Bates Motel: Ranking the Psycho Films

In celebration of Bates Motel's return, we rank all of the Psycho films from worst to best. Yes, even that remake....

The third season of A&E’s Bates Motel is here, and it looks to be its best season yet. With many people eager to soak up as much Psycho as possible before the premiere, it wouldn’t be in poor form to rewatch Alfred Hitchcock’s classic. However, a lot of folks are unaware of the fact that Hitchcock’s film saw several sequels exploring the aftermath of Norman Bates meeting Marion Crane.

In honor of Bates Motel re-opening its door for vacancy, we thought we’d look at each of the entries in the Psycho franchise and rank them from the worst to the best.

Bates Motel (1987)

Technically taking place post Psycho III, and as if Psycho IV never happened, this failed pilot-turned TV movie sees Norman leaving his motel to Alex West (Bud Cort), a man he spent time with in the insane asylum for killing his stepfather. After Norman’s passing, and Alex inheriting the place, he tries to get the motel up and running again. Of course, strange things begin to happen and maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all…

While this is hardly fundamental viewing, and arguably a lot of people don’t even know that it exists, it’s still interesting enough to check out. It doesn’t do much to complement the films and its connection to them is tenuous at best, but Bates Motel still has its moments in a campy sense.

Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990)

What we have here is quite the messy prequel. The film has tons of continuity errors. Seriously, there are flubs like Norman’s dad dying from bee stings rather than Norman’s hand. It’s full of mistakes and feels disconnected from the first three films, which is kind of surprising considering the screenwriter of the original Psycho, Joseph Stefano, returned to write this. I mean, we barely get Norman as Norman, and clunky backstory films like this (see also: Hannibal Rising) are seldom satisfying, especially when you demystify them so much.

The film operates around the pretty forced framing device of a radio show on matricide that could have been a hundred different things instead. It’s really just a conduit to jump through Norman’s life, but it works well enough.

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Even though this is largely dismissible, there are still some interesting ideas being played with like the big one of Norman’s wife (yeah) getting pregnant. Norman calls into this radio show and announces that he’s going to kill her because he doesn’t want a son with his genes to be put into the world. Basically, Norman killing his wife eliminates this larger evil from happening. That’s pretty great when you think about it, as is the visual of Norman burning down his house at the end of all of this. But other than that, you just have a lot of flaming wreckage.

Psycho (1998)

It’s perhaps not the worst idea out there to remake Hitchcock’s Psycho. A lot of his near-flawless films like The Birds, Rear Window, and most recently Strangers on a Train, have either been or are about to be remade, so why not Psycho? What perhaps isn’t the best idea is  remaking the film as a shot-for-shot recreation of the original. This is exactly what Gus Van Sant did (while also adding color), in what otherwise felt more like an experiment for himself to see if he could pull it off. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Really, the only redeeming factor is the only element that’s different: the cast. The performances might not make this experience worthwhile in the end, but they are certainly thought provoking. For instance, Vince Vaughn as Norman brings a credible performance to the iconic character. It also features the likes of Viggo Mortensen, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, and William H. Macy doing their best to memorably round things out.

More than anything, this feels like it really didn’t need to be made, but the subtle differences and fascination factor help it out some. Why couldn’t Gus Van Sant (or Quentin Tarantino for that matter) have remade Psycho II instead?

Psycho III (1986)

Psycho III picks up right where the second one left off and gets into who Norman’s real mother is, as well as answering the question as to what was going on in Psycho II. Now that Norman has a physical mother to prop by the window (yeah, things get crazy), he’s right back where he started. All of that hard work and progress we saw in the last film gets thrown out as he goes crazy all over again.

Psycho III explores a lot of who Norman is and while the second film deepened that subject in a smart way, this one feels pretty sloppy and manipulative. Even the kills are recreations of previous murders like the shower scene, but they’re executed with less drive, and are often a little lazy. Psycho II at least maintained tense, scary deaths throughout its runtime. Psycho III, on the other hand, is much more interested in capitalizing on blood and tits like other slasher films of its era.

There are also some heavy religious overtones with nuns (one, of course, is a sex fiend), commentary on suicide, and recurring totems. These missteps could be the result of the film being directed by a first-timer, Anthony Perkins himself, who obviously didn’t have the most experienced of perspectives.

[related article: The American Slasher Movie: How Did This Happen?]

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In spite of all of this, Psycho III still manages to be pretty deeply atmospheric (the score is great). The feeling of the original Psycho is effectively captured with Norman submerged in darkness right from the start. Perkins even wanted to film it in black-in-white to match the original.

You’re also given the deeply satisfying scene of Norman fully dressed as his mother and talking in her voice. This is something that hasn’t happened since the end of the original film, and Perkins plays it to creepy perfection. He might even give his best performance as Norman in this one, and he plays the character very differently than he did in the previous entry. He’s much more of a nervous mess this time.

Interestingly enough, Psycho III was supposed to be a radically different film with a character named Duke as the killer. The reason that he came to the hotel and committed these crimes was because he’s a crazed fan of Norman. Norman, in fact, would have been the hero by killing him and saving the day. In that scenario, Norman isn’t as crazed. I mean, he still kills Ms. Spool, but he wouldn’t be committing all of the murders. This ending was aborted because Universal made them revert Norman into being a killer. I suppose that’s what a franchise is all about though…

Psycho (1960)

It seems a little unnecessary to delve too deeply into Psycho’s plot since it’s a part of the public consciousness. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve seen it imitated somewhere else. This unsettling horror film about a boy and his mother is considered to be one of Hitchock’s best, which is certainly saying a lot.

There’s a lot to like here with virtually everything from Hitchcock’s signature style to Bernard Herrmann’s perfectly executed score. You often get so caught up in the effortlessness of this film that you forget how it’s still so fucking creepy (that shower scene is a classic for a reason). Anthony Perkins sells the hell out of this, and he brings such a dimensional, pained performance to Norman Bates that it makes him far scarier than some faceless murderer. The ending is such an engaging moment because we’re drawn into this man’s psychosis even further.

[related article – The 13 Scariest Movies: Psycho]

The film is also constantly keeping you on your toes and making you question what to believe. The famous misdirect of Marion Crane (who is ostensibly our protagonist for the first half of the film) dying is brilliant stuff that increases our tension. Clearly Psycho is an amazing movie, but it’s because of this that its sequel manages to supersede it. Psycho II takes the incredible foundation that is built here and goes even farther with it.

Psycho II (1983)

It might seem like a crazy choice putting this above Hitchock’s original classic, but I stand by this, and it seems like a lot of people have noticed the surprising merits found in this satisfying sequel (including Quentin Tarantino, who also loves it).

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The story sees dear old Norman having been locked up for 22 years in an insane asylum, until he’s finally deemed sane enough to leave. Weirdly, his first order of business is to return to his home at the Bates Motel, which seems pretty inclined to trigger a “relapse” of his psychological trauma. Then again, this is also very much about Norman going there to face his demons, which he needs to do in order to truly overcome his problems.

Anthony Perkins reprises his role and he’s just outstanding here. At times he doesn’t even feel like the same person from the first film. His voice is off and his delivery has changed; it’s some nice character work being done here considering that it’s been 22 years of extensive therapy since we last saw him. You can see that Perkins really cares about this character and franchise, and he give it his all.

My favorite thing about this film, however, is that it gets into the fascinating idea of whether Norman is cured or not. Is he just imagining this shit, is he actually back to killing, or is someone messing with him and setting up a vulnerable subject? This perspective makes it a unique take on a horror sequel; where you’re on the side of this character hoping he’s alright, but also inevitably on the side of a possible killer.

There are many nods to the first Psycho here (we even see the classic shower scene redone, and then cleverly extended, showing us what took place afterwards in a perfect opening scene). This could be hokey and forced, but it comes off as if Norman has gotten lost in past behavior and is reverting, rather than manipulative fan service. These sequences act as almost a kind of statement on Norman’s nature being instinctive, as we see things like him reaching for Marion’s former room key again, or the stabbing shots that are identical to the ones from the original. This sort of commentary can only be done through a sequel, as events obviously cannot be repeating in the first film. In contrast, this allows the ability for patterns to now be seen. There’s even a posthumous silhouette cameo from Mr. Hitchcock when Norman goes into his Mother’s room for the first time. 

Psycho II is far from just fan service though. It’s genuinely unnerving, like in the truly chilling bit involving Mary Loomis dressed up as Norman’s mother and repeatedly stabbing Norman. Let’s also not forget the ridiculous ending that has a huge reveal and twist with an even crazier reaction. It’s super satisfying and enhances the Psycho mythos even more while still remaining faithful to the original film. It’s a great mind-bending movie that’s deeper than the original, if you can believe it.

It feels like we’ve probably hit the saturation point with Psycho as a film franchise. Yet, the history has comfortably found a home within Bates Motel. With that being said, considering the film industry’s increasing need to remake and re-explore old properties, perhaps we haven’t seen the last of Norman Bates on the big screen? Maybe we’re just around the corner of getting a new trilogy exploring the tortured soul’s youth (again)? Such a thing would make so many of us mad.

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Then again…we all go a little mad sometimes…

The views expressed in this article pertaining to Psycho II’s supposed superiority over the Alfred Hitchcock original are strictly the opinions of the writer.