A few weeks back, I wrote about Hannibal Rising and how it was a horror prequel that–unlike most– was handled pretty well. The horror prequel is a tricky thing to accomplish, but one prequel idea that always had my interest was a prequel to Hitchcock’s Psycho, about a young Norman Bates and his mother and how he came to be who he was when we first encountered him in 1960. Sure we have that on television now with Bates Motel, but does this 1990 made-for-TV movie still hold up? Well, let’s take a dive into Psycho IV: The Beginning.
Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder) is a radio show host that chooses one particular night to cover the issue of “sons who kill their mothers”, bringing experts and paroled killers on to discuss. Turns out that one of Fran’s biggest fans is Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who decides to call in under the name “Ed” and talk about his childhood and why he killed his mother. As Norman recalls his childhood, we see a young Norman (Henry Thomas) as he grows up a troubled, terrorized child with his crazed mother Norma (Olivia Hussey).
As a fan of Psycho and Psycho II, as well as a hater of Psycho III, I can safely say that this is better than Psycho III. That isn’t to say that it’s a great movie, but it’s certainly not the worst that this series has to offer. In fact, it has some really interesting ideas. The concept of going back to a young Norman Bates and seeing him being fucked in the mind by his mother is really cool and while this doesn’t deliver to it’s potential on all fronts (I’ll get into that later) it does deliver some really great moments. For the most part, it tends to be the second half of these sequences where it falls apart, but the set up for scenes such as Norman being seduced by a girl his age or Norman rubbing oil on his mother’s legs are done really well. There were a number of times where I was sucked into the screen with tension and desire to know where it was going to go next. Director Mick Garris just really knew when to hold the camera on certain images for certain amounts of time to make it as effective as possible.
Another solid aspect to this film is a majority of the cast. Returning to the iconic role we of course have Anthony Perkins, who hasn’t lost a single beat as Norman. He’s played him 4 times over the span of 3 decades and hasn’t lost a single note of that character. He’s just as chilling and compelling to watch as he was in 1960. CCH Pounder is also good in her supporting role as the radio show host who wants desperately to dig deeper and deeper into this story. She doesn’t have much to do here, but she does enough with what she’s given. We also have the cast of the flashbacks, Henry Thomas and Olivia Hussey. This was definitely a departure in role from Henry Thomas’ previous films such as Cloak & Dagger and E.T., and although he’s not great in this movie, that’s mainly due to the dialogue and some of the direction. Thomas’ performance itself isn’t so bad, in fact it’s pretty solid at times. Horror film veteran Olivia Hussey is obviously great in this. When I was preparing to watch this, the one thing that had me excited was that Olivia Hussey was playing Norma Bates, that was just perfect casting for me. Sadly, she’s given some of the worst direction and dialogue in the whole movie. But much like Henry Thomas, despite some poor material she still manages to make something of her role.
Now let’s get to the issues with this film, of which there are many. The story itself is really interesting in concept, delivering strongly on that interest at times, but overall it just never lives up to it’s potential. As I mentioned before, the set up for a lot of the flashback stuff is really well done and effective, but it always feels like those sequences end up becoming too over-the-top before they’re done. Every flashback sequence had me glued to the screen at first, but always ended with me rolling my eyes. I think that there needed to be more effort on those flashbacks, because the focus on all the present day stuff is completely unnecessary. I was looking forward to the movie because I wanted to see young Norman growing up with Norma, so the fact that there’s so much focus on present day Norman with his wife and baby on the way just left me saying “Why?” over and over again. I just didn’t give a shit about the whole wife subplot, so the fact that the entire climax centers around that subplot is a major fuck up.
Another major issue with the film is that it’s boring. There are solid moments here and there, enough to make it not completely suck, but overall there were just a lot of stretches of time that had me with my head in my hands wanting something to happen. The biggest offender of this is that climax that I just mentioned. That final 20-minutes feel like they go on for hours because I just don’t care about anything or anyone in that particular sequence. The pacing throughout the film may be uneven, but that climax was just straight up dull. This film could’ve easily lost about 15-20 minutes, and although it wouldn’t have completely saved it, it still would’ve made a big enough difference. The second half of this film particularly just lags so much, with almost everything feeling like filler. The fact that this was a made-for-TV movie had me begging the question of why 98-minutes long? This being a TV movie, couldn’t it have just gotten in and out at 60-minutes long? Whatever the reason, the length (or more what they do with that length) just doesn’t work.
I had some hope for this one, even though I hated Psycho III I thought that this film had an interesting premise, it just didn’t deliver on that potential. But hey, the movie isn’t all bad. There are plenty of really cool, creepy character moments during the flashback scenes, even if they tend to go to some dumb places, and some of the cast works pretty nicely. Olivia Hussey in particular was a great choice for Norma, I just wish they gave her some better material to work with. But with too much “present day” story that I didn’t care about, paired with some moments of awful dialogue and a pace that had me about to nod off at points, this doesn’t quite end up being a good movie. It’s not a bad movie per se, it’s just….meh. It’s very middle of the road. At the end of the day, is it worth a watch? Sure. If you’re marathoning the series, or you have a bored afternoon and are just looking to watch something to pass the time, this isn’t the worst choice you can make. Hell, it’s not even the worst film in the series, but don’t be expecting some forgotten classic. This is mainly a movie you watch just to say that you’ve watched it.