How do you make a good sequel?
Naturally this isn't a question that causes many Hollywood types to lie awake at night tossing and turning. Any sequel that'll make money tends to be good enough for a producer, and as maligned as they are for the shameless cash ins churned out every year, you have to try and look at it objectively. Film making is a business and if you fail to produce a new installment in a profitable franchise every couple of years you are pretty fiscally irresposnible. Any producer who turned around and said 'No, actually, I think that making a sequel to the billion dollar earning last Pirates of the Carribean is a bad idea and compromises artistic integrity' would be booted out of the studio in seconds. It's a sad inevitablity of life; if something you love makes money, expect follow ups with increasingly diminishing returns.
The reason I'm writing about this is that the other night I went to the wonderful Astor Theatre to see a double bill of Psycho and The Birds. Now I was pretty excited about this as Psycho is one of my all time favourite films and I had never seen it on the big screen. And naturally it was just as damn good as I had expected. But a couple of days later, still thinking about the film and having just seen the new movie Hitchcock detailing the behind the scenes dramas, I dug out my old Psycho Collection box set, with all four films on DVD. Oh, for those who don't know, the Hitchcock classic spawned three sequels.
But ignore three and four; I want to discuss Psycho II. When I first saw the film years ago, I loved it almost as much as I loved the original. Heresy? Maybe, but there are a lot of reasons to love the sequel. It's scary, tense and beautifully continues exploring the mythology established by the origninal. It's also one of the most shameless attempts at money making in cinematic history. When Psycho was released in 1960, the studios demanded a sequel, but Hitchcock refused, stating that the story was complete. Hitchcock died 21 years after the release of Psycho. One year later Psycho II was released. The studios literally waited until Hitchcock died before rushing the film into production. They brought back Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles, the surviving stars of the original and hired director Richard Franklin, a protege of Hitchcock.
Today, Psycho II is generally forgotten. When I mentioned it at the Astor screening, most people laughed. It's not hard to see why; the original is a complete, perfect, self contained story. It is an immensely satisfying film that does not need to be continued on or expanded upon. And yet, for those who might just be the tiniest bit curious as to what happened to Norman Bates and Lila Crane after the 1960 classic, well, there's a lot to enjoy in the sequel.
See the biggest thing working in Psycho II's favour, funnily enough, is the distance between itself and its predecessor. At the time of its release Psycho was already regarded as a classic; a groundbreaking cinematic masterpiece. Making a sequel at all, let alone without the involvement of Hitchcock, was tantamount to blasphemy. How could it be done? A straight retread of the original (i.e. The Hangover Part II) would be derided as lazy and insulting, while something that shook up the formula too much (i.e. Texas Chainsaw Massacre II) would be written off as damaging to the legacy of a classic. It was an impossible situation, but the studios knew that, even if purely out of curiosity, people would see the film and it would make everyone involved a lot of money. It had to be done. But how?
It's surprising how well the film works. It walks a very fine line between homage and continuation. It knows that it will never escape the shadow of its classic predecessor, but it also takes risks in deepening and exploring the world of the original. After all, we never really knew what kind of person Norman Bates was. How much of his nice guy persona was just an act? Did he genuinely believe his own innocence? Psycho II shows us a lonely, damaged soul determined to just get on with his life without hurting anyone. He is scared of himself and his past but goes back to his motel because he has nothing else in his life. He silently accepts Lila Crane telling him to his face that he is a monster who should be locked up forever, because some part of him believes it. The tragedy of the film is that Norman Bates may very well be cured, but the world at large simply cannot accept it and the constant pushing and tormenting of those who don't believe him drive him right back to what he knows; the twisted comfort of believing that his dead mother will always watch and control him, eliminating anything that makes Norman feel threatened. One look at Norman's face at the start of the film tells us everything; this is a man who wants to be sane, but he doubts himself at every corner, and it is people like Lila Crane, arguably the heroine of the original and now unquestionably the true villain, to take advantage of his insecurity and drive him insane again. At the end of the film, the status quo is returned; Norman is calling a corpse mother and is ready to kill to preserve his little fantasy. It is in every way a set up for another 80's slasher franchise with a twisted killer mined from a classic film that had not yet been exploited enough. But somehow this is all okay because the film does such a good job of exploring Norman's psyche and showing the audience just why this was the only possible fate for him. Without watching the mind numbingly awful Psycho III, Psycho II is an exceptionally good 'what if' scenario, a great love letter to a classic and a film that deserves a lot more love than it gets. No, it is nowhere near as good as the original, but there is nothing wrong with it either.
So why did I just let loose on a really exceptionally long rant about a film probably nobody who might stumble on this will have seen? Because it's a really good film and well worth checking out. Everyone should see it. The only people who shouldn't see it are those who haven't seen the original. And if that's the case then get off my website, drop what you're doing and watch Psycho now. You have no excuse. Go on, I can wait.
Writing words about writing words.