Entertaining, casually lurid unofficial “official” prequel/sequel to the iconic Hitchcock horror/suspense classic. Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory line has released on Blu-ray PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING, the 1990 made-for-cable thriller that premiered here in the States on the Showtime premium cable channel (Universal released it on big screens overseas). Written by PSYCHO’s original scripter Joseph Stefano, directed by Mick Garris, and starring Anthony Perkins, Olivia Hussey, Henry Thomas, CCH Pounder, Warren Frost, Donna Mitchell, Thomas Schuster, Sharen Camille, Bobbi Evors, and John Landis, PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING’s flashback construction—timed to composer Bernard Herrmann’s original 1960 score—is lumpy and ultimately unnecessary (...and that ending is unfortunately weak). However, director Garris has a nice, giallo color-soaked handle on Stefano’s sad, horny, sickly funny Norman Bates backstory, while pros Perkins and particularly Hussey, stand out. Extras for this lesser-known entry in the PSYCHO franchise include a full-length commentary with Garris, Hussey, and Thomas, a featurette on the special effects, vintage behind-the-scenes footage of the production, and a photo gallery. The Blu 1080p HD widescreen (1.78:1) transfer—as it was originally intended to be seen on the big screen—looks quite good.
It’s 1990, and murderer Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, PSYCHO, THE BLACK HOLE), recently released from a mental institution, has to kill again. Calling in to a radio talk show where the night’s subject is matricide, Norman, referring to himself as “Ed,” tells the host, Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder, ROBOCOP 3, SLIVER) that he must kill his wife, Connie (Donna Mitchell, THE EXORCIST, THE FAN) and his unborn baby because he’s afraid his genetic “bad seed” will continue. In-between accounts of his early teen “kills,” he details his horrific, traumatic childhood growing up at Bates Motel, including his gorgeous mother Norma’s (Olivia Hussey, BLACK CHRISTMAS, SUMMERTIME KILLER) violent mood swings and sexually suggestive behavior, and her emasculating, humiliating punishments. Pushed too far by her marriage to bully Chet Rudolph (Tom Schuster, OFFICE SPACE, GRIZZLY ADAMS AND THE LEGEND OF DARK MOUNTAIN), whom Norma intends on letting run Bates Motel, Norman poisons them both, before preserving her body. Will the recently released Norman be able to quell his murderous impulses and spare his new family?
Although it’s considered one of the less-recognizable entries in the PSYCHO franchise, no doubt because of its then-déclassé reputation as a made-for-cable movie, PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING’s Nielsens for its November, 1990 Showtime premiere—around 10 million viewers—would indicate a lot more people initially caught this outing, compared to movie audiences that ponied up five bucks back in 1983 and 1986 to see either PSYCHO II or PYSCHO III. According to several sources, as well as the director’s commentary track here, PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING was basically greenlit to ensure a PSYCHO-based attraction at the soon-to-open Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida (according to the director, the studio's thinking was: if the movie did fine, great...but if not, at least they’d have the newly-built Bates house and motel waiting for crowds at the park). Back in 1983, director Richard Franklin’s PSYCHO II had been a surprisingly well-received—by critics and audiences—sequel to the original Alfred Hitchcock 1960 classic. However, its follow-up three years later, 1986’s PSYCHO III, directed by Anthony Perkins, was universally disliked by critics, and met by a largely indifferent public. The PSYCHO franchise was further weakened the following year with the failed, little-seen NBC television pilot, BATES MOTEL, which saw the Norman Bates character actually killed off in favor of a new Bates Motel owner, Bud Cort (who thought that one up?). So in 1989 when Anthony Perkins proposed directing himself in another installment of the franchise, it wasn't an unreasonable decision on Universal's part to nix that idea. However, having a PSYCHO movie shot at their new studio theme park in Florida was a publicity gold mine—particularly when schedules were pushed back and actual filming took place in front of the visiting tourists, just like the old days of the Hollywood Universal studio tour. So screenwriter (*batteries not included, THE FLY II) and director (CRITTERS 2: THE MAIN COURSE) Mick Garris was brought in to quickly guide the $4 million, 24-day shoot. TV critics were mixed on PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING, but viewers tuned in, with the franchise’s evolving mythology proving surprising hearty over the subsequent years, surviving director Gus Van Sant’s disastrous, ludicrous shot-for-shot remake in 1998, and flourishing once again in 2013 in A&E’s creepy, complex BATES MOTEL TV prequel.
By 1990, I didn’t have Showtime any longer (my new 35lb VCR took care of that), so I missed PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING when it premiered. Unlike Garris, Hussey, and Thomas, who make a point of repeating how much they disliked the sequels, I enjoyed PSYCHO II and PSYCHO III; but since I had heard so little about it, I didn’t know what to expect with PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING. Apparently, original PSYCHO scripter Joseph Stefano didn’t like those follow-ups, either, so he basically threw out their storylines, opting for a straight prequel/sequel to the original 1960 movie (although at one point here, Norman does mention killings from four years before: the time of PSYCHO III). And when PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING sticks with flashbacks of Norman’s Oedipal nightmare upbringing, it’s a sick, sad, amusing small-scale horror flick, with slick, assured direction from Garris, and a strong, unpredictable performance from Olivia Hussey (sorry, but Thomas’ regrettably blank-faced, passive turn does nothing to suggest Norman's churning interior state). Maintaining a comic book-colored, giallo luridness to his overly saturated flashbacks (it's great to see the Bates house all bright and cleaned up and painted), Garris' straight-faced handling of Stefano's black comic writing is an agreeable match. Stefano’s and Garris’ first kill is a nicely-turned sequence (that P.O.V. stabbing is unsettling), with Sharen Camille’s cheap, slutty little tease Holly a funny contrast to Norman’s frozen, warped sexuality (when Holly asks Norman if fireworks get him hot, he steals Janet Leigh’s line from the original and states, “Not inordinately,” which prompts Holly to purr, “‘Inordinately.’ I love sexy words,” as she takes off her top). And any time they let Hussey loose, PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING goes into overdrive (hers and Schuster's poisoning is a grotesque, deliciously extended grand guignol scene that just goes on and on, making us alternately laugh and recoil, over and over again). She's right in tune with Stefano's portrayal of Norma Bates as a Jekyll and Hyde sexual tease/insane prude who likes nothing better than wrestling with her grown son to the point of his erection...before she freaks out and makes him wear a dress and lipstick to punish his uncontrollable arousal. Garris is adept at not only getting laughs with these scenes, such as the sick funeral for Norman's father, when Norma tickles a solemn Norman to make him laugh, only to immediately slap his face, but also in making us pity poor Norman, such as that remarkably sad/chilling shot of a terrified Norman peering out from underneath his mother's closet door, where he's been locked in).
Had PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING stayed in this visually overripe, sexually overheated black comedy prequel framework, it might have come out as the best of the PSYCHO sequels and knockoffs. However, Anthony Perkins had to be shoehorned in here somewhere, and that's how we get all that clunky, dreary radio call-in footage that doesn't work at all. What's the point of showing us Pounder trying over and over again to connect with Norman, desperately trying to keep him on the radio...when the finale doesn't have anything to do with her or that subplot (anyone watching this would naturally think Stefano and Garris were going to have Pounder somehow become involved in the tracking down of Norman before he kills). It's a complete waste, a bloated red herring that goes nowhere, and worse, it wastes Perkins' time, who gives his usual compelling, slyly funny take on the Norman. Even worse is that ending. Utterly devoid on any final bloodletting—this kind of movie demands that Norman kill again; a raging inferno at the Bates house just doesn't cut it in terms of a satisfying horror pay-off—that error is compounded by suddenly giving Norman some kind of emotional, psychological, and even romantic resolution and peace that should never been given to that character. Norman should never "win," so to speak, because that makes the nightmare go away (and no: that final rocking chair and baby crying audio drop isn't chilling—it's laughable). Far better would it have been for PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING to have Stefano and Garris stick with Hussey's unhinged Norma, and poor, sad Norman's doomed childhood, while skipping giving grown up Norman any peace.
Since PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING was always intended to be shown overseas as a feature in movie houses, there's no cropping of the original image to create this widescreen transfer (indeed, the cropping took place on the U.S. television screens). The Blu 1080p HD widescreen (1.78:1) transfer is a bit grainy at times, but overall, the fine image detail isn't bad at all, colors generally pop, contrast is smooth, and blacks are solid. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track is nicely balanced, with some effective, if isolated, separation effects. Dialogue is clean, and composer Bernard Herrmann's original PSYCHO score is beautifully rendered. English subtitles are included.
Extras for this Scream Factory edition include a commentary track with director Garris and actors Thomas and Hussey. Hussey seems to have forgotten most of the filming, while Thomas is polite about his minimal contribution. Garris gives some good background on the movie's sometimes complicated production (namely: a clearly disappointed Perkins' down-low power plays with the director). Garris is always fair, however, giving Perkins' pushing credit for ultimately making a better movie. Next, "The Making of Mother with Tony Gardner" (27:41) has the special effects expert discussing how he got into the business, and what shooting was like on PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING...but I would have preferred more nuts and bolts info on what actually went into creating the physical effects. "Behind the Scenes" (13:15) is camcorder footage showing the first day's filming, and while it's mostly trivia without context, listen closely (the audio is pretty tough to decipher) for Perkins' first foray into challenging his director in front of the cast and crew. Totally fascinating, since you often read about such things, but almost never see them. "A Look at the Score of Psycho IV"(6:12) is more camcorder footage of the scoring session: not terribly interesting since there's no context, not even a title card explaining what's going on. And finally, there's a photo gallery (6:06), with lots of behind-the-scenes stills of the production. (Paul Mavis)
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