There are things you need to know about Norman Bates. Creepy things. Things about Mother, and how she went from mom to mummy. That’s why you need Psycho IV: The Beginning, Tony Perkins says.
Of course, you already know better than to check into fleabag motels on the outskirts of town, far from the interstate and well out of the comfort zone of local law enforcement. Out there, the vacancy sign is flickering on at the Bates Motel. Norman is alive, if not well, and he is coming to cable.
According to Perkins, who stars in the Nov. 4 Showtime production opposite E.T.‘s Henry Thomas (as young Norman) and Olivia Hussey (Zeffirelli’s former Juliet plays Mother when she was still alive), this fourth Psycho is a crucial episode in the series’ Oedipal epic. It’s a ”prequel” that offers the long-awaited dish on the great antihero’s formative years. ”We discover how Norman got that way,” Perkins says, ”and that’s overdue. We didn’t tell them enough new stuff in Psycho III.”
In No. 4 — written by Joseph Stefano, who adapted Robert Bloch’s novel for the original Psycho — Norman, already an accomplished murderer, has been released from an intensive psychiatric program into a seemingly normal suburban life — as a house husband. ”For Psycho IV, I wrote a mature, almost completely cured Norman,” Stefano says, leaning on the back of a production truck outside Universal Studios in Orlando, where Psycho IV is shooting. ”For the first time, he’s able to love a woman, and even make love to a woman, without feeling that it’s necessary to kill her because Mother wouldn’t like it. He’s really over the worst.”
Of course he is. And Charles Manson just needs a shave. But what would a Psycho movie be without a major Norman relapse? Stefano admits that ”something happens” that is traumatic to Norman. Could it have anything to do with him calling in to a radio talk show when the topic is matricide?
Yes, says Perkins with a sad smile, Norman is off again. Still, Perkins — for whom the character has been as much a typecasting curse as a meal ticket — seems to like him without reservation.
As he talks about the fourth installment of what began 30 years ago as a low-budget, one-shot Hitchcock thriller, Perkins sits on the floor of Mother Bates’ bedroom, which is decorated in Victoriana and strewn with hideous bric- a-brac.
As two stagehands struggle with a massive armoire, he asks, ”That’s from the original, isn’t it, guys?” They answer that indeed it is — Showtime has brought in many of the props and set dressings from previous Psychos — and the lamp of enthusiasm seems to click on in Perkins’ eyes. He has been asked many questions about Norman Bates over the years, and still he seems to like answering them.
”I’m me, I’m not my career,” he says, dismissing the topic of typecasting with a wave. ”But I’ve always liked Norman. Hitchcock presented the character so appealingly and so humanly you had to like him right away. And as Norman gets older and smarter and more despairing of his weaknesses and character flaws, I think he remains a sympathetic, interesting, touching, tragic character.”
Some of that might be said of Perkins himself, who was barely out of his teen-heartthrob days when he was cast in Psycho, his 11th film after his debut as Jean Simmons’ boyfriend in The Actress (1953). But while those qualities may account for Perkins’ popularity, they do not necessarily explain the durability of Norman Bates as a leading man.
”Norman’s not too tightly wrapped,” Perkins says with a straight face, ”and the fact that he’s managed to keep going. There’s a horrifying line in this movie when he says to his wife, ‘Listen, I’ve killed damned near a dozen human beings.’ Wow! But he’s still trying. In the first scene of Psycho IV he’s there cooking dinner for his wife. He wants to get it right. He wants to have a conventional life.”
Norman Bates never does succeed at having a normal life, but he has proved to be one of the more resonant figures in recent movie history. Now he may even resuscitate some flagging careers, particularly that of Thomas, who was so sweet as E.T.‘s pal Elliott and now, as young Norman, must show us exactly how he came to embalm mom.
”It took courage,” Perkins says about Thomas’ taking the role. ”I told him good luck — and I said, ‘You really can’t go wrong in this role, because Norman has so many facets.”’
Suddenly there comes the sound of breaking glass from a corner of the bedroom set. The stagehands have dropped a Tiffany lamp. ”I don’t think that’s an original,” Perkins says, hopefully. ”Is it?” The grips are eager to assure him that the lamp was not from the original movie. Still, an edge has crept into Perkins’ voice, and when he is asked whether this just about wraps the Psycho series, he rushes to say that so it would seem. But then:
”These days, if the entire soundstage floor isn’t littered with the absolutely definitively dead corpses of every major and minor character,” he says, you can’t be sure. ”Even the dog has got to have a spear through his heart, or if it so much as moves one paw the audience thinks, ‘The dog moved! That means the dog’s going to be adopted by another family and they’ll have another picture!’
”I think it’s always unfair for pictures to leave a little bit of a swinging door. You gotta say ‘The End.’ You gotta end the f—ing picture, period.”
It is a very odd statement coming from the star of Psycho IV, and screenwriter Stefano is thinking otherwise: ”Psycho V? This movie sets it up so there could be.”
Perkins, despite his vehemence about the wrongness of leaving doors open, sounds ready. ”You can’t kill off Norman Bates,” he says, ”because death for Norman would be a relief and a release. It would be a happy ending.”
And we can’t have that, can we?