Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
There are very few films that are unquestionably considered cinematic classics. Productions that transcend genre and connect with all audiences. Some of these movies are beloved; others are infamous, and a rare few are considered both. Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho (1960) is one of these rare gems. But what happens when an unassailable classic becomes a franchise? This time, we’ll explore the end and the titular beginning of this franchise’s original run with Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)!
Out of all the slasher series in the horror boom of the 1980s, the fact that Psycho (1960) became a successful franchise is somewhat surprising. Psycho II (1983) proved that Hitchcock‘s (1899-1980) arguably career-defining classic could be successfully sequelized. Furthermore, the 1983 sequel also proved that audiences would turn out for a more sedate and even thoughtful slasher film. But when Psycho III (1986) went full-bore into that subgenre a mere three years later, audiences weren’t as receptive. Even still, there were plans for another theatrical entry in this franchise.
Initially, Universal Studios took a pitch for said sequel from Anthony Perkins (1932-1992) and Psycho III screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue. Together, the duo presented the idea of Norman Bates escaping a mental institution to find that The Bates Motel and house have become a horror attraction (presumably for the Halloween season). In an even stranger turn of events, Norman is then hired by the amusement company to play himself. But of course, things go awry from there. When asked about this pitch later in his career, Pogue maintains that the plot was supposed to be more of a black comedy than a horror picture.
Oddly enough, this unmade pitch has similarities to Robert Bloch‘s (1917-1994) third and final Psycho novel, Psycho House, which was published in 1990, the same year the movie in review was released. Dark comedy-horror or not, though, this meta take for a fourth entry was scrapped following the poor box-office returns for Psycho III, which carved up only $14.4 million worldwide. Universal understandably decided this unlikely franchise was no longer fit for theaters. On the contrary, the 80s and 90s gave us the advent of home video and made-for-TV movies; such content could be beamed right into folks’ homes. Moreover, if the household had a premium pay-cable package, they could watch uncut movies, made-for-TV or otherwise.
In the 90s, there were only four premium cable movie channels: HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, and The Movie Channel. This quartet of stations is still around today, with Cinemax being a subsidiary of HBO and The Movie Channel being a genre arm of Showtime. The Movie Channel — and by extension, its parent company — deserve all the credit for introducing the world’s foremost drive-in movie critic and author Joe Bob Briggs (created, written, and performed by John Bloom) from the page to TV screen to become, in my opinion, the best horror host around with Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater (1987-1995). Universal Studios had a pay-cable TV deal with Showtime Networks, Inc., and the studio decided to utilize the popularity of premium cable and its large genre audience.
To their credit, Universal Pictures partnering up with Showtime for a direct-to-cable continuation of this franchise was a smart move. Even if it may have seemed to some to be a fall from grace for what was then one of the studio’s arguably flagship franchises. In doing so, there was an attempt to move the franchise in a more economical and different direction. Since audiences didn’t shell out their hard-earned bucks at the box office for the previous sequel, the two distributors figured doing another straight-up sequel would be unwise.
Thus, a cue was taken from The Godfather: Part II (1974) as it was determined this fourth film would be a hybrid sequel-prequel origin story. (And yes, that’s probably the only time you’ll read that parallel drawn between those two franchise entries.) Perkins would reprise his iconic role, but to a much lesser degree, as the focus of the story would be a young Norman Bates’ evolution into the titular Psycho. And who better to pen such a tale than the screenwriter of the 1960 film that started it all, Joseph Stefano (1922-2006)? Unsurprisingly, Stefano wanted to tie this fourth entry to Hitchcock’s original film closely. Thus, he deliberately chucked the storyline concerning Norman’s other mother from the previous two installments.
Stefano’s stab at a fourth entry in this franchise would be brought to the small screen by a director who had earned his horror bonafides — Mick Garris (Nightmare Cinema, Post Mortum with Mick Garris). Since the beginning of his career, Garris had been connected intrinsically with horror. He started in the movie (and horror) business on the marketing side of things, working as a publicist for Universal. Thus, he had a long working relationship with the studio that still owns the Psycho franchise. During this time, Garris transitioned into directing in what was an extremely niche genre at the time of behind-the-scenes documentaries made by movie studios for promotional purposes. Shortly after that, Garris graduated to directing various genre TV and films. As such, Garris proved to be an excellent choice to take on this material in this medium.
Psycho IV: The Beginning finds an aging Norman Bates (Perkins) with a seeming semblance of normalcy in a life. He has settled down in a lovely home with a loving and understanding wife. However, as Norman listens to his nightly radio program while his wife works the late shift, it becomes apparent that he is not at peace. On this particular night, radio show host Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder) is interviewing Dr. Leo Richmond (Warren Frost), a psychologist specializing in matricide. Moreover, this doctor is the same one who explained what was going on with Bates at the conclusion of the first film.
Out of an ominous sense that his grasp is slipping, Norman calls into the show under an alias as he reveals that he is a perpetrator of not only matricide but multiple murders. Upon such a shocking revelation to the radio program and its audience, Norman delves into his childhood at how it may have led him to commit such heinous crimes. At this point, we flashback to his early years, particularly his adolescence, wherein Young Norman is portrayed by Henry Thomas (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Midnight Club). Unsurprisingly, a vast part of Norman’s development is his unhealthy dynamic with his mother, Norma Bates (Olivia Hussey). Their dysfunctional and abusive relationship fittingly becomes the focus of the prequel portion of the film as we see a young man and his mother descend into madness.
As it happens, there are many similarities between The Beginning and the 1960 original. Not the least of which is the fact I distinctly remember the first time I saw this fourth film, much as I do the original. On family vacations, most folks turn on the TV to find something to watch passively or, at the very least, have it on in the background of their hotel rooms. Not me, though; no, I was actively looking for movies to watch during any downtime on vacation at that point in my adolescence. Before streaming services, showing edited network TV versions of movies were a mainstay market for weekend programming for any major network, especially basic cable channels.
So it’s no surprise that while the rest of my family was napping or just lounging in their bedrooms, I sat in the living room area of the hotel suite channel surfing. When originally aired, this movie premiered on Showtime on Saturday, November 10, 1990. The film culminated a retrospective mini-series on the Psycho franchise hosted by Marion Crane herself, Janet Leigh (1927-2004). But when I stumbled upon it, the movie was being shown on the SyFy Network — which, back then, was spelled traditionally as Sci-Fi because I’m just that old.
As luck would have it, the channel came out of a commercial break and announced that Psycho IV: The Beginning was coming up next. This was a year or two after I watched Hitchcock’s classic on VHS with my grandparents and had seen the previous sequels in the series on DVD in the interim. Despite being much less fond of II and III at the time, I was excited to have come across The Beginning. See, back in the day, the idea of prequel movies was still novel, so I was intrigued by what I might discover in this prequel/sequel hybrid. Plus, the irony of watching the flick in a hotel was not lost on me, even at that age.
I was able to see this movie from beginning to end, even with all those numerous, pesky commercial interruptions. At the time, I remember being engrossed and disturbed by the prequel portions of this film. Even for being made in ’90 and seeing it circa 2002, I felt, at the time, that The Beginning pushed the envelope on the abusive and borderline incestuous nature of Norman and Norma Bates’ mother-son relationship. Alas, the sequel sections of the picture featuring Perkins were underwhelming. Even still, up until I re-watched all these movies for this column, I maintained that The Beginning was not only the best sequel to Psycho, but also the best horror prequel ever made! Luckily, the latter is still the case, thanks to the lack of competition for such a dubious honor.
But — much like with the first sequel in this franchise — my feelings on its last sequel have changed over the years. Director Mick Garris, as always, delivers a competent, albeit workmanlike picture. One which the filmmaker managed to deliver on, despite finding Perkins one of the most difficult actors he has worked with. The issue with The Beginning is Stefano’s screenplay, which retreads ideas laid out in the 1960 film, but in an incredibly kitschy and over-the-top fashion. Sure, the incest angle is still disturbing, but as a genre trope and nothing more.
Except for Thomas’ excellent performance as young Norman and Hussey’s hammy, almost Mommie Dearest (1981)-esque interpretation of Norma Bates, this made-for-cable T.V. movie has little to offer. Nor does Perkins, seemingly sleepwalking through his fourth and final take on this character. This movie could have easily taken the franchise in new directions, but it failed to do so. The Beginning, as its subtitle might imply, could have been a fresh start. But instead, Psycho IV: The Beginning is a Franchise Implosion film made out of nothing but undercooked old ideas, and the end of the franchise as audiences knew it at the time.
In 1991, a year after its premiere on Showtime, Psycho IV: The Beginning received a home video release. Since then, the made-for-TV movie has garnered a cult following in the horror community, thanks not only to home video but regular rotation in commercial TV airings like the one I watched all those years ago. However, after re-watching the movie, I can only recommend it if you’re a die-hard horror fan, as the film features cast members who are genre regulars, including director John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, Stan Lee’s Superhero Kindergarten) in a bit part as a radio producer. More importantly, though, this film truly kicked off Garris’s career in made-for-TV horror movies and his relationship with Showtime, which would lead to his creation of the highly regarded Showtime horror anthology series Masters of Horror (2001-2007). Of course, after The Beginning proved that this franchise didn’t have many places left to go, the truly unthinkable would come to fruition a few years later: Hitchcock’s original would be remade!
Psycho IV: The Beginning is available on Blu-ray & DVD.
Next time, I’ll return for one last, but familiar stay at the Bates Motel with Psycho (1998)!
Previous Amenities at The Bates Motel
Psycho II (1983)
Psycho III (1986)
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In lookingCOMICONRead More