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How BATES MOTEL Restored The PSYCHO “Legacy”

There was a very distinct reason I took it upon myself, with no actual filmmaking experience, to make THE PSYCHO LEGACY documentary. And the finale for A&E’s hit series BATES MOTEL solidified that reason. Plain and simple, I wanted the PSYCHO “legacy” to continue and I feared that, at the time that I started it, Norman Bates was already falling through the cracks of pop culture fandom and was somewhat forgotten.

To give you context, I first conceived of THE PSYCHO LEGACY roughly in 2006. At that time, the DVD market was robust, and not only were long-lost horror gems and cult classics making their way to home video, but all the big franchise baddies were getting the special edition box set treatment. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET had a collection. FRIDAY THE 13TH went through several, at first showcasing specifically the Paramount films, and eventually special edition versions of the whole series. HELLRAISER and PHANTASM had great Region B sets courtesy of Anchor Bay UK. But for the PSYCHO sequels? Only PSYCHO II and PSYCHO III were available as bare-bones DVD releases, originally from Good Times, and then again through Universal, themselves.

In 2007, I came to Los Angeles from New York and shot my first series of interviews to get the ball rolling on this project. Originally, I would’ve been content with it appearing as a bonus feature on a new DVD special edition, or box set collecting all 4 films. Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO is a classic, so that one was already filled to the gills with terrific special features created for its Criterion release, but what about the PSYCHO sequels? Those were the ones I grew up with on cable television, and that I’d rent repeatedly from the video store. There was very little information online about the creation of these sequels, except for a fan site The Psycho Movies.com. Also, everyone involved with a PSYCHO sequel went on to do interesting work within the film industry.

PSYCHO II screenwriter Tom Holland had gone on to make FRIGHT NIGHT and CHILD’S PLAY. PSYCHO II star Meg Tilly got nominated for an Oscar for her supporting role in AGNES OF GOD! PSYCHO III’s Katt Shea went on to have her own impressive directing career. PSYCHO IV director Mick Garris went on to create the “Masters Of Horror” series and helm several Stephen King adaptations.

But, again, to give context, on that first shoot in 2007, my crew and I went to Universal Studios in Hollywood, California, and took the tram tour twice in an attempt to get 5 seconds of footage of the PSYCHO house on film. (We were just starting out and didn’t really know what we were doing!) Despite being a quick drive through attraction on the tour, there was not a single piece of PSYCHO or BATES MOTEL merchandise in any of the stores on the lot. Nothing.

While checking out all the local memorabilia shops all over Hollywood, I had no problem finding stills and photos from the PSYCHO films. Not that many people were still going out of their way to find this material, nor revisit or celebrate these films.

I have a very distinct memory of watching the Fangoria-sponsored Horror Hall Of Fame awards show. They gave honorary awards to all the classic films and would show great 5-10 minute featurettes for each title. Robert Englund hosted and narrated each segment, and when they got to PSYCHO, he referred to Norman Bates as “the Hamlet of Horror.” That phrase had always stuck with me, and I always felt a great deal of Shakespearian tragedy for good ol’ Norman in those latter movies. It seemed like his dark fate was always inevitable. And while I loved Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, Leatherface and the rest of the gang, Norman to me was the most emotionally fascinating and complex. The psychology behind this character, why he did what he did, and how he became that way, I always thought warranted further investigation.

I, naively, didn’t really have an end game for THE PSYCHO LEGACY, other than getting it out there and reminding people how darned good these movies were. That’s why the interviews are comprised of both people involved with the actual franchise, and the current crop of indie horror filmmakers that were influenced by them. I managed to organize the first-ever PSYCHO franchise reunion at a Fangoria Weekend Of Horrors convention in Los Angeles, California for their 2008 show. (You can read a full transcript of that show right here on Icons Of Fright.) I was hoping this would generate more interest from Universal, but they instead stopped returning my emails after this convention.

So, I decided to press on, and finish this sucker, and put it out as its own thing. HALLOWEEN: 25 YEARS OF TERROR proved that there was a demand for this sort of thing. And we were right on the cusp of similar documentaries such as HIS NAME WAS JASON, NEVER SLEEP AGAIN and BEWARE THE MOON. So, why not?

It was easily the hardest thing I’d ever done. It took the life out of me. I lost friendships over finishing that blasted doc. I made a tremendous amount of rookie mistakes. But at the end of it, I had a film I was proud of, and a crew of loyal, devoted, hard workers that continue to inspire me to this day, including my fearless editor Jon Maus, and Buz Wallick, who only shot one interview for me on THE PSYCHO LEGACY, but has pretty much photographed everything else I’ve shot since.

I can’t say the doc drummed up a tremendous amount of publicity or “revitalized” the franchise or anything, but I can say that during the production of it, I went out of my way to make sure that “PSYCHO,” and Norman Bates were written about across all the horror websites. I did my best to keep the name out there, and the “legacy” going because I desperately didn’t want anyone to forget about it, and I wanted to will a new project into being.

Then came the Blu-Ray market, and thankfully Scream Factory (who put out THE PSYCHO LEGACY as Shout Factory) eventually acquired the licensing to PSYCHO II and III, and more recently IV and the 1998 remake. PSYCHO was spoken about, periodically over the years, but it was the announcement of A&E’s BATES MOTEL series that really kicked off this renewed interest. And that’s all that I, as a die-hard PSYCHO fan, ever wanted! I thought the ’98 remake had completely killed the franchise. I was nervous that, any day now, Universal Studios was going to announce the demolition of the infamous house and motel on their backlot. But thankfully, BATES MOTEL premiered in 2013 to strong reviews, both from critics and fans alike, and managed to fulfill its intended 5 year, 5 season arc.

This week, the series concluded with its final episode. I had so many mixed emotions watching it. All positive, because I never thought another actor would be able to capture the spirit of Norman Bates as well as Anthony Perkins, and of course, Perkins is Norman Bates, but I’ll be damned, Freddie Highmore did the role justice. Over the course of 5 years, we literally got to watch him grow from a 19-year-old teen, to a 25 year old man. And all the complexities of the movies were fully realized in a new, engaging way that kept even me, a seasoned hardcore fan of the movies, constantly surprised. There were predictions I made along the way, and I was completely wrong on all of them. There were additions to the PSYCHO lore that now feel like a permanent part of the franchise that I wrote about here. And while I wanted to initially sign off with my feelings on the finale, I couldn’t do any better than our own Alyse Wax who contributed this wonderful eulogy.

But what prompted this article was seeing the reactions to this finale, both positive and negative across the board. I loved it. It seemed like the appropriate ending to this particular version of the story. Some die-hard PSYCHO fans have voiced their opinions on how disappointed they are because it veered too far away from PSYCHO. (I’m sure these same fans probably hate the 1998 remake for the opposite reason!) And look, it’s valid criticism. PSYCHO is arguably a masterpiece. One of the best films ever made, both in the genre and of Hitchcock’s career. So, that’s a high bar to set for any film fan when it comes to emulating or reinterpreting that film. But, it has fully restored Norman Bates to the pantheon of pop culture icons. It’s made “the Bates Motel” a household name again, in particular to a whole generation that never knew about or had seen PSYCHO.

Want an example? I think it was around the time the second season had begun airing, I was at my local bank wearing this PSYCHO shirt.

The teller helping me politely asked what my shirt was of, and I replied, “Oh, it’s Norman Bates.” “Oh, you mean from that show BATES MOTEL? I love that show! But wait, I don’t understand. Isn’t that his mother?” Without thinking, I just blurted out what I thought was obvious, “well, he kills his mother and takes her place. Haven’t you ever seen PSYCHO?” Oops! I guess not!

And as I watched the follow up special “The Final Check Out,” which aired immediately after the BATES MOTEL finale, I saw all these young kids signing off on how much they loved this show. And I wondered, have any of them seen the movie PSYCHO yet?

Well, all I can hope for is that they will. They’ll be so bummed that BATES MOTEL is over, and thirsty for more stories within this universe, and they’ll go back and find PSYCHO I, II, III and IV. Maybe the made-for-TV BATES MOTEL pilot with Bud Cort, or even my documentary.

For those disappointed in the finale, they can take solace in the fact that maybe more people will find PSYCHO now. That’s always there. And I have a feeling this won’t be the last iteration of, or time that we see Norman Bates.

All I know is the PSYCHO “legacy” is well intact, and it will continue on, thanks to BATES MOTEL.

THE PSYCHO LEGACY DVD is available on Amazon or direct through Shout! Factory here.

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