Tuesday 11 December 2018

Bates Motel (1987)

Bates Motel (1987)
Director: Richard Rothstein
Writer: Richard Rothstein
Stars: Bud Cort, Lori Petty, Moses Gunn, Gregg Henry, Khrystyne Haje, Jason Bateman and Kerrie Keane

Social media has been abuzz (well, a little bit) with the fact that interim Phoenix mayor Thelda Williams has issued a proclamation that 11th December, 2018 will be known as 'Psycho' Day. It's an odd thing, of course, for a public official to celebrate psychos in any form, but this is a little different from what many might expect. While most of Alfred Hitchcock's classic, Psycho, was shot at Revue Studios in Universal City, CA, including all the scenes at the 'Psycho House', which is located on the Universal backlot even though Psycho was a Paramount picture, it famously opens with a long shot of the downtown Phoenix skyline. For a full thirty seconds, the camera pans across my city until it zooms in through a hotel window to show Sam Loomis and Marion Crane getting dressed. Hitch sets the scene with text: "Phoenix, Arizona" on "Friday, December the Eleventh" at "Two Forty-Three P.M." The mayor wants us to "remember and celebrate the inclusion of our city's skyline in this culturally significant film," which seems appropriate enough.

However, I've already reviewed Psycho at Apocalypse Later, so I thought I'd take a look at one of the many films that followed in its wake instead. Two direct sequels (the imaginatively titled Psycho II and Psycho III) and a remake (the even more imaginatively titled Psycho) have been released to theaters and there's a recent television series called Bates Motel that ran for five seasons; it also began in Arizona. In between the sequels and the show were two TV movies, the better known of which was Psycho IV: The Beginning with Anthony Perkins reprising his famous role as Norman Bates yet again. I like delving into cinematic obscurities, though, so I chose a look at the other one instead, Bates Motel, which aired on NBC Monday Night at the Movies in 1987, especially as it's been notably hard to find since its original screening but is now available on print-on-demand DVD from the Universal Vault Collection. It was a pitch for a TV series which never happened, so it's yet another failed pilot, but it's an odd one and I do wonder about that potential show.

The first thing you need to know is that it's emphatically not about Norman Bates. We do see Norman, right at the very beginning of the film, as he's being hustled out of the Fairville courthouse and into a black car, but it's a fleeting glimpse that serves to allow writer/director Richard Rothstein to transition from the original film to this one. Convicted of his crimes, Mr. Bates is about to be driven down a "long road known as justice", or so orates a wildly overdone radio reporter outside the courthouse, to the California state mental institution at Dunsmore where "perhaps, just perhaps, Norman will come to understand the wrong that he's done and, through kindness and a lot of intensive analysis, will emerge from the darkness into the light." I should point out that Kurt Paul is the actor playing Norman; he was Anthony Perkins's double in both Psycho II and Psycho III and he played Norman's mother in most scenes in the latter too. Hilariously, he also played Norman Blates, the coroner on the spoof cop show, Sledge Hammer!

Anyway, Norman never does emerge from Dunsmore, because only four minutes but twenty seven years later, we find ourselves at his funeral. Those four minutes are spent introducing us to young Alex West, a boy whom the Dunsmore staff are unable to reach. A "poor innocent at the mercy of a brutalising stepfather", he's at Dunsmore because he solved that problem by dry cleaning his dad to death. Now he's a quiet and withdrawn child with a pet bird called Jack that he stuffed himself, the latter there to lead naturally to the next step. "You need a real friend," Dr. Goodman tells him, so he introduces him to Norman Bates. After all, they share an interest in taxidermy, so good ol' Norm will be the perfect gateway to rainbows and unicorns. Bizarrely, it works, and the two get on like a house on fire. Alex gives a spirited eulogy at Norman's funeral and he's left the Bates Motel in Norman's will. In the "not creepy at all" department, he also gets Norman's ashes, so he can put the urn by his bedside and wish, "Goodnight, old friend."

The best line of the movie, by the way, comes during the reading of Norman's will. "I, Norman Bates, being of sound mind..." begins the lawyer, before pausing gloriously and rolling his eyes at us. Anyway, because we wouldn't have a film without it, Dr. Goodman recommends to the Dunsmore board that Alex be released. "You've fought your demons and the world has said, 'You've won!'" he explains. I wonder about Dr. Goodman, who apparently fails to remember that Alex hasn't seen that world for 27 years. He doesn't even think that Alex needs some sort of help to introduce him to that world. So he and the Dunsmore family dump adult Alex with the agreeably lost face of Bud Cort onto a bus to Los Angeles with a note on a Bates Motel postcard to catch the #32 to Fairville. Nice of them, huh? He does make it there but can't find the motel itself because apparently nobody in town has ever heard of it. Maybe, like us, they're flummoxed by his jacket which has far too many lines for an American television to be able to display it.
You might wonder where we're going, but you'll be doing that for a long while because this is a film of various and varied parts. It takes almost twenty minutes of exposition before Alex walks through a high fence to find the Bates Motel abandoned except for an oddly prolific colony of tumbleweeds. The main house remains surprisingly intact, perhaps because the community is superstitious enough to avoid looting it, so the room keys are still there, the guestbook is still open to July 1960 and there's still a black shawl on Mother's bed. That's a sign, right? Alex quickly takes a shower, without incident, though the camera is off kilter and Norman's urn peeks through the open door, so we do wonder if we're going to see a supernatural return of Norman Bates as Mother to terrorise poor innocent Alex. After all, while the bank knows that it's prime real estate and he'll surely make a killing (ha!), he's just seeking a small loan to renovate and reopen the motel. There's lots of opportunity here for a pretty routine Psycho TV movie, right?

Even when co-star Lori Petty arrives in characteristically unique fashion—she's been squatting in the 'Psycho House' and surprises Alex from inside a giant chicken suit she has for work as a living advertisement for Sly's—we don't lose that expectation. Willie is a wild and carefree soul, the precise opposite of Alex, and she grounds him with her streetwise nature, so the film continues on as a supernatural horror flick. Forty minutes in, with the motel now a worksite, a contractor bulldozes through an underground cable and electrocutes himself. He's fine, but hey, isn't that the corpse of the long lost Gloria Bates in her coffin, and, when she's moved into the city cemetery, there's a mysterious lady in black far enough away from the other mourners to seem even freakier than the freaky tree above her might already suggest. This discovery sparks a new direction for the picture in which the focus shifts back a generation. 'Who's this Norman Bates character?' asks Willie. 'The previous owner,' replies Alex, simply, as to him, he's just a friend.
You see, just like Alex became a murderer because his dad was abusive, Norman became a murderer because of his dad, Jake Bates. Tom at the bank does the research and tells Alex: apparently Jake was a womaniser, who happily serviced his pretty customers in ways that were not advertised. Then, one day, he vanished and Gloria, his long suffering wife, took to wearing a black dress and looking down at the Bates Motel sign from her bedroom window. You know the image! Was she waiting for him to return from his latest dalliance or is she mourning the death of her philandering husband? Nobody knows. Well, until another skeleton is found in the worksite, wearing a highly recognisable JB ring. Are we moving into material that might be more appropriate for a prequel or are we deepening the well for Alex to fall into? He wakes from a nightmare and, investigating what's wrong with the sign, sees the woman in the black dress. Rushing up, he looks out to see a body with a knife in it under the sign. Rushing down again, it's gone.

Ignoring the clearly one-off subplot about the bank taking advantage of Alex—he has to pay back $10,000 the day after he opens for business—we reach the hour mark wondering about what sort of show this pilot is setting up. What ground would it have explored on a weekly basis? Well, we're about to find out an hour into the movie as the very first customer checks into the freshly reopened Bates, because, at this point, the entire movie changes tack, to the degree that Bud Cort and Lori Petty almost entirely vanish from it. Where we're going is an anthology series, with Cort and Petty hosts from inside the show as regular supporting characters who introduce and underpin the stories, rather than external hosts, who vanish when the story begins, like Rod Serling or, well, Alfred Hitchcock. A different guest star was clearly going to check into the Bates Motel at the outset of each episode, which would then be the supernatural backdrop to their particular story. Rinse and repeat for as many series as the ratings would allow.
Well, the ratings didn't allow for any series, even though I enjoyed the 'first episode', by which I mean the last half hour of this TV movie. The star here is Kerrie Keane, a Canadian actress who works mostly in television and was absolutely gorgeous in 1987, even with big eighties hair. She's Barbara Peters and she's an aerobics instructor who explains to Alex that she's looking for peace and quiet because she's writing a book. At heart, though, she's a triple divorcée who's planning to slice her wrists open in the bathtub to the accompaniment of Dion and the Belmonts. What's odd is that she signs her suicide notes as Sally. Before she can go through with it, though, a young lady bursts into the room as her key for Room 11 works for Room 12 too and this vibrant creature guides her and us to the point of this movie, twenty minutes before it's over. The Bates is now magically full and Alex is catering a party to a bunch of youngsters, featuring a live rock 'n' roll band and shy little Tony, to whom Barbara is deliberately introduced.

It seems odd to see the 75 minute mark of a 95 minute movie as the point where spoilers become applicable, but there's a point to this section, a touching and meaningful one, even if it's one that's presented a little conveniently and confusingly. Keane is superb here, easily able to steal the entire picture even though she's only in it for twenty minutes. On the basis of her brief but subtle and nuanced performance here, I find myself keen, pun well and truly intended, to check out her work elsewhere, especially a feature called Hitting Home, as she played the lead role opposite Saul Rubinek, already a personal favourite, and found her work nominated for a Genie Award. Khrystyne Haje is spot on too as the pivotal interloper from Room 11, whose character name I will deliberately ignore for this review—if you can guess it, you've just explained the twist—and a scarily young Justin Bateman is effective as Tony in the same year that he played the title character in Teen Wolf Too, no less than sixteen years before Arrested Development.
This feels a little unfair to Bud Cort who does everything that's asked of him as Alex West, and Lori Petty, who does likewise as his connection to the wide world of 1987 which he doesn't pretend to understand at all. They're the leads of Bates Motel, the TV movie, and they would be the stars of the subsequent show, but they're not what either of those things are about. They're the scenery that the film's story and show's stories unfold against, even if they're given ample opportunity to flesh themselves out here. The same goes for Moses Gunn, another reliable character actor of long standing who provides able support as handyman Henry Carter. He's Alex's connection to the old Bates Motel, as he worked for Norman back in the day. It's Kerrie Keane who's the real star of this first episode, though, and it's Kerrie Keane who gets all the opportunities to make herself remembered. It's a great role for her, even if she would be done with Bates Motel after its pilot, leaving Cort and Petty to steal some of our attention back as the show ran on.

Of course, that show never happened. NBC didn't want it and neither did anyone else, so it became a failed pilot, a TV movie of the week, an oddly remembered obscurity. To be fair, the presentation didn't help, with NBC's trailers promising that it would revisit Psycho territory with a new lead. "History will repeat itself," they crowed, before Bernard Herrman's shrieking strings add promise to something that was never going to be delivered because it wasn't the point. However, even had the promotion been tailored to what Bates Motel actually was, it probably wouldn't have helped. This is three or four films in one, which wraps up like Scooby Doo and only confusingly points the way forward. It feels like Richard Rothstein knew what he wanted to do with the show he wanted to propose, but had to shoehorn that into a franchise that, frankly, had absolutely nothing to do with it. The twenty minutes that he probably cared about is actually pretty good. The rest is irrelevant and, now, wildly out of canon.

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