Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. No matter how many times he appears as his defining character, and no matter how low the quality of the film sinks, watching him inhabit the role is a pleasure.
Like Jackman in the upcoming X Men: Days of Future Past, this is both a prequel and a sequel, as Bates calls into a radio show on matricide to discuss his past, a call-in topic so bizarre it would make Alan Partridge blush. The events of Norman’s teenage years which made him into the woman we know and love are shown in flashback, as we see his relationship with his mother and her boyfriend, and Norman’s gradual slide from sanity.
Perkins gives a stellar final performance as cinema’s most likeable serial killer in this retrospective look at his life, yet he is almost too good, as the flashbacks pale in comparison to his present day sections in spite of being reasonably well acted.
For anyone who has seen Psycho more than once, the Bates mythology will be very familiar, as this is essentially the psychologist’s final speech from that film played out over an entire movie. As such there is little that surprises here, and seeing these events acted out isn’t as interesting as it hopes to be. While this may be enjoyable to fans, there just isn’t enough going on here to warrant a whole movie.
When Norman finally dispenses with his mother (a surprisingly young woman with Hollywood good looks (Olivia Hussey)), it has the feeling of Anakin Skywalker finally being put in the Darth Vader suit, like it’s an event that may have been better left to our imaginations. To make this work we need new insight into Norman’s past, something we don’t really get here.
This film’s main strength is providing a more fitting ending to the franchise. It wisely ignores the farcical tinkering with the backstory of Psycho II and III and focuses on the main events, opting for a soundtrack far closer to the original film, to better capture its mood and tone. It learns from the tediously surprising endings of the previous two films and goes for a finale which, while not shocking, provides a far more fitting end to the franchise and to Norman’s story. Where Psycho II and III leave us feeling like we’re going round in circles, by IV we seem to have reached a natural conclusion.
Being an origins story means that Psycho IV doesn’t feel like a pointless extrapolation of a great tale, rather an embellishment of it, and that is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.