Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)

SEPTEMBER 29, 2009


And so it ends. It took me something like 17 years (I think I was about 12 when I first saw the original), but I have finally seen all four Psycho movies, now that I’ve given Psycho IV: The Beginning a complete watch. I had seen bits and pieces of it over the years through Sci-Fi channel airings and such, but not even enough to tell you what the movie was about beyond Norman talking to a radio show. And now I know it’s not really about much else.

Psycho IV suffers from the same problems that nearly all prequels do, which is that it’s building toward an ending that we already know about (in this case, Norman killing his mother). And unlike say, the Star Wars prequels or When Harry Met Lloyd, Psycho is a SUSPENSE series, so we have an entry that is nearly devoid of suspense by its own design. The modern day story concerns whether or not Norman will kill his new wife, but even that doesn’t make up for it since we only spend about 47 seconds with the woman, so the scenes of him chasing her aren’t any more compelling than the opening kill of any generic slasher movie. “Who is this person, why should we care about her?” I would stop short of calling the movie pointless, but after the great II and sleazy fun diversion of III, this one just doesn’t even come close to par.

It’s also riddled with puzzling matters. For example, why has Norman been let out after only 4 years? And why is his wife (a nurse at the institution) so willing to accept that a guy coming out of his second hospital stay for multiple homicides is perfect marriage (and father) material? Some have suggested that the film is ignoring II and III, and that he is referring only to his original (only) lockup (which would put him in there for about 30 years), but at one point he mentions that he last killed four years before (Psycho III was 1986, this film is 1990). It’s almost like for every little detail they got right they got another wrong.

And to keep the film “interesting”, Norman’s flashbacks are presented out of order, which allows him to tell the over-arcing story of him and his mother, while giving us a few kill scenes in between. These scenes, of course, occur AFTER his mother’s death, but there is no visual clue or on-screen date card to place these scenes into immediate context. When I’m telling someone a story, I tend not to randomly jump ahead 3 or 4 years to tell a quick anecdote and then go back those few years to proceed with the real story, but that’s exactly what Norman does here. Hell, he even begins one such story by saying "I don't know how I ended up in a car with an older woman..." Yeah, because no one could think of any logical reason for such nonsense so they just skipped it for the sake of adding another kill. But without these largely worthless scenes, the film would only have two kills (at the very end), so Mick Garris and Joe Stefano chose spectacle over structure.

Luckily, the film is saved by another fine Perkins performance. He has to split his screen time with Henry Thomas (also quite good), but it’s not an issue. After all, he’s not front and center for the original film either, and once again, he is toeing the line between crazy and trying to stay sane. The final sequence, where he is trying to escape the burning house and the ghosts of his victims, is easily the film’s highlight, and because Perkins is so good, you are still rooting for him to get out and be OK, even when constantly reminded of the people he has killed.

If anything, the movie could have used a little less time with Perkins and more with the wife. Like I said before, we never really get to know this woman. She marries a committed murderer - is she batshit herself? Hell, why didn’t the movie just take place in the institution and have Norman tell this story to HER instead of some random radio host (one who doesn’t even factor into the film’s climax), intercut with modern day scenes where she is becoming attached to him and we are left to wonder if he will kill her or if she will help him get better? There, I just made a better movie. In my head.

Speaking of the radio show, Garris goes out of his way to show a scene where one of the wife’s co-workers turns on the radio show that Norman is on. Not long after this scene, he identifies himself and announces his plan to kill his wife (to prevent her from having a child and carrying on the Bates legacy - most noble reason for killing one’s wife ever!), yet the co-worker is never seen again. Why bother setting it up?

In the end, it’s a fairly lackluster entry without any real drive or tension to it. Perkins and the rest of the cast give it their all, and casting the eternally hot Olivia Hussey as Mrs. Bates is a stroke of genius (one understands why Norman gets so uncomfortably attached to her - this wouldn’t work if they had gotten some hag), but the story just isn’t up to snuff. Luckily for everyone, the only way to own this movie on DVD is to buy it with the other two, far superior sequels, so I will forevermore consider it a DVD extra: I'll never watch it again, but it adds a bit of value to the main feature.

What say you?

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  1. this was the first psycho movie i ever saw, so it has a soft spot in my <3

  2. I was really obsessed with Psycho when I was in high school. Psycho Iv was so hard to find I didn't end up getting to watch it until sometime after college. I remember being thoroughly disappointed, but after a wait like that wouldn't anyone?

    I wish shocker was showing on Friday so I could celebrate my birthday at the new bev. Whoa, Horace Pinker was put to death on my b-day.

  3. Like Miss Kolleen, this is the very first Psycho movie that I saw as well.

    I first became familiar with Psycho from Mad Magazine when I was a kid. I think it was a 1983 issue where they parody "Psycho II" but it's called "Psycho, Too".

  4. This one gets an overall bad wrap, but I still enjoy it and have fun with the backstory even if it doesnt break any new ground or do Perkins any favors. I think I might just have a soft spot for prequels though

  5. You know how I feel. I love this movie. I'd love to take the backstory sequences, make them black and white and edit together a chronological cut using the second half of the first PSYCHO, just to see Norman's complete story in order!

    Either that... or I'll just finish up the documentary about the darned movies!

  6. And even when they get details wrong here, there are mistakes on top of the mistakes. Remember that in "Psycho II," they clearly said that it was 22 years after the original film -- which I guess would set it in 1982, even though it was released in 1983.

    "Psycho III," while it was produced three years later, supposedly was set only one month later -- the point was made that Emma Spool had been missing for about a month.

    Therefore, III takes place in the same year as II -- and therefore this film should have stated that the last murders happened EIGHT years earlier, not four. (Though it is still a ridiculously short amount of time before letting him back out.)

    Also, they say in this film that Norman's father died because he was stung to death by bees. In III, they said that Emma Spool killed Norman's father because she was jealous and thought he should have married her instead of Norma Bates. I do think the creators of this film should have been a little more diligent about maintaining continuity, regardless of the merits of the earlier sequels.

  7. As far as those two out-of-sequence killings in this film, I do remember the psychiatrist (played by Simon Oakland in the original but a different actor here) and the cops talking at the end of the original about the fact that there were two missing persons cases on the books, both young girls, and that they were likely down in the swamp as well. So maybe that was a way of filling in that bit of the story. In Psycho II, Norman has a conversation with the Meg Tilly character about how he had some of his troubles in his mother's bedroom, so the scene of him locked in the closet ties back to that nicely. But I'd swear in the earlier sequels that there is no closet in that particular spot in the bedroom. Also, Norman says in Psycho II that he was 12 when he killed his mother, which doesn't quite fit with what we have here, either.


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