The F*cking Black Sheep: Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!



Say, what do you think the all time best horror movie sequel is? DAWN OF THE DEAD? ALIENS? EVIL DEAD II? Maybe JAWS 4?

Okay, you can strike that last one. Seriously though, if we were to drum up a poll on the matter, chances are quite high we wouldn’t get a single vote for any one of the PSYCHO addendums. Rightly so. However, it’s really only due to the all-time excellence of their predecessor that the PSYCHO sequels have stood nary a chance in the court of public opinion. After all, to think about the various PSYCHO iterations is to inevitably call to mind the masterful original, and when unfairly comparing them to Hitchcock’s unimpeachable classic, the sequels simply fall short. Way short. That much is understood.

Now, for the intents and purposes of this article, we’re fitting to ignore that line of thinking altogether and, based on the merits of the movie itself, judge one of the PSYCHO sequels accordingly. And as it happens you guys and ghouls, we’re going back to THE BEGINNING. No, not 1960…back to the future of 1990. Knowing full well that Hitch’s forerunner is in its own untouchable stratosphere, we’re fixing to make a case as to why Mick Garris’ PSYCHO IV is, was, and will forever be an inexcusably neglected F*cking Black Sheep of a horror movie. Damn it, just like PSYCHO II and III, this movie is better than people give it credit for!

The first thing I always loved about PSYCHO IV is its clever narrative conceit. Cleaved between Norman’s tormented past and his ostensibly rehabilitated present, the movie opens with Bates listening into a local radio show. The topic is matricide, which means killing one’s own mother. Clearly intimate with the subject matter, Norman calls into the radio station and converses with its host Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder, the greatest name in entertainment other than Coco Crisp) and her psychologist guest, Dr. Leo Richmond (Warren Frost).

With Norman’s homicidal tendencies thought to be things of the long ago past – he’s now married to Connie (Donna Mitchell), fully domesticated - these radio calls inadvertently rekindle an evil impulse in killer cross-dresser’s devious psyche. We’re then whisked back to the 40s and 50s, where, in flashback to the decrepit house above Bates Motel, we witness just how wickedly domineering Norman’s mother was (played by a quite lively Olivia Hussey), and how the years of cruel systematic emasculation of her own son (played by Henry Thomas) lead to such a deep-seeded psychological toll. On both of them!

Here’s where things get really interesting though. Undergirding the drama is whether or not Norman’s psychosis is genetic, which he believes to be the case, and his nagging sense of responsibility for bringing a child into the world with his genetic disposition. So while we catch glimpses of Norman’s ultra-disturbing upbringing, we also watch him reckon with the urge to kill his own expectant wife in the present time. Of course, Norman knows right from wrong, and despite the tempting phone-call reminiscences and resurfaced cravings for murder, there’s a moral tug-of-war he must battle with until the end. I absolutely love that distinction, as it pushes the psychological aspect laid in the original to even more unnerving depths, and relies less on the slasher tropes the original all but invented.

Speaking of the original, let it be known that this is the only PSYCHO sequel to callback Bernard Herman’s legendary score. And those piercing strings send a shiver running down your back immediately. THE BEGINNING is also the only PSYCHO sequel not to pander to the crowd by replaying the infamous shower scene. I always appreciated that. I also really like how we get to see the way in which Norman eventually does murder his mother, how drawn out it is, and how confused and emotionally at odds he is with poisoning her to death. He loves her, he hates her, he wants her dead, he can’t live without her. It’s a solid scene, played well by both Thomas and Hussey, with Garris sort of stepping out of the way and let them do their thing.

Another standout scene includes one in which Norma all but seduces her own son, then brutally chastises the kid when he seems to respond in kind. She locks him in a closet, forces him into one of her dresses, smears lipstick all over his face, and makes him sit in the darkness overnight with only a pitcher of water to keep him company. That’s tough love right there! Or how about the films initial slaughter for another? Norman gorily vitiates a teenage date by repeatedly impaling the poor gal with a large butcher knife…thee butcher knife! Yeah, apparently Thomas was so invested in filming this scene in real life that the knife actually dug into his own hand, causing nerve damage. He still has a scar to this day. F*ck yes, the intensity shows on screen!

The other flashback scene I always found fascinating is the one in which young Norman does succumb to his mother’s insistent directive to be a girl. We see him in full drag and makeup, court a hot young lass, and just when he’s got her in the seat of his car, he barks: “Drive, Whore!” before strangling her to death with a rope. But here’s the kicker. Like Norman in the original, he tries to ditch the evidence by stuffing the body in the trunk and driving the car into the lake out back. Only this time, the girl isn’t quite dead! Her body flails in the trunk as it’s sinking, which totally upends the tension of the original, whereby we all but root for Norman to get away with his crime. Here we see him grapple with what to do now knowing the girl is still alive. It’s a kind of callback that adds a bit of a wrinkle to what unfolded before it, which I always kind of appreciated. And hey, we also pick up old Normy's M.O. for sinking classic Fords!

Not for nothing, but something ought to also be said for Tony Perkins’ work as Norman Bates. This dude was obviously dedicated to the character, which is why he continued to trudge through production even when being diagnosed with and treated for HIV while making the movie. It’s a compelling 30-year character arc to see where Norman Bates came from and where he ended up, the complex shading, the guilt, the remorse, the shame, the rehab and recidivism, and of course, the veritable violence. THE BEGINNING would be the last time Perkins appeared as Norman Bates. Incidentally, it happened to be Perkins' favorite of the PSYCHO sequels, even despite directing PART III (my personal favorite, by the way). PSYCHO IV is also on record as being the only PSYCHO sequel that the great Stephen King enjoyed. All of that and above ring true as to why, three decades later, PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING is still a F*cking Black Sheep!


Extra Tidbit: PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING was the first film to shoot at Universal Studios, Orlando.
Source: AITH



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