Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A Boy’s Best Friend is His Mother, or Thoughts on Bates Motel

I can think of three all time desert island/favorite movies off the top of my head: Vertigo (1958), To Catch a Thief (1955) and Psycho (1960).  Know what they all have in common?  You guessed it, Alfred Hitchcock.  I consider myself an expert on all things Hitchcock and especially Psycho; I’ve seen all the movies and I’ve read all the biographies.  I read the source novel by Robert Bloch, which was inspired by Ed Gein and was innovative for its focus on psychological horrors and the novelty of split personalities and transvestism, rather than supernatural horror.  Hitchcock took that novel and added his own favorite themes, mainly voyeurism and paranoia.
I’ve seen all the sequels starring Anthony Perkins, and even the HBO TV movie Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990).  (If you have to watch a sequel, I’d recommend Psycho II (1983) starring a very young Meg Tilly in one of her first screen roles).   I’ve seen the 1998 color photocopy shot-by-shot remake by Gus Van Sant.  I could write an entire post on the magnificent score by Bernard Hermann or the title sequence by Saul Bass, one of my all-time favorite graphic designers.  I’m telling you this so you know how deeply passionate I am for this particular movie and Norman Bates as portrayed by Anthony Perkins, and how qualified I am to write about Bates Motel. 
Unless you’re in film school at the moment, I’m the closest thing to a Hitchcock scholar you’ll encounter today.
Bates Motel is not technically a sequel, so doesn't activate my reflexive resistance and disdain for sequels and remakes.  As a prequel it can explore new territory, expand on the plot and introduce new characters.  Carlton Cuse, the producer of Lost has limited the series to 5 seasons, a decision I most heartily approve of.  It makes for a tight story with a proper beginning, middle and end.  And speaking of endings, we all know where Norman will end up, but in the original movie we only follow him for a couple weeks.  In Bates Motel we’re going on 4 years of watching Norman’s slow descent into madness and how it affects the people around him.
And I would argue that the series is more about Norman’s mother, Norma, played with harried passive aggression by Vera Farmiga.  She’s a single mom trying to raise a son and run a small business, controlling, overly protective and beyond clingy.
There’s a mid-century vibe to Norma’s wardrobe and her vintage Mercedes, and the series made a faithful reproduction of the house in all its lovely dusty Victorian gothic decay, contrasted with the 50’s motor-inn down the hill.  Computers, Internet references and cell phones are the only reference points the viewer has to anchor them in this specific time period.  Bates Motel becomes an island out of time inhabited by the Norma and Norman, and the juxtaposition with the outside world serves as a reference to the original movie.
Freddie Highmore from Finding Neverland (2004) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) plays the teen Norman Bates with all the nervous, lanky tics and preppy wardrobe that both echoes and reinvents Anthony Perkins’ defining and iconic performance.  He has perfected the look of lost-boy innocence and spoiled malice, but has enough charm and stage presence to illicit sympathy.  We know Norman’s crazy and a killer, but we still want him to win.
Another excellent update on the series’ part was to move the hotel to the Pacific Northwest coast from Arizona of the original movie.  White Pine Bay has a weird, Twin Peaks small town with dark secrets vibe, although the weed grower sub-plot is already dated as more states move to legalize cannabis and the drug gradually loses it stigma.
Along with Olivia Cooke as family friend Emma Decody (driving Ted Bundy’s VW, I’m so surprised no one has written about that) and Nestor Carbonell from Lost as Sheriff Romero, played with an awkward yet suspicious confusion.  Half-brother Dylan Bates, as portrayed by Max Theriot adds adds a redemption sub-plot and a relatively normal character for the audience to sympathize and follow.
All of the building blocks to Psycho are lovingly presented; Norman discovers taxidermy as a new hobby, his issues with girls, but they’ve also added blackouts and clearly defined the relationship between Norman and the still-living Norma.  It’s a twisted maternal relationship full of narcissistic rage and codependency  but at its heart it is a story of a mother and a son surviving in a harsh world.
Norma somehow finds the time to make home cooked meals, but it’s difficult to determine what’s actually real and what’s happening in Norman’s mind.  I mean, did she really cook that elaborate meal or is Norman imagining it?  The lines between reality and psychosis blur for viewers in clever and manipulative ways as Vera Farmiga plays the real Norma, and Norman’s Mother, an interior voice with a harsher hairstyle and even more old-fashioned wardrobe.  This allows Norman and more importantly, the audience to maintain his innocence because from his perspective he’s a loving and dutiful son protecting the world from his crazy murderous mother.
It’s a clever series, a welcome addition to the Psycho universe and I have to admit, far more effective than those three sequels.  Anthony Perkins was never able to get out from under the weight of playing Norman Bates; the role followed him to the end of his career.  I don’t foresee Freddie Highmore or Vera Farmiga having the same problem, simply because the characters have had more time to develop and the audience has become accustomed to them. 

We all go a little mad sometimes, and since we saw that vacancy sign at the Bates Motel, we’ve all been mad for Norman.


my first novel? thanks for asking:) I wrote a 4 book supernatural martial arts series concerning the ongoing feud between a group of kung-fu killer witches in san francsico’s chinatown.