, where Norman will be on hand to offer sandwiches and milk and the eyes of Mother will be forever watching. Norman, Mother and Marion could potentially go on repeating this cycle for decades to come. It is not a triumphant ending in terms of the characters' stated goals, for nearly all of them have failed dramatically. Norman could not maintain his sanity and forge the new start he desperately wanted for himself (although it wasn't for a lack of trying), Mary and Raymond were each unable to protect Norman from succumbing to his old delusions, and Spool didn't get the nice, appreciative welcome from Norman she was clearly expecting. Only Lila technically succeeds in what she set out to do, in pushing Norman back over the edge of sanity, although it's a hollow victory as she does not live to see it. As always, it is Mother who is the victor (and she also lays claim to the film's best line: "What do you expect us to live on? HOPE?!" As if there's any place for hope in this world). And yet, as far as the Psycho universe is concerned, this is the most triumphant outcome imaginable, for order has finally been restored and the cycle has set itself up perfectly to begin all over again.

Initially, I was tempted to sum up the moral of Psycho II as "society gets the Norman Bates it deserves", although on reflection I'm not sure if that's really fair to Fairvale, most of whom were quite happy to have Norman back and to give him a fair shake. It was only a tiny minority of rogue individuals who insisted on wrecking everything, after all (that, and all the cut backs - nice going there, Ronald). So I guess that the real takeaway of Psycho II is that the world as a whole is fundamentally sicker than Norman himself is, if the film's final scenario is really what constitutes the restoration of normality therein. Norman has his issues, but underneath his pathological Mother fixation he is an intrinsically sweet guy with an endearing sandwich nostalgia, and he's clung valiantly to his kiddish demeanor despite (or, more likely, because of) all the madness he's had to witness within his time. By the end of Psycho II, Norman hasn't so much returned to embodying the dementia of the world as he has blithely accepted the wider world's dementia as ineradicable, and as something with which he must co-exist. The universe gets the Norman Bates it deserves and desires, because it's screwed up like that.

* There is, of course, a slight discrepancy here between Psycho and Psycho II, because if you did the math at the end of the first film you'll know that only six victims were actually ascribed to Norman: Mrs Bates, Mrs Bates' lover, Marion Crane, Arbogast and two unidentified females. Then again, this was all before a formal police investigation, so I suppose it's possible that a seventh victim was discovered somewhere down the line. I'm highly curious about Holland's decision to give Norman an additional victim, but alas, he makes no reference to it in the film's Blu-ray commentary.

** Look closely! You can see traces of blood on the knife in one shot, although perhaps that particular detail is only there in Norman's imagination. If that knife really has been sitting there for twenty-two years with the dried remains of Marion Crane/Arbogast festering on it, then I suddenly have serious questions about the hygienic implications of this scene. A good thing that Norman and Mary didn't actually eat that sandwich; they would have ended up with E. Coli or something.

*** Actually, there is a great unspoken irony in that Mary does technically owe her entire existence to Norman, as if Sam had gotten with Marion then she would not have been born - although perhaps that's negated by the fact that Norman would also have hacked her mother to death if Sam hadn't stopped him.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

"Is it St Swithin's Day already?" "Tis, replied Aunt Helga..."

"Bart of Darkness" (1F22) is, without doubt, one The Simpsons' most ingeniously-constructed episodes. People mainly remember the Season 6 opener (which was actually a holdover from Season 5, thanks to production delays caused by Mother Nature kicking some asphalt earlier on in 1994 in San Fernando Valley) for its arch pastiche of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, but that doesn't kick into gear until halfway through the story. The first half basically thrives on the fact that nothing much in particular happens. There are a few rudimentary plot points: the family acquires a backyard swimming pool, Bart breaks a leg and Lisa enjoys a sudden (and inevitably ill-fated) boost in social status. But otherwise this is a deliberately dull chapter in Springfield history, and why shouldn't it be? As the episode opens we find the town in the midst of a blistering heatwave, and nobody has the verve or the patience to do much of anything. A good chunk of the episode revolves around us, like the infirm Bart, lying around waiting for first signs of genuine drama to appear.

I think this emphasis on drudgery is one of the reasons why I'm so infinitely fascinated with "Bart of Darkness". I can't think of any other Simpsons episode (or any other episode of anything, for that matter) that so accurately conveys the sheer tedium of summer - the long, slow, monotonous grind through one sweltering day into the next. "Bart of Darkness" goes to great lengths to accentuate the physical discomfort of its characters, beginning with those early shots of the family lounging around their living room, deprived of all energy and enthusiasm, and of Bart, in attempting to answer the (as it turns out, false) salvation calls of a passing ice cream truck, first having to peel himself from the fabric of an armchair. The episode as a whole is not at all clement toward Bart, and he is fated to become increasingly trapped and immobilized as the summer wears on. Bart and Lisa convince their parents to invest in a swimming pool, which has all of the neighbourhood children scurrying over to the Simpsons' household to bask in the watery goodness. Unfortunately, Bart's attempt at a daredevil pool stunt goes horribly wrong and results in him being confined to a cast for the rest of the summer, at which point he immediately discovers that the sheaths of "friends and well-wishers" who'd flocked to his house to share in his chlorinated fortunes actually couldn't give two shits about him. Lisa is left to soak up the fairweather glory alone as Bart, unable to bear being stuck on the sidelines while everyone else is having a jolly good time of it (and heartlessly ignoring his plight), retreats to his bedroom, where boredom, bitterness and desperation swiftly set in. The television, usually a reliable means of escapism, offers no refuge, for Krusty has packed up for the summer and left an endless stream of re-runs from his "klassic" era playing in place of his regular show (although, as always, whenever The Simpsons tries to do something deliberately soul-destroying, you end up wishing that we had more of it - really, who wouldn't want to watch the full conversation between Krusty and George Meany?).

Lisa, still high on her pool-induced popularity, makes a perfunctory effort to ease her brother's suffering by lending him a telescope, at which point anyone with a reasonably decent knowledge of popular cultural can probably figure out where this is heading. And yet, the lurid drama Bart so desperately craves is slow in coming. He peers out through the lens of the telescope, desperate for something of interest to reveal itself in the suburban dust bowl, and discovers only inertia and monotony where it feels like a vibrant community should be. There is nothing out there. And that's a nightmare in itself.

Bart's immurement is physically and emotionally stifling, but there's an extent to which it seems to fuel his creative spirits. We learn that Bart, ever the eager anglophile, has spent part of his entrapment penning a play set in the United Kingdom (albeit one that presents a typically American ideation of how Brits live; the characters eat kippers and have names like Viceroy Fizzlebottom). Included in the short extract we hear is a reference to St. Swithin's Day, the feast day of Swithin (or Swithun), the Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester and patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. More than just continue a long-running gag about one of Bart's stranger fixations, the reference to Swithun also contains parallels with Bart's own predicament. For those not in the know, St. Swithin's Day falls on 15th July and comes with a piece of lore that ties in neatly with that fabled British preoccupation with the weather (it might be genuine, although I can tell you from personal experience that that old adage about Brits knowing how to queue is complete and utter bullocks) - namely, that whatever weather occurs on the day should be taken as an indication of the weather the UK can expect for the succeeding 40 days (in that sense, it is quite similar to America's Groundhog Day). There's even a rhyme that goes with it:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain.
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair,
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mare.

Swithun, who died in AD862, is said to have left instructions that his remains be buried outside, so that the rain could fall upon his tomb, but in 971 efforts were made to relocate his body to a new indoor shrine - an act that caused so much cosmic displeasure that torrential rain is said to have come down from the skies and to have persisted until Swithun's remains were restored to their original resting place. It goes without saying that the authenticity of this story is dubious at best, and that the reliability of the forty-day forecast should also be taken with a pinch of salt, although there is a sliver of scientific basis to the lore (which has to do with the jet stream settling around mid-July and holding relatively steady until the end of August). You don't have to squint too hard to draw the connection between the desecrated Swithun and poor broken-legged Bart, plucked from his natural habitat and sealed away indoors where not a drop of water can reach him (apart from in the bathtub with a garbage bag fastened around his cast). Whereas in Swithun's case the violation was deemed so egregious that divine intervention was in order, to Bart the universe responds only with cold indifference. Not only is it content to leave him to rot in his domestic vault, when he peers out through the telescope, desperate to make some kind of reconnection with the outside world, he finds himself gazing into an abyss of mind-numbing emptiness. Actually, that's not strictly true, for when Bart uses the telescope to look up at the stars, outer space is putting on a spectacular show for him, complete even with physical evidence of extra-terrestrial life. But it is not the kind of stimulation that Bart desires. What he wants is to reimpose himself upon the community that has shunned and forgotten him by stealthily inserting his gaze into their most private and uncomfortable moments. Having denounced the universe as boring, he becomes intrigued at the prospect of staring into "Springfield's seamy underbelly", but is met with only the banality of the adult world and the suspicious eyes of Jimmy Stewart peeking back at him (that in itself feels as if it could be the punchline to the entire Rear Window allusion, if not for that we have to start building to some kind of dramatic happening for the third act). In a neat twist, we can deduce that Bart has been cast as the villain in whatever (we assume, equally uneventful) narrative is unfolding over at Stewart's house. Later on in the episode, when Bart finally escapes his confinement and ventures back into the outside world, we cut to Stewart screaming that the "sinister-looking kid" is coming to kill him, right before collapsing in an undignified heap.

Eventually, Bart locates the drama he was looking for. Or rather, a drama suddenly manufactures itself out of nowhere and forces itself on him. And it is a tactically difficult one to swallow. To go along with Bart's suspicions, the viewer is asked to entertain a scenario which is frankly preposterous to anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of how the series functions - could the perpetual good neighbour Ned Flanders really have murdered his wife? No, of course not. We know the instant that this particular plot point materialises that it will all boil down a big misunderstanding, no matter how ostensibly incriminating the evidence unfolding before Bart's eyes. Bart, starved though he is for stimulation, is initially too genre-savvy to take the bait, opting to shut out whatever is happening at the Flanders' house and instead immerse himself in another long raga by Ravi Shankar. And yet the evidence continues to mount, and the episode anticipates our every reaction from the viewer's seat. When Bart later catches sight of Ned burying the remains of...something in his backyard, openly lamenting his murderous actions, Bart insists that there has to be another explanation, whereupon Ned cries out, effectively in direct response, how much he wishes there was an alternate explanation. We go along this wife-murdering Flanders business, curious as to how far the episode can possibly stretch it while still fully conscious that, despite Ned's insistence to the contrary, there will be a perfectly glib explanation lying in store before the episode is through - that much was already foreshadowed in the banal punchline from the late night comedy show we caught Dr Hibbert watching ("It turned out it was his evil twin..."). Surely enough, it eventually transpires (after Bart has allowed his obsession to consume him and endangered Lisa by having her break into the Flanders' house to collect evidence) that Maude's not dead (yet) and all of Flanders' talk of being a murderer was over an overwatered ficus plant. It's as deliciously, ridiculously innocuous a denouement as we could possibly have hoped for, although there's no denying that the episode flat-out cheats in the getting there. On the one hand, Flanders branding himself a murderer because he overwatered his wife's favourite plant is entirely in-character for him, as is the revelation that he has an unusually high-pitched scream that could be mistaken for his wife's. On the flip-side, it is a bit odd that Ned happened to bury the unfortunate plant in a backyard tomb that just so happened to be the perfect size for concealing a freshly-murdered human corpse, to say nothing of the inexplicably fervid rage he flies into while carrying his axe up to the attic where Lisa is hiding.

"Bart of Darkness" appears to have a strong Hitchcockian vibe going on in general - in addition to all of the story beats pilfered from Rear Window, I've spotted two visual nods to Psycho and I'm not sure, but I think that Lisa hiding behind the birdcage in the Flanders' antic might be a reference to The Birds (maybe?). And yet, despite evoking so many motifs of the dark, murderous forces lurking in the shadows and right beneath our noses, what "Bart of Darkness" emphasises above all else is that adult existence is frightfully dull. After all, the most dramatic thing to happen in the adult community during this particular course of events is that someone had a minor freakout after overwatering a ficus plant. It is a rhetoric best encapsulated in Homer's (as it turns out, entirely accurate) line, "When you get a job like me, you'll miss every summer."  Not that "Bart of Darkness" is any more romantic about the elementary school set. It transpires that Springfield's real "seamy underbelly" is to be located in the backyard politics of the town's children as they dutifully cluster around whichever attention-starved soul it is in their interests to do so at any given point in time, only to cruelly abandon them the instant the tides turn in their disfavour. Bart, Lisa and Martin each learn the hard way just how mean and fickle are the hearts of ten-year-olds. The universe is boring, adults are wet and children are the scum of the Earth: that's the moral of "Bart of Darkness".

The irony is that, for an episode so fixated on reveling in its characters' discomfort, "Bart of Darkness" is also one of the series' most rewarding aesthetically speaking. From Homer's early morning rise to Bart's aforementioned star-gaze to a sequence in which the sheaths of young bathers perform an Esther Williams-style synchronised swimming routine. Suburban banality has certainly never looked so beautiful.