‘Psycho IV: The Beginning’: an unfortunate end to what used to be a promising franchise
Having one too many is a curse — and no, I’m not talking about that final pint that makes your night out’s final destination the toilet. As far as movies go, the unnecessary sequel is almost as despicable as the plain bad one. Psycho IV is both.
Mostly ignoring the events of the second and third film, the film explores Norman’s childhood days. This should be exciting: at this point, we’ve never truly seen Mother through any other filter than Norman’s eyes. It’s such a good idea that you could probably make an entire TV show about it ! But in 1990, it’s not such a good idea yet. How can an incestuous, abusive relationship constantly surrounded by murder be so damn boring ?
One of the main reasons for this is its narrative construction. The entire film is narrated by present day Norman who takes the very convenient opportunity of a live radio show about matricide to lengthily explain his backstory on the air. Nevermind that he is essentially giving yet another reason to be locked behind bars since he’s admitting to murders we were unaware of as of yet: this is not a movie that cares about logic. The problem is that it doesn’t care about much of anything else either.
The franchise, even in its worst installment so far, managed to always rise above mediocrity through a very special thing: its genuine care for its villain (or anti-hero, depending on how you see things). Here, Perkins comes back again, but he isn’t given much to work with. Having Bates transition from one of the most iconic horror characters of all time to a simple narrative device is, to say the least, a strange choice. Knowing that this was supposed to be a grande finale for Perkins, who at this point knew he had HIV and wanted to say goodbye to his most well-known character makes the film heartbreaking in its consistant distastefulness.
For the most part of the film, Bates is now Henry Thomas, who does share a ressemblance with young Perkins and makes the best of a less than brilliant script. Olivia Hussey is the first non-mummified version of Norma we see on screen, and she too is more than acceptable in her role. The failure of the film does not lie in any performances, but in a script that doesn’t have the slightest idea of what it wants to mean. It doesn’t discard the events of the first films for any true reason. The same narration could have been made from the inside of the psychiatric hospital that Norman had been put into at the end of Psycho III. His sole reason for being free is to give him a wife — more importantly, a pregnant wife. It is soon revealed that his reason for calling the radio station is out of anxiety that his offspring would share the same mental illnesses he does. This is a complex subject: and indeed, the complexities of having a child when we know we are carrying a genetic condition is certainly a topic that deserves its own cinematic treatment. Psycho IV is just not that film.
Instead of exploring Norman’s current anxieties, the film decides to go back to the origins of the character and explore what made him turn this way. Of course, the answer is in his relationship with Norma. We are hoping to find answers — what we get is mostly a visual representation of things we had already been presented with before. Sure, Norma and her boyfriend’s deaths does feel a lot more real when we actually see them choke on poison, but there’s nothing there that we don’t already know. Even the strange incestuous undertones and Norma’s hate of the masculine side of her son aren’t things we couldn’t have guessed from the previous installments. This should have been a deep insight into the origins of a traumatized character, but what we get instead are just things we already knew before. No matter how horrifying the words Norma say to her son are, we can’t help but feel detached from them. Everyone is trying to make it work, but it’s a hard thing to do when there’s not much to work with in the first place.
Once the film does end, managing to somehow feel overlong despite only having a runtime of 96 minutes, we are left wondering what we are even supposed to feel. Sure, for many reasons, the film deviates from our expectations in the final moments, but because of the nothingness that precedes this, it doesn’t really seem warranted. Perkins has never looked this emotionless in what should have been a poignant goodbye to a character that shaped his career. On its own, Psycho IV is already a bad movie. In the context of the series, it betrays everything it should stand for. Norman deserved a better conclusion, and so did we.