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By Daniel Lammin
29th November 2015

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece ‘Psycho’ is easily one of the most iconic films ever made. Hailed in equal parts as a superb artistic achievement and one of the ultimate horror films, what’s probably less well remembered is the franchise it spawned. Unlike ‘Halloween’ or ‘Friday the 13th’, the series wasn’t as popular or as lasting, but unlike its contemporaries the series continued to push its protagonist and its style into unexpected and surprising directions.

In a world-first release, Via Vision have collected the four films and the 1998 remake on Blu-ray, and an additional TV film plus a sprawling documentary of the franchise on DVD. ‘Psycho: The Complete Collection’ is an exhaustive box set that captures the series in its entirety. Thanks to Via Vision, I was able to (voraciously) preview the collection and offer a disc-by-disc review of what it has to offer.

PSYCHO (1960) (Blu-ray)
There’s almost no point writing a summary or review of ‘Psycho’, for two reasons: firstly, there has already been mountains of material written about it since its premiere 45 years ago, and secondly because no words can possibly do it justice. In a career that includes such sublime films as ‘Rear Window’, ‘Vertigo’ and ‘The Birds’, this small-budget "slasher film" still stands as the crown jewel in Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography, a thoroughly uncompromising and supremely artistic achievement that also happens to be wildly entertaining, witty as hell and deeply disturbing.

Everything about the film is iconic – the striking cinematography, Anthony Perkins’ glorious performance as Norman Bates, the house, the motel, taxidermy birds and screaming strings. Its centrepiece, the shower scene, might be the most studied few minutes of film in history. It’s not an exaggeration to say that ‘Psycho’ is now a base note in the DNA of all horror or thriller films since, but even though its twists and surprises are basically pop culture clichés now, in their pure form they still have the capacity to shock and horrify. For a film crafted with such sweeping artistry, Hitchcock dances beautifully on the line between entertainment and art, stopping the film from ever lapsing into indulgence. He understands intrinsically that horror works best when coupled with character, that we will be far more affected the more emotionally invested we are in the people we’re watching. Hitchcock wields this like a weapon, sometimes with precision and sometimes with sheer blunt force. His collaborators cannot be ignored though – writer Joseph Stefano, cinematographer John L. Russell, editor George Tomasini, composer Bernard Hermann, and the ensemble cast of Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin, Martin Balsam and Janet Leigh, all make important contributions not just to the film, but to the history of cinema.

‘Psycho’ is supreme cinema, the finest example of the medium as an art form. It is a perfect machine, calibrated to perfection and driven with dangerous and frightening intensity. Like I said, there’s really not much you can say about it that can do it justice. Of course it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Of course it’s one of the great artworks of the 20th century. Of course it’s thrilling and shocking and funny and enthralling. It’s also no surprise that the franchise that appeared in its wake always seemed so modest compared to its contemporaries – unlike them, it was living in the shadow of the ultimate horror masterpiece.

For this boxset, Via Vision have simply used the original 2010 Blu-ray release of ‘Psycho’, but why fix something that isn’t broken? The film still looks breathtaking in this 1080p 1.85:1 transfer – it betrays it age and low-budget history of the film at points, but it’s lovingly restored with excellent clarity and gorgeous black-and-whites. It also has a powerhouse DTS-HD MA 5.1 track which carefully recreates the intimate and meticulous design into the wider audio scope. I’ve been watching this disc for years, and I still get goosebumps hearing Hermann’s iconic score with such clarity. Even after five years, this is still a superb presentation of this important film.

Likewise, all the extra material from the 2010 disc is also here, including the audio commentary from writer Stephen Rebello (‘Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho’) and the excellent making-of documentary (1:34:12). I won’t go into detail here too much as there’s nothing new included, but there’s a wealth of material here, from analysis and breakdowns of the shower scene, excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s legendary interview with Hitchcock and an archive of the publicity material. It’s still one of the better packages assembled for a classic film.

It was 22 years before the decision was made to fashion a sequel to ‘Psycho’, by which point Hitchcock had passed away. The idea of a sequel to ‘Psycho’ sounds like lunacy now, but it also did in the early 80s, which is why a surprising amount of thought clearly went into ‘Psycho II’. That isn’t to say it’s a film anywhere near the calibre of even Hitchcock’s lesser films, but in a number of important ways, ‘Psycho II’ isn’t a horror sequel quite so easy to dismiss.

The film finds Norman (Perkins) released from psychiatric care, now deemed safe to return to the community. He returns to the house and the motel where he was abused by his mother (a move that really has you question the competence of his psychiatrist), but Norman makes an effort to get on with his life, getting a job at a local diner and making quick friends with a young waitress Mary (Meg Tilly). However, his stability begins to crumble when strange happenings around the house reawaken his old demons, happenings that may just be in his mind... or may be more real than he thinks.

In execution, ‘Psycho II’ is mostly a lacklustre affair, Tom Holland’s screenplay lacking any real detail or nuance with a number of blockhead plotting mistakes, and Meg Tilly delivering a pretty deplorable performance as a potential love interest that’s obviously way too young for both Normal and Perkins. However, the film also isn’t a carbon copy of the original. Here, Norman is the victim, both of his past and external forces trying to destabilise him. This change of focus means that the film is gentler and less assaulting as the original, but mostly for the right reasons. It helps that Perkins is still an engaging Norman, and clearly relishes returning to the character. The dialogue might be hammy as hell, but he’s one of the few actors able to sell it. Australian director Richard Franklin also does a sterling job, using his encyclopaedic Hitchcock knowledge to good use both by emulating the master and avoiding him. He also demonstrates his love of schlock horror with some moments of genuine violence and gore more akin to his Ozploitation roots than the Master of Suspense. He collaborates beautifully with cinematography Dean Cundey (who lensed Carpenter’s masterpiece ‘Halloween’), ensuring the film has its own distinctive look. Composer Jerry Goldsmith also wisely avoids emulating Hermann’s score with something more modern and electronic.

I’ll admit, I found it initially a bit strange seeing the iconic Bates house in colour, and the characters and setting playing out as naturalism rather than the hypnotic dream space of the original, but ‘Psycho II’ is a modestly interesting attempt to continue the legacy. The twists and turns in the final act, while clumsily executed, are still genuinely surprising. It doesn’t leave anywhere near the impact of its predecessor, but it also doesn’t sully the legacy of its predecessor like so many other horror sequels. As a launch pad for a franchise, it could do a lot worse.

The disc of ‘Psycho II’ in this boxset appears to be a direct replication of the US 2013 release from Shout Factory, right down to the disc menu. From looking at screenshots, the 1080p 1.84:1 transfer certainly seem identical. The film actually comes up quite nicely in high definition – there’s a lot of film grain and damage present, but for the most part sharpness is good throughout and the colours are vibrant. The image fluctuates in quality, but that has more to do with the source material than the transfer itself. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is also excellent, an unobtrusive remix with excellent balance and clarity (so much so that the copious ADR is all the more obvious). The original DTS-HD MA 2.0 track is also included.

The same extras from the Shout Factory release are carried over. First up is the original electronic press kit (as the wonderfully 80s title tells us) (35:21). The kit includes interviews with the key players and behind-the-scenes footage, but clearly comes from a poor source, so the sound drops out on occasion. There’s also a commentary with Holland, hosted by Rob Galluzzo (who directed ‘The Psycho Legacy’ documentary included in this boxset), and a series of vintage interviews that play as a commentary over the beginning of the film. The set is rounded off with a set of trailers, TV spots and a stills gallery.

It turned out audiences were interested in the further exploits of Norman Bates, with ‘Psycho II’ becoming a modest box-office success. And so, as with any success in a horror franchise, a follow-up went into production. However, ‘Psycho III’, directed by Perkins himself, steps in yet another unexpected direction, one that takes its cue from the dreamlike quality of the original but with the psycho-sexual flavour of 80s cinema.

Norman (Perkins) still runs the Bates Motel, but the revelation at the end of the previous film has left him once again unravelled. He has held back from his murderous tendencies, until he meets Maureen (Diana Scarwid), an innocent and devout young nun having a terrible crisis of faith. Norman sees in her a chance to finally find the love his life has always lacked, but Mother won’t have a bar of it, and Norman begins to fall into old costumed habits. Hovering around the edges are reporter Tracy (Roberta Maxwell) and road musician Duke (Jeff Fahey), both determined to catch Norman in the act and gain fame and fortune from it.

While ‘Psycho II’ was overburdened with way too much plot, ‘Psycho III’, written by Charles Edward Pogue, forgoes story for style. The narrative is slight and hard to follow, caught up in the psychology and sexuality of Norman to make something coherent. Pogue and Perkins take the sexual underpinning of the original and bring it to the boil, exploring Norman’s complex relationship with his own desires. Perkins turns out to be a surprisingly inventive director, ‘Psycho III’ resembling a kind of sexual hallucination. The images are dizzying and abstract, and the fabulous sound design steps straight into Norman’s fracturing kind (there’s a terrific moment where Norman first sees Maureen, and we revisit the footage of the shower scene with the background music jumping like a record). It feels all too much like an episode of ‘Twin Peaks’, with its surreal imagery and complex sexuality, but many years before the show appeared. All that style though doesn’t make up for the lack of detail in the plot – there are plenty of ideas, but the result is something far too esoteric and impenetrable. While it betters the second film in style, it lacks in narrative clarity. Because of this, it’s hard to find the film entertaining. You wander through it and admire the view, but that’s about all.

‘Psycho III’ brings the franchise right into the 80s – it’s sexier, gorier, brasher and flashier. It’s a far more interesting film that ‘Psycho II’ and concerns itself far more with themes from the original, but that doesn’t result in entertainment. Audiences seemed to think so, the film underperforming at the box office, and while a fourth film would appear, it would be for television. This was the last trip to the big screen for Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, but at least he shows some panache with the medium on the way out. After all, no one knew Norman better than Perkins.

Once again, Via Vision use the Shout Factory release for this Blu-ray, and as far as I can tell from screenshots of that release, we have here the same 1080p 1.85:1 transfer. ‘Psycho III’ looks a tad stronger than the second film, probably thanks to more robust source material. There’s little discernible print damage, and the colours and detail in the cinematography come out nicely in high definition. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 is also commendable as a repurposing of the original 2.0 tracks (also included), clear throughout and well-balanced.

The extras from the 2013 Shout Factory release are also carried across, some of them (unlike their ‘Psycho II’ release) including new retrospective material. These include interviews with Jeff Fahey (16:49), actress Katt Shea (8:40), make-up artist Michael Westmore (11:12) and body double Brinke Stephens (5:14). The interview with Westmore is the most interesting, as he has more to say about the technical process behind the film. There’s also a commentary with screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue, a trailer (1:54) and a stills gallery. Of the extras offered with the sequels, this is easily the strongest collection.

The financial failure of ‘Psycho III’ meant that a further instalment wasn’t likely, but Normal Bates returned one more time in 1990 in this Universal made-for-television film that not only brought back Anthony Perkins but the original screenwriter Joseph Stefano. Rather than continue to push Norman’s story further, Stefano decided to turn his eyes back in time, before the original film and into the complex relationship between the horror icon and his equally iconic mother.

Norman (Perkins) has made a life for himself with a new wife and a stable home. However, he can already see his sanity start to unravel again, and calls into a late-radio discussion on matricide to tell his story – his unconventional relationship as a young man (Henry Thomas) with his erratic and violent mother Norma (Olivia Hussey). However, as Norman tells his story, it becomes clear that he may have intentions to commit one final murder to ensure his legacy is closed shut for good.

At first glance, ‘Psycho IV’ seems like a genuinely interesting entry into the series, director Mick Garris drawing more fully than his predecessors on the style and tone of the original. He even has composer Graham Revell call upon Hermann’s themes to give the film even more authenticity. Stefano also injects the same kind of black wit and complex psychology from the original, so it sounds the most like a sequel to ‘Psycho’. However, what should be a no-brainer ends up being a bit of a mess. Stefano decided to ignore the second and third films, so there’s no consistency and character revelations from those films are ignored. Charting Norman’s decent as a young man feels like ticking-the-boxes of your typical psychopath, and we end up just getting the juicy bits as opposed to more interesting character moments. Norma is also played as much younger than we were led to believe she was in the original, probably to allow for the casting of Hussey. If that were the case, then it was the wrong decision, as she yells and spits her way through the part in a way that lacks subtlety, menace of clarity. The framing device is a nice one (especially as it allowed the ailing Perkins to be in the film), and never feels like a hokey segue to the flashbacks, but when it finally steps into the spotlight at the end, it becomes twee and irritating, another attempt to redeem Norman. The previous two films did this too, but each had a sting in its tail at the end. This one doesn’t, so it still ends up being twee and irritating. The formula of "Norman the victim" is tired now, and Stefano has nothing to offer it.

‘Psycho IV: The Beginning’ is that inevitable entry in any horror franchise – the origin story. And like any horror origin story, it foolishly strips back any sense of mystery and wonder from the questions at the heart of the series. Mich Garris does a good job with his direction, and Henry Thomas is surprisingly good as a young Norman. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano also injects some class into the series, but does so without a clear sense of focus, the kind he would have been provided originally by the Master of Suspense. ‘Psycho IV’ is the least memorable of the sequels, but certainly not worth dismissing. Even for its faults, it has moments and tit-bits to offer that are worth the effort.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece ‘Psycho’ is easily one of the most iconic films ever made.

The real coup of this box set is that it offers ‘Psycho IV’ on Blu-ray for the first time anywhere in the world, and it doesn’t shape up too badly. The film is presented in 1080p and in the 1.85:1 ratio rather than the standard television 1.66:1. It doesn’t look like any cropping has occurred, and IMDb lists this aspect ratio as the "theatrical version". The film was shot in 35mm, so that makes some sense. The transfer is surprisingly strong, on par with the other sequels, with clear detail throughout and sharp colours. It isn’t anything remarkable, but there’s nothing to detract from the film that I could see. It also comes with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, which isn’t anything remarkable. Dialogue is clear and the music in particular has a solid punch to it. The original stereo track isn’t included. As far as a high definition debut, the film looks and sounds much better than I’d have expected.

Unfortunately there are no special features included on this disc.

If a sequel to ‘Psycho’ sounds like lunacy, then a remake of ‘Psycho’ sounds like heresy – how on earth could anyone think to mirror or improve upon something already perfect? That was exactly the reaction when rabble-rousing director Gus Van Sant attempted just that in 1998, but his approach was far from the ordinary. Rather than messing with the formula, he decided to adapt Stefano’s screenplay as little as possible to make it fit a 90s setting, and recreate the original shot-for-shot as much as possible. The result is one of the strangest experiments of the past few decades, less a satisfying movie experience and more a cinematic curiosity.

As much as Van Sant uses the original as a blueprint, his own sensibilities seep through. His version tends to lean closer to the camp melodrama rather than the ice-cold precision of Hitchcock, making the film surprisingly more flamboyant than you would expect. This is also due to cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who applies his lavish skills with colour to the once black-and-white world, increasing its hallucinatory quality. So the screenplay is essentially the same, the cinematography is essentially the same (with a few flourishes) and the cast is top-notch, including Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy and Anne Heche. So why doesn’t it work?

As much as the film tries to be Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, it was never going to be more than a flashy facsimile. It lacks the drive and immediacy of the original – ‘Psycho’ was Hitchcock’s attempt to reinvent himself, so it beats with a ferociousness and a need to exist. Van Sant’s ‘Psycho’ lacks that need, and because very little of it is coming from him, he feels detached and cold. The film doesn’t have the need to exist. It looks terrific and sounds terrific (especially Danny Elfman’s electrifying rerecording of the score) but it ends up feeling showy and empty. Also, Vince Vaughn is an odd choice for Norman Bates. It’s unfair to compare any of the performances to those of the original, but everyone fits their characters perfectly and make distinct and interesting choices with them. Vaughn just doesn’t fit the character at all, and lacks the charm and gentleness that’s needed to make the ending so shocking. If there was any part that needed to be cast right, it was this one, but unfortunately it’s a miss rather than a hit.

So what is the purpose of this strange remake of ‘Psycho’? In the end, I don’t have an answer. I still enjoy it for its idiosyncrasies and its campness, and Anne Heche is fantastic as a far more knowing Marion Crane, but in the end it’s nothing more than a curious experiment. I don’t begrudge Gus Van Sant for trying (as much as I don’t begrudge Michael Haneke creating a shot-for-shot American remake of his German masterpiece ‘Funny Games’) but I’m not sure he really needed to bother in the first place.

‘Psycho’ looks serviceable on Blu-ray but not remarkable. The 1080p 1.85:1 transfer has a layer of film grain over it that doesn’t distract from the clarity of the image, but faces in particular look a little waxy. For an unrestored catalogue title, it scrubs up nicely in high definition but doesn’t blow you away. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is a tad stronger, music and dialogue balanced nicely. The score in particular comes across beautifully.

There’s a small (and strange) collection of extras, the chief of which is ‘Psycho-Path’ (30:24), an entertaining look at the making of the film. Gus Van Sant and his team discuss their decisions behind the film and the controversy around its existence. Apart from a stills gallery and the trailer though, the other extras are actually for the original and are included on the disc for the original – an international news reel press kit (7:45) and a look at the shower scene with and without music (2:30).

While the franchise proper was in a hiatus between III and IV, the Bates Motel made one extra appearance on television in this TV movie. Rather than continuing with the story of Norman Bates, it sets off in a different direction, concocting a new story set against the backdrop of the infamous motel. However, while the proper sequels always offered something different and unusual, ‘Bates Motel’ may as well not be counted as part of the franchise at all.

During his time in the institution, Norman Bates befriends a young troubled boy named Alex West and they become close. When Norman dies, he bequeaths the motel and house to adult Alex (Bud Cort), who finally leaves psychiatric care and goes to the motel with the intention of reopening it. With the help of aspiring actress Willie (Lori Petty), he begins the renovations, but strange occurrences around the house lead Alex to believe that the spirit of Mrs Bates is far from at peace.

To get the obvious out of the way, ‘Bates Motel’ is a truly awful film. It appears to be nothing more than an attempt to milk the icon of the motel and house for all its worth, because the "story" concocted by writer/director Richard Rothstein has basically nothing to do with the original. It even gets basic details wrong (they find the coffin of Mrs Bates buried near the motel – anyone who has seen the original knows that is stupidly incorrect), and turns the motel into a kind of supernatural 'Love Boat'. There’s more screwball comedy and daytime soap about the film than genuine suspense or psychology, so instead we get little Alex trying to run a business rather than a psychological thriller. The characters are annoying, the narrative is plodding and the writing is painful. Perhaps worst of all, it introduces something completely (and thankfully) absent from the other films – the supernatural. The first guest in the motel, an aerobics instructor (Kerrie Keane) plans to commit suicide in her room (very ‘Psycho III’) but her mind is changed by a group of teenagers back from the dead who all had committed suicide and want to change her mind! Even future comedy star Jason Bateman pops up as one of them. It’s not just lazy, lacklustre storytelling, it’s also just a really dumb idea.

‘Bates Motel’ was intended as a pilot for an eventual TV series (which is funny in hindsight considering the current ‘Bates Motel’ series about Norman and Norma Bates currently running). This explains its abysmal ending, more akin to an episode of ‘Scooby Doo’. It’s little wonder the series wasn’t picked up – there’s not an ounce of genuine originality or inspiration in it. There’s no doubt it deserves a place in this set (as it is a complete collection of the franchise) but don’t expect to be getting a long-lost ‘Psycho’ gem. No matter how long this piece of coal was buried, no diamond will come out of it.

Of the six films in this set, ‘Bates Motel’ is the only one offered on DVD, but I can’t imagine there being a rush to get this in high definition. Even by DVD standards, this standard definition 1.66:1 transfer is a real mess, betraying its age and the low budget of its production. You can still expect a certain amount of detail from DVD, but this is awash with print damage, splotchy colours and blurred lines. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is a tad better and does the job, but then it doesn’t exactly have much to do.

NOTE: The DVD is in NTSC as opposed to PAL.

Not only are there no special features included, there’s no menu on the disc at all. The film was released as part of the Universal DVD-On-Demand service through Amazon, so that’s likely where this release was taken from.

One of a series of documentaries that appeared at the height of DVD covering the famous horror franchises, ‘The Psycho Legacy’ has all the appearance of being the ultimate special feature for the Via Vision box set. In many ways, it fulfils the brief – director Robert V. Galluzzo captures recollections from participants from across all the major sequels, as well as chats with industry figures on the importance of each film. It’s a tantalising prospect, and there are mountains of tit-bits spread throughout that open up the development and making of the films, but if you’re expecting a documentary with the spit and polish of a major DVD documentary, you might be disappointed.

The documentary goes through each of the four films (though it understandably skips quickly over the original), mixing behind-the-scenes footage and stills with the interviews. The problem is, the interviews mostly consist of the subjects (very conspicuously pretty much only men) waxing lyrical about what each films means and the lens through which they personally see it. Because of this, ‘The Psycho Legacy’ feels less like a retrospective on the series and more like a fan servicing. The interviews with cast and crew are great, and they all have a far more balanced view of the series, but the pontificating from the pop culture representatives gets a bit much. Galluzzo puts it together in a snappy fashion, but it betrays its low budget. The most distracting part though is the score, which tries to emulate Hermann’s score without ever actually playing it, so you end up with all these recognisable notes played in some bizarre order. After a while, it gives you one hell of a headache.

All those gripes aside, ‘The Psycho Legacy’ has a lot to offer, especially as a document on the sequels. In fact, a large section is devoted to ‘Psycho IV’, which ends up being the most fascinating section as there are no extras on the film disc. It’s definitely worth a watch and many moments are genuinely interesting, just don’t expect anything too flashy.

Presented in standard definition on DVD, the 1.66:1 transfer is a bit of a mixed bag, mostly due to the many different source materials used throughout. It’s still watchable, and the colours in particular are very vibrant. It comes with a clear and serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0 track.

NOTE: The DVD is in NTSC as opposed to PAL.

‘The Psycho Legacy’ comes with copious extras, mostly interviews that didn’t make the final cut. On the first disc, you have deleted scenes and extended interviews, but most of the material is reserved for the second disc. Here you get the full version of the Anthony Perkins Q&A (41:58) that’s featured in the documentary, which isn’t in the best state but Perkins is wonderful to watch. There’s also a selection of snippets (set to still photography) from a 2008 panel on the franchise with members of the cast and crew (6:37), a small featurette on the novelist Robert Bloch (12:27) and another on the presence of the franchise on the internet (3:44). The rest of the material features Galuzzo himself, doing additional interviews mostly for Psycho II, one with the writer Tom Holland, ‘Revisiting Psycho II’ (15:29) and another with cinematographer Dean Cundey, ‘Shooting Psycho II’ (19:05). There’s also a look at the Universal Studios Bates Motel tour (2:33), an interview with memorabilia collector Guy Thorpe (6:49) and a look at a serial killer-inspired art show held at the Hyena Gallery (11:59).

Exhausted? As you should be – what Via Vision have assembled is a spectacular collection, one of the better ones created for a horror franchise. As much as possible, each film has been treated with respect and attention, and clearly every effort has been made to make sure this set includes the best presentations and extras possible. The Psycho franchise is an odd one, bucking the trend of the usual horror franchises by constantly seeking to reinvent itself. Each film that follows the flawless original is a curiosity all of its own, often more intriguing that you would expect. It’s inconsistent and often unfocused, but at the very least, the sequels attempt to pick up the ideas and threads Hitchcock left behind and spin them into something entertaining, thought-provoking and chilling. ‘Psycho: The Complete Collection’ demonstrates this beautifully. For any fan of the franchise, this is an absolute must-own.

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