Thursday, November 11, 2010

Under New Management

With the Norman Bates saga effectively concluded (or at least seemingly) with Bates’ return to institutionalization at the end of Psycho III, Universal decided to take the Psycho series to television bringing only the original film and the famous locales along. Riding a wave of a nostalgic return to genre anthology series, by this point the Steven Spielberg produced Amazing Stories was on the air as were new incarnations of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Twilight Zone and other franchises such as Friday the 13th (in name only) and A Nightmare on Elm Street were in the works, writer-director Richard Rothstein, who had written and produced the HBO anthology series The Hitch-Hiker, was tasked with using the infamous house and hotel for what was formulated to be a weekly series focusing on the strange occurrences surrounding guests of the Bates Motel. A two-hour pilot was commissioned focusing on the new owner and the renovation as well as an incident that would also serve as a template for future episodes. NBC did not pick up the series and instead ran the pilot as a movie of the week on July 5th, 1987.

Completely eschewing the events of both sequels, Bates Motel introduces us to Alex West played by the perpetually youthful (the guy looked like he aged about 5 years between this and 1971’s Harold and Maude) and nervous Bud Cort, who as a child murdered his abusive step-father. In the sanitarium a kindly doctor (Robert Picardo) teams the troubled soul with Norman Bates, another youthful and nervous patient (played by Anthony Perkins’ stand-in on the first three films Kurt Paul) and they form a tight bond that provides redemption for Bates and a positive father figure for Alex. After Bates dies he bequeaths his inheritance, the Bates house and motel to Alex who moves to the town of Fruitvale after being declared sane and in tribute to his deceased friend restores it. But as the motel is going through its renovation spooky arbiters of potential doom begin happening: the skeletons of the paternal Bates appear, the vacancy sign turns on and off by itself and a familiar silhouette beings popping up. Is the house haunted by spirits angry that West is starting a new legacy? Or do they just really hate the new gaudy Southwestern décor? Or perhaps there’s some reasonable explanation that will reveal the work of someone who ain’t a fan of no meddling kids a la Scooby Doo? Furthermore, what happens to the first guest, a suicidal middle aged woman (Kerrie Keane), to stay at the new Bates Motel?

As you can probably surmise by the complicated plot summary, one of the major problems with Rothstein’s film is that it tries to be too much coupled with a lack of any sense of tone. When a filmmaker can mix disparate styles and moods seamlessly, it’s a thing of beauty. Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, David Cronenberg, and hey, Alfred Hitchcock are some of the filmmakers that come immediately to my mind as being particularly adept at combining suspense, comedy, drama, violence, or what have you. Rothstein is nowhere near them. So the humor is met with a thud, it’s never really scary or suspenseful and when attempts are made at ethereal experiences, it’s just confusing since they function as a supposed guidance to one character, but are visible and active in the real world as well.

The fatal flaw though is the fumbled manner in which Rothstein attempts to shoehorn the suicidal woman’s storyline with the rest of the arc. After about one hour of the ninety minutes long show (that’s the length sans commercial), the story then focuses on the woman as she meets specters of teenage suicide victims (which includes Khrystyne Haje, Simone from Head of the Class, and Jason Bateman); besides confusing matters when these alleged spirits also interact with the hotel operators, the main problem is it becomes the focus of the story for 20 minutes completely ignoring the West storyline until it’s finally brought back for the final ten minutes. I realize the function of an anthology series is that each week a new character is introduced, but here the narrative flow is completely ruined. And speaking of the resolution to the Alex West storyline which I hinted at a few paragraphs above, for a film that eradicates Psycho II from existence, it sure is okay stealing that film’s major storyline of whether Mother has returned or someone with cruel intent is mimicking her to scare the unsteady protagonist.

Bates Motel is very much a mid-1980s TV movie of the week, so it’s hard to hold director Richard Rothstein to the standards of Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Franklin, or even Tony Perkins, but his inability to balance tone and the strange narrative late turn reflect poorly on the enterprise. The style of the Bates Motel, including the awful remodel, look nothing like the original film. I thought one of Psycho II’s strength was the production design and art direction that did a wonderful job of establishing the transition of the Bates house and motel into color. Bud Cort and Clark Gregg are solid if unspectacular in roles that conform to their strengths so much that little effort was probably involved. Lori Petty as the overall perky tomboy, who may have been West’s love interest if the show went to series, is grating, but I am willing to accept that’s due more to the written character than to Petty’s performance.

Bates Motel received middling ratings and evaporated from the public consciousness (I had actually recorded and watched it on VHS back in 1987—the height of my Psycho love--but completely forgot of its existence until scanning the Psycho Legacy website) but television wasn’t done with Norman entirely yet. Anthony Perkins’ swan song to horror’s most famous contemporary character would follow.


Mummbles said...

Thanks for the write up, I knew very little about this besides it was a failed tv show pilot. I guess if I ever have the chance to watch it I should try, but at least I know what to expect now.

I can't wait to see the final write up, I remember there is a Psycho when Norman Bates calls into a radio station I am pretty sure it was the last one.

Cinema Du Meep said...

Have always meant to get my hands on this. Thanks for the reminder. Must. See. Now.

Colonel Mortimer said...

Anyone interested, here's where I got my (recorded VHS circa 1988 level quality) copy:

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