Psycho III (1986)

The very concept of a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s proto-slasher Psycho should be treated with extreme suspicion, especially since it took two whole decades for one to reach the big screen. Psycho wasn’t retrofitted to the slasher franchise model until after distant descendants like the Halloween and Friday the 13th series converted its transgressive psychosexual discomforts into crowd-pleasing genre tropes. There’s something inherently degrading about reducing one of cinema’s most notorious creeps to the same level as a Freddy, Jason, or Chucky, but the decades-late follow-ups to the Hitchcock classic still maintain a semblance of legitimacy thanks to Anthony Perkins’s consistent involvement in the Norman Bates role. If you ask most people who even remember that the Psycho sequels exist, you’ll mostly just hear perplexed relief that “They’re not that bad.” Most of that apologetic defense is reserved for Psycho II, a safe but at least unembarrassing continuation of Norman Bates’s story (by way of borrowing its plot wholesale from a much more daring, satisfying film – William Castle’s Strait Jacket). That’s because Psycho II was only made as an act of brand-management damage control, as Universal was dismayed by a novelized sequel to Psycho that mockingly satirized the burgeoning slasher genre and the studio wanted to reclaim control of the title’s public image. As a result, Psycho II is respectably unremarkable, almost to the point where the public forgets that it exists. If you want something really gutsy that actually takes risks with the Psycho brand, then, you have to look to the third installment.

Unlike its admirably adequate predecessor, Psycho III was a commercial flop – forever banishing all further continuations of the Psycho story to the lowly dregs of television. It’s a shame too, since the film stands as a rare auteurist effort from the one contributor who remained constant in all four proper Psycho pictures: Anthony Perkins. Even when he wasn’t playing Norman Bates, Perkins was forever typecast as a wiry killer pervert thanks to the career-defining role, so it makes sense (however sadly) that he would have to use that very platform to express himself artistically. Psycho III is Perkins’s debut feature as a director, and you can feel his personal attachment to the film & character seeping through the screen in a way that’s missing from the measured image-control conservatism of Psycho II. Perkins fully commits to the leering ultraviolence & self-conflicted sleaze of The Psycho Slasher-Sequel here in a way that feels impressively, uncomfortably driven by his id. It’s the best that most late entries into a slasher franchise could hope for: a unique sensory experience that compensates for following a familiar story template by amplifying the violence, sexuality, and surreality of the genre to the point of total delirium. I’d be hard-pressed to put into words exactly what Perkins was trying to say with this sweaty, over-the-top wet nightmare, but it does feel personal to his own creative id just as much as it expresses his most famous character’s psychosexual torments. It’s a shame, then, that the film tanked at the box office and his only other crack at directing a feature was a forgotten micro-budget cannibal sex comedy (titled Lucky Stiff) just a couple years later. It feels like he was really onto something here, but just didn’t yet have the formal skills to precisely hone in on it.

Although he might not have been fully equipped to express himself as a director, Perkins was at least smart enough to pull inspiration from lofty artistic sources. His most commonly cited inspiration was the Coen Brothers’ own directorial debut Blood Simple, of which Perkins was reported to be a huge fan. Indeed, Psycho III does borrow a neon-lit desert motel aesthetic from that stylish neo-noir, and Perkins even hired composer Carter Burwell for the Psycho III score based on the strength of his work in that picture. The influence that really stands out to me, though, is what Perkins picked up while working with notorious madman Ken Russell on one of my favorite films of all time: Crimes of Passion. Just two years after starring as a poppers-addicted priest with a dildo-shaped murder weapon in Russell’s film (his only acting role between Psycho II & Psycho III), Perkins just happens to deliver an oversexed neon-lit slasher with an almost psychedelic fixation on Catholic guilt here. You can feel Russell’s sweaty fingerprints all over Psycho III’s purple neon motel interiors, which are lined with enough porno magazine collages and Catholic relics to keep a psychoanalyst busy for decades. The film never fully jumps from by-the-numbers slasher to Ken Russell psychedelia, but it does weaponize that influence to emphasize the sleaze, the artificiality, and the inner turmoil of Norman’s tiny corner of Hell in a fascinating way. It likely also helps that the film was penned by screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue the same year he wrote Cronenberg’s The Fly, adding a whole other layer of grotesque sexual mania to an already volatile concoction.

The film opens with a young nun (Mommie Dearest’s Diana Scarwid) declaring “There is no God!” against a black screen, then accidentally killing a fellow sister who attempts to prevent her suicide. Disgraced, she hitchhikes into the desert away from her convent at the mercy of a contemptible drifter (Jeff Fahey), who immediately attempts to forcibly grope her while parked in a rainstorm. These two figures – the suicidal nun and the misogynist drifter – inevitably end up taking residence at the Bates Motel under Norman’s leering eyes. From there, Psycho III gradually transforms into a standard (even if remarkably violent) body-count slasher, but these two visiting strangers stand out amongst the mayhem almost as physical manifestations of Norman’s internal conflicts. In the runaway nun, Norman initially sees another Marion Crane, but eventually comes to know her as a kindred spirit whose religious piousness similarly prevents her from non-violently engaging with her own sexuality & thirst for human connection. The drifter, by contrast, is an exaggeration of Norman’s weakness for misogynist violence; he’s cruel to all women in his seedy orbit in a way the polite motel owner never would be, yet Norman himself is even more of a danger to women despite his air of civility. In tandem, their residence in the motel might as well be them literally occupying the opposing sides of Norman’s brain, which is constantly tearing itself in half in these pictures as he fights back the thoughts & kills of his Mother persona. Their dual intrusion on the story is a heightened, dreamlike manifestation of what’s always eating at Norman from the inside, and it’s fascinating to watch Perkins carve out enough space for that incorporeal conflict to fully play out while also satisfying the more pedestrian criteria of a generic mid-80s slasher.

The least interesting aspects of Psycho III are its dutiful ties to series lore. Clips of the iconic shower scene, echoes of the original’s exact frame compositions, repetition of lines like “We all go a little mad sometimes,” and further complications of who was really Norman’s mother (an issue the sequels can never seem to agree on) all distract from Perkins’s directorial inventiveness by making the picture appear more safe & familiar than it truly is. I’m much more interested in the new, fresh distortions Perkins warps this familiar material with, the exact kind of volatile mutations of the source text that were missing in the personality-deficient Psycho II. A bisexual man, Perkins objectifies both his nun and his drifter in equal leering measure – most notably in a scene where he dresses Jeff Fahey in nothing but a tableside lamp that protrudes skyward directly from the actor’s crotch (as a compromise when Fahey didn’t want to commit to full-frontal nudity). The director also hoists Norman Bates to the level of a Biblically iconic figure – explicitly so in a Ken Russellian sequence where the suicidal nun hallucinates Norman’s Mother persona as the Madonna, referring to the incident as a visitation from The Virgin. The way that religious ecstasy clashes with Earthly “hungers of the flesh” elevates the material above most Psycho descendants & other cheapo slashers by making the conflict out to be an eternal morality crisis instead of merely the immediate terror of a knife-wielding maniac. When the Mother voice in Norman’s head scolds him for failing to overcome his “cheap erotic imagination,” it feels like the movie vocalizing the exact religious-hedonist turmoil that’s been driving it mad the entire runtime.

In a better world, we might have gotten to see Anthony Perkins further pursue these themes & aesthetics in original projects that weren’t dampened by their obligations to the Psycho brand. He even admitted in an interview shortly before his death that he felt as if he were “not up to the task” of directing the film at the time, feeling his “technical knowledge was too limited” to fully express what he was going for. Still, I’ll always be more eager to champion an imperfect expression of pure personal id like this sweaty flop than I would a carefully adequate brand custodian like Psycho II. Even if we never got to see Perkins at the height of his wicked powers as a Coens & Russell-inspired auteur, at least he found a way to use the franchise that defined his career as an opportunity to take a stab at that lofty aspiration.

-Brandon Ledet

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