The complicated tracing of Norman Bates’ life in ‘Psycho IV’ (1990)

Psycho IV (1990)

Directed by Mick Garris

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

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Matricide – The killing of one’s own mother

The film starts out with a familiar soundtrack – that of Bernard Herrmann’s original score from Psycho. Cut to a studio where guests are speaking about matricide on the Fran Ambrose radio show. One of the specialists on the panel is Dr. Leo Richmond, the same man who interrogated Norman Bates after the 1959 murders. Intrigued by the evening’s topic of conversation, the now-married Norman phones-in under the pseudo of “Ed” (an obvious nod to Ed Gein, a criminal who inspired the literary character of Norman) and announces: “I’ve killed before and now I’m going to have to do it again.” Norman remains on the line while he recounts the events of his childhood and adolescence with his mother. The question on everyone’s mind, particularly those at the radio station, is “Should we take his threat seriously?”

Retro Body Count: 4 / Present Day Body Count: 0

*The following contains spoilers*

This most recent viewing marks only the fourth or fifth time that I have seen Psycho IV. I have always had a hard time identifying with it because it is such a departure from the three previous Psycho films. Produced by series regular Hilton A. Green (who was Assistant Director on Psycho and on the production team for II and III), the film was as a made-for-TV movie for Showtime.

Alhough some of the performances are a bit campy, the cast is well-rounded and they solidly deliver. Olivia Hussey is really good at playing a mentally disturbed character and she manages to effectively – and shockingly – snap between high and low moods. There are times when her displays of cruelty are almost too much to bear even when you remind yourself that the players are just acting. As Norman said it himself, “she’d be sweet one moment and then suddenly turn mean.” Henry Thomas really shines as a young Norman Bates. He successfully exhibits Norman’s introverted nature and you feel sympathy for him when he is bullied by Norma and later on by Chet. Thomas displays an incredible amount of emotion during the scenes of the two women’s murders, almost frighteningly to a point because he was so young during filming that you would not wish for him to be personally scarred by such a taxing role. 

One major problem with Psycho IV is the lack of continuity in regards to the original and ensuing film storylines. Since this film is, by all accounts, a prequel/”Where are they now” update to Psycho, remaining faithful to certain facts and plot points should not be optional. I found some inconsistencies between IV and the original film as well as some questionable issues in relation to II & III. Since director Mick Garris almost prided himself with deliberately not taking Psychos II & III into consideration, I feel compelled to say something for two reasons: 1) II and III were great films and did nothing to taint the Psycho legacy; 2) If you are going to be so bold as to discredit these previous films, you better get your facts straight and make sure the screenplay leaves as little room for error as possible.

Predicament #1

  • Psycho IV: Teenage Norman and his mother are already living at the Bates house with the Motel already having been constructed and in-operation when she starts seeing Chet. There is a scene when Norma shows Norman the newspaper where it is announced that the new Fairvale Highway will not be passing in front of the Motel. This infuriates Norma, who starts to question her and Norman’s future financial survival. This incident occurs prior to her seeing Chet. It would suggest that she took on Chet as a lover for ‘security’. Also, when Norman is speaking to the call-in radio show, he mentions that it was his father who made the hole in the wall between the parlour and Cabin 1. Norman mentions this when he recalls spying on his mother going through fits of madness there.
  • Psycho: While they are dining in the parlour, Norman tells Marion that Chet convinced his mother to build the Motel. This is later confirmed by the Sheriff when he is talking to Sam and Lila.

Predicament #2

  • Psycho IV: The Bates house is painted in a yellow colour.
  • Psycho II: Norman decided to re-open the Motel and paints it a shade of yellow.

Is this a coincidence or did the production team choose the colour based on II? Since Psycho was filmed in Black & White, there is no indication of the Motel’s original colour and the Bates house was already in an abandoned, derelict-looking exterior state.

Predicament #3

  • Psycho IV: “Mother” is portrayed as being in her late 30s/very early 40s. When she is in ‘corpse form’, her voice remains youthful.
  • Psycho IIII: “Mother’s” voice is that of an old woman.

Director Mick Garris acknowledges the difference between Olivia Hussey’s youthful portrayal of Norma Bates and the general idea of “Mother” being an old woman. Does this, however, excuse such an obvious derivation from the set idea about “Mother”?

Predicament #4

  • Psycho IV: Norman claims to have murdered “damn near a dozen people”. Considering that 6 people died by Norman’s hands prior to and in the original film, approximately 5 more people must have died for Norman’s statement to make sense. Unless the film refers to a different series of murders occurring after 1959 that is not spoken of, the murders in II & III would match this figure accurately. (Also, Norman makes mention that the last murders occurred 4 years ago.)

Body Count Breakdown

Film:PsychoPsycho IIPsycho IIIPsycho IV
Victims:MarionToomey*Nun***Norma Bates
 ArbogastTeenage Boy*RedChet
  Lila*Patsy BoyleHolly
  Dr. Raymond**DukeGloria
  Mary**Maureen 
  Mrs. Spool  
Total: (11)2144

* = killed by Mrs. Spool / ** = The Dr. was killed by Mary, Mary was killed by the police / *** The nun was accidentally killed by Maureen.

With this, it is clear to see that taking the murders from II & III into consideration would allow Norman’s statement in IV to make sense and have veracity. If Garris wanted to forget that II & III ever happened, then why didn’t he explain an alternative back story that would add credibility to the events in IV?

Some interesting tidbits of information:

  • Norman’s wife, Connie, is a well-respected psychologist at the institute he was sent to after the last murders. She shares a dark sense of humour with Norman, telling him that if his birthday cake is delivered to her workplace, she can “keep it cold downstairs” (meaning in the morgue).
  • Norman’s father died when he was 6 after being stung to death by bees. Could he have been the inspiration for Candyman? 🙂
  • Gloria, the older woman who Norman murders, is strangled with a rope and then eventually drowns in the trunk of a car. Had he succeeded in killing her through strangulation, it would have been one of the few times a woman victim did not die by being slashed to death.
  • When Norman takes Norma to the fruit cellar, he puts her in the rocking chair and watches her die all the while eating candy corn from a brown bag.
Mother is delighted to be back in the fruit cellar again.

While the film is well-made and entertaining, there are too many flaws and factual inconsistencies for it to be directly attached to the three prior Psycho films. In my opinion, the Psycho series should have ended being a trilogy and what we know as Psycho IV should have been a separately titled venture. If they include this film in a box set, then you might as well include any cheap spin-off or re-make. True fans of the film Psycho will want to stick with Psychos I-III and stay weary of other Norman Bates-related projects.

A fan-inspired painting of classic Mother Bates and Perkins’ Norman.

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