For years, Anthony Perkins resented being identified as serial killer/mamma’s boy Norman Bates, so much so that it’s said that when a fan would approach him for an autograph he would glare back to scare away unwanted attention. As an actor working within the studio system from a young age, Perkins certainly appreciated the role at the time (he recounted later that the experience of making the original Psycho was one of the best times of his life) but felt that the public’s perception of him hindered him from acquiring better parts.
Perkins must have made his peace in the intervening years between 1960 and 1983, for he returned to the part that made him famous in Psycho II. The box office of the early 80’s was in the grip of the rise of the slasher film and the subgenre’s countless sequels and ripoffs, spearheaded by the Halloween and Friday the 13th films. Many newspaper articles had traced the genesis of the current trend back to Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film, and Universal Pictures, at the time experiencing its second horror renaissance (its output between 1981 and 1983 included Halloween II & III, Cat People, Jaws 3-D and The Thing), realized it owned the rights to the great grandfather of slasher movies and sought to cash in.
Sir Alfred died in 1980 so a protégé, Richard Franklin, director of the Australian thriller Road Games, was brought aboard to direct, from a script by future Fright Night and Child’s Play director, Tom Holland. The result is a film that works surprisingly well in the shadow of Hitchcock’s masterpiece, generating suspense and psychological tension while updating the gore effects for the modern era.
The film begins with the famous Psycho shower scene, which to audiences in 1983, thanks to frequent play on broadcast television, would have been part of the collective consciousness. It’s been 22 years since Norman Bates dressed up like his dead mother and murdered unsuspecting travelers in his roadside motel. Declared legally sane (but under protest from original Psycho co-star Vera Miles), he is released under the care of psychiatrist Robert Loggia and returns to his family home. He gets a job at a diner, where he meets Mary (Meg Tilly, Jennifer’s sister). Lacking a place to stay, Mary accepts Norman’s offer to bunk at his motel. But soon, “Mother” begins leaving threatening notes and making phone calls, and before long the body count begins. An early victim is played by a young Dennis Franz, a decade before NYPD Blue, when his career consisted of playing sleazebags in every Brian DePalma movie.
Perkins carefully modulates Norman’s arc from a man scarred by the past making tentative steps back into society, to later in the film as his mask of sanity begins to slip. We are allowed to feel sympathy for Norman in contrast to our attitudes toward him in the first film - where we assumed he was dominated by his overbearing mother – here, if other players in his life would have just let him alone we imagine that he may have been capable of a full recovery.
Holland’s script gives Perkins a lot to work with, and the actor gives it his all. Holland also pays homage to the Hitchcock’s masterpiece while subverting audience expectations time and again, eventually culminating in a series of twists that shed new light on the events of the first film.
The success of the film demanded a sequel, which a re-invigorated Perkins agreed to in exchange for the opportunity to direct. Psycho III was released in 1986. Perkins returned once more to the role in the Mick Garris directed Psycho IV: The Beginning, for cable TV, in 1990. Psycho IV was written by original Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stephano, and explores the backstory of Norman Bates (former E.T. child star Henry Thomas) and his Mother (Olivia Hussey).
Anthony Perkins directed one more feature, the cannibal comedy Lucky Stiff in 1988, before his death in 1992. His widow was one of the passengers aboard American Airlines flight 11 on September 11th, 2001. His son, Oz Perkins, who appears as a young Norman Bates in Psycho II, starred in the horror comedy Dead & Breakfast in 2004