Thursday, October 31, 2013

Double Take: Psycho/Psycho II

Psycho (1960) Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock; Written by Joseph Stefano; Based on the novel by Robert Bloch; Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles, John Gavin and Martin Balsam

Available on Blu-ray and DVD
 Rating: *****

Psycho II (1982) Directed by: Richard Franklin; Written by Tom Holland; Based on characters by Robert Bloch; Starring: Anthony Perkins, Meg Tilly, Vera Miles, Robert Loggia and Dennis Franz

Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Rating: *** ½

“The processes through which we take the audience, you see, it’s rather like taking them through the haunted house at the fairground or the rollercoaster, you know.” – Alfred Hitchcock (excerpt from 1963 interview with Ian Cameron and V.F. Perkins, Alfred Hitchcock Interviews, edited by Peter Brunette)

“I’ve long since tried to forget about disassociating myself with the specter of Norman Bates, so I’ve got to give into that rather than resist it…” – Anthony Perkins (excerpt from 1983 interview with Bobbie Wygant)

I’m thrilled to be a part of Hitchcock Halloween, a tribute to cinema’s undisputed master of suspense, sponsored by Lara at Backlots.  Be sure to check out her site for a comprehensive list of posts and participants.  

This is not a review.  Well, not in the strictest sense.  Double Take is less of an analysis, and more of a gut reaction to two films, compared side by side: original and remake, or in this case, original film and sequel.  Psycho has been discussed, picked apart, and scrutinized to death over the years, so a traditional review of the film covering the same scenes, lines and themes seems almost pointless.  Instead, I’d rather address my initial reaction to Psycho and its belated sequel.

My first (partial) exposure to Psycho was as a kid, sometime in the late 70s.  Although I don’t recall the exact program, the infamous shower scene was featured on a TV retrospective of scary scenes.  Although I didn’t watch the scene in its proper context until several years later, Hitchcock’s iconic imagery was tattooed on my brain.  I couldn’t shake the horror I felt as I witnessed the sanctity of a banal bathroom hygiene ritual devolve into chaos as a woman was brutally stabbed to death.  It wasn’t the stabbing that got to me, however, but her vulnerability, followed by a shot of her lifeless eyes, which communicated utter betrayal.  The experience was so traumatic, that I was afraid to use the shower for weeks afterward, fearing I would meet the same fate as Marion Crane.  The scene has since been copied and parodied so many times that its effectiveness has probably been lost on many present-day viewers.  By the same token, this single sequence has been so closely associated with Psycho, it’s no surprise the filmmakers of the sequel employed it as the opening scene. 

Like many classics, Psycho was not appreciated by critics when it was first released.  Over the ensuing years, it came to be regarded as an indispensable paragon of the suspense/horror genre.  Unfortunately, this revisionist stance didn’t help Psycho II when it debuted 23 years later.  It must have seemed like a fool’s errand to try to follow in the footsteps of Hitchcock.  No matter how skillful the sequel was, probably no one was willing to give it a fair shake.  But director Richard Franklin proved he was up to the task, having observed the master in action on the set of Topaz, and demonstrating his penchant for creating suspenseful films in his native Australia with Patrick and Road Games. 

If the choice of director for Psycho II was open for debate, one thing that was non-negotiable was the film’s star, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.  20-plus years after his chilling portrayal of Bates, Perkins returned to play the character that had become synonymous with his name.  Looking back, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else occupying the role he pioneered.  Much of Psycho’s creepiness could be attributed to Perkins’ quiet, unassuming demeanor, and gawky frame.  He was frightening because he resembled the farthest thing from a monster.  

As good as the other elements needed to be in Psycho II, the onus rested largely on the shoulders of Perkins.  His portrayal of the tortured Bates was a continuation of the original character, the likely culmination of Perkins’ ambivalence about playing someone who defined and constricted his career.  Two decades later, Bates is seen as a man with a horrible past he’s unable to shake, eternally condemned to wrestle his inner demons.

One of the most obvious differences between the two films is the use of black and white versus color.  Hitchcock chose to shoot his film in black and white when color had become the norm, as an artistic choice, purportedly because the sight of blood in color would have been too horrible.  True or not, the stark photography by John L. Russell (accompanied by a score composer Bernard Herrmann described as “black and white), goes a long way to weave a twisted tale.  Cinematographer Dean Cundey (a veteran of several John Carpenter films) lends atmosphere to Psycho II with his use of contrasts and angles.  One memorable shot of the Bates house, flanked by indigo sky and gray clouds, generates an overwhelming feeling of foreboding.  In another shot, as Bates’ sanity begins to lapse, the house appears askew.

Many cynics would argue, and not without some justification, that Psycho II exists for no reason other than milking a cash cow for Universal Studios.  While it’s a foregone conclusion that any follow up to a Hitchcock original could never quite live up to its predecessor, it’s selling the sequel short.  Both films are products from different eras.  During the production of Psycho, the production code was still enforced, although Hitchcock tested the boundaries of what could be shown.  As a result, Psycho is a masterpiece of suggestion, tricking us into thinking we’ve seen more than we actually saw.  Contrast this with the “anything goes” filmmaking of the 80s, when Psycho II was released.  With this in mind, Franklin shows a commendable level of restraint.  Tom Holland’s screenplay, in a nod to Hitchcock, also employs a MacGuffin (or two) to divert our attention.  Is Psycho II a perfect sequel?  Not quite, but then again, nothing could possibly live up to our inflated expectations.  The true test of a good sequel is whether or not it builds off of the original themes without trying too hard to ride the coattails of the source material.  Taken from a perspective 30 years later (longer than the gap between the two movies), Psycho II is an excellent, underrated thriller in its own right, and I contend that both films can happily co-exist on my personal video library shelf.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Classics Revisited: Taste the Blood of Dracula

(1970) Directed by Peter Sasdy; Written by: Anthony Hinds; Based on the character created by Bram Stoker; Starring: Christopher Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Gwen Watford, Peter Sallis, Roy Kinnear and Ralph Bates; Available on DVD.

Rating: *** ½

“The tasteful title is Taste the Blood of Dracula.  As usual, words fail me, as indeed they also will do in the film.” – Christopher Lee (from The Hammer Story, by Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes)

A hearty thanks goes out to Rick at Classic Film & TV Café for organizing the Hammer Halloween Blogathon.  Be sure to check out more great posts about one of the finest film companies on the planet.

Taste the Blood of Dracula was Hammer’s fifth Dracula film and Christopher Lee’s fourth outing as the title character.  At this point, Lee was tiring of the role that had earned him so much notoriety, and initially declined the offer to star in the follow-up to Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.  Public demand (and more than a little cajoling from Hammer brass) persuaded Lee to reluctantly sign on once more as the eponymous vampire.  While his enthusiasm for the material waned, and his cynicism grew, he soldiered on with yet another memorable performance, proving any appearance by Lee as the bloodsucking count is cause for celebration.

Despite the star’s pessimism, the latest Dracula film had much to offer from a content and thematic perspective.  Taste the Blood of Dracula represented a new sort of Hammer film that pushed the boundaries for depictions of overt sexuality and spillage of blood.  Although the film wasn’t quite the groundbreaking paradigm shift that The Vampire Lovers (released four months later) signified, Hammer Films had clearly moved into the modern era. 

One significant difference distinguishing this film from its predecessors is the implied conceit that Dracula isn’t the most unsavory character this time around.  That dubious honor goes to a group of upper-crust men, led by William Hargood (Geoffrey Keen).  Hargood present a pious façade, as an upstanding patriarch and citizen, which belies his baser self.  He’s joined in his hedonistic pursuits by associates Samuel Paxton (Peter Sallis*) and Jonathon Secker (John Carson).  The brothel they frequent is accessed through a secret entrance inside a soup kitchen, a fitting metaphor for their duplicitous lives.  Hargood and his friends are bored by the sameness of their illicit adventures, however, and thirst for something on the wilder side.  Enter young Lord Courtley (Ralph Bates**), who presents the men with a unique proposition, which involves reviving Dracula from a vial of dried blood.  How this will benefit Hargood and his cohorts is never made clear.  The scene that follows features what might be one of the most contrived exits and entrances, as Bates transforms into Lee.

* Film fans might be more familiar with Sallis in his inimitable voice role as the absent-minded Wallace of Wallace and Gromit.

** Bates was originally slated to play Dracula after Lee bowed out of the role.  After Lee had a change of heart, the filmmakers hastily concocted a means of eliminating Bates from the film.

Lee commands respect with his imposing presence and laconic, nearly silent performance.  In this case, less is more.  After Dracula’s demise at the beginning of the movie, which picks up where Dracula Has Risen from the Grave left off, he doesn’t re-appear until the halfway point.  His first order of business is vowing revenge against Hargood’s circle of friends for killing his servant Lord Courtley.  He finds a new servant from an unlikely source, Hargood’s daughter Alice (Linda Hayden) – Why he doesn’t bite her, to join his undead minions (as he does to her friend Lucy), is anyone’s guess.   

In the context of this film, Dracula serves as a criticism of Victorian society, with a nod to the changing mores of late 60s culture.  Dracula represents a liberating force in the straightjacketed lives of the oppressed.  He reveals the inherent hypocrisy of the “boys club” mentality, in which men have license to do as they please, while their wives are expected to be subservient and their daughters chaste (feel free to draw your own parallels to the current political climate).

My only major gripe about Taste the Blood of Dracula is that it lacks a worthy adversary for the title character, such as Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing.  In his place we have a feeble substitute, Alice’s love-struck boyfriend (Anthony Higgins).  Nevertheless, it remains a solid, enjoyable entry in the series, and stands out as one of the best sequels to Horror of Dracula.  Taste the Blood of Dracula wisely eschews the cartoonish moralism that plagued many of the productions that preceded it, in favor of a more complex dilemma, rife with gray areas.  It remains an essential entry in the unending list of Dracula films, and an important addition to the Hammer library.

This post is part of the Hammer Halloween Blogathon hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café.  Go to to view the complete blogathon schedule.