Directed by: Richard Rothstein
If you’ve ever watched Hitchcock’s Psycho and wished there were more goofy fixing-up-the-hotel montages, then boy have I got a film for you.
You see, before the hit TV series Bates Motel, there was 1987’s, err, Bates Motel, a uniquely eighties attempt to launch a Psycho spin-off. Much like how the similarly themed Friday the 13th series did away with Jason Voorhees, the producers decided that the best way to launch a Psycho TV show was to ditch Norman Bates by killing him off in the first five minutes.
It’s the first of many, many mistakes.
We begin with black and white footage showing Norman being taken to a sanitarium, before being introduced to young Alex West, a child who killed his abusive father by — wait for it — dry-cleaning him. Alex’s doctor sagely observes that Alex needs ‘a buddy, someone to talk to, someone to trust,’ and so introduces him to that most trustworthy of murderers, Norman Bates.
Yeah, you read that right.
One montage later, Norman dies and leaves the titular motel to Alex in his will. Alex is all grown up now, and has turned into Bud (Harold and Maude) Cort, a man who looks like a ventriloquist’s dummy come to life.
And so as Alex reopens the Bates Motel, the stage is set for a new rash of murders, murders that never come because the film instead opts for an infuriatingly goofy fish-out-of-water comedy approach. Before Alex even reaches Fairvale, he has encountered a vagrant who tries to drink Norman’s ashes, and been knocked into a flowerbed by rampaging children (dubbed by middle-aged women) who are chasing a fast-food chain mascot in a chicken suit.
That’s one hell of a sentence to type, let me tell you.
By this point I was ready to throw in the towel, but then the film hits us with its best scene. Alex arrives at the motel and explores the iconic home in a wordless scene that’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Bill Butler, best known for his work on such films as Jaws and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The house looks great — I presume they used the same standing set as the previous year’s Psycho III, though the desert looks a lot greener and leafier than I remember.
Anyway, it’s all downhill from here.
We’re now about thirty minutes into the movie, and the only thing we’ve really learnt is how integral Anthony Perkins’ iconic performance was to the success of the franchise. Cort is fine as Alex, but he’s so infuriatingly passive that he lacks the sympathy Perkins brought to the role of Norman. Luckily, Alex encounters that fucking chicken mascot again, and we learn that it’s Tank Girl herself, Lori Petty under the mask.
Petty plays Willie, another homeless person who somehow helps Alex renovate the motel and ends up falling in love with the creepy weirdo. Petty brings a welcome sassiness to the proceedings, even though the script requires her to pout and cry when Alex doesn’t compliment her meatloaf highly enough, and no, that’s not a euphemism.
The cast is mostly pretty good. Gregg Henry from slasher classic Just Before Dawn shows up as a sleazy (is there any other kind?) banker, but the highlight has to be an early appearance from a pre-fame Jason Bateman.
Bateman’s other release this year was the equally dreadful Teen Wolf Too, making 1987 a real year to forget in the Bateman household.
Anyhoo, after an hour the film just rolls over and dies. Alex and Willie all-but-vanish from the screen and we are introduced to a suicidal author who encounters the friendly ghosts of dead teenagers from the 1950s and no, I’m not making this up. I can only assume that this final half hour is what TV audiences would have been subjected to on a weekly basis had Bates Motel actually been a hit (ha!), and boy did we dodge a bullet.
It all ends with a preposterous twist ending, replete with a Scooby Doo-style double unmasking, but by this point it’s impossible to care.
Bates Motel is further proof alongside Friday the 13th: The Series and Freddy’s Nightmares that either network TV wasn’t ready for horror in the mid-80s, or that toothless execs simply had no idea what they were doing. All three shows removed their iconic villain from the proceedings in favour of limp Twilight Zone-style stories, and none of them were particularly successful.
I’m sad we had to kick off my new column with a bit of a stinker. I always try and find some positives about every film I watch, but apart from that one sequence exploring the Bates house, it’s slim pickings. When a nominal horror-comedy fails to be both horrific and funny, then it’s best just to move on.
David Sodergren lives in Scotland with his wife Heather and his best friend, Boris the Pug. A lifelong devotee of horror, his first novel, The Forgotten Island, was published on October 1st 2018.
He has several more books in various stages of development.
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