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Psycho Mythology – Who are Norman & Norma Bates?

Psycho Mythology – Who are Norman & Norma Bates?

Hit A&E series Bates Motel, a prequel to Psycho, returns to screens in the US for the second season in March.

If you’ve not caught the first, it’s released on Blu-ray and DVD on 3rd February. Set in the present day, Bates Motel stars Freddie Highmore as an adolescent Norman Bates and Vera Fermiga as his domineering mother Norma. It’s persuading a whole new generation to check in at the Bates Motel and meet the son and mother who have been firmly rooted in popular culture for six decades.

You can see our verdict on Bates Motel’s place in the mythology later on, but first, join us on a chronological journey through the history of Psycho, during which we look at the actors who have played Norman Bates, and the few who have characterised his tyrannical mother. We attempt to nail down the question: just who are the definitive Norman and Norma Bates?

The story of Psycho, and the knife-wielding serial killer Norman Bates starts with a novel by Robert Bloch, which was published in 1959. The movie, released the following year, became far more famous than the book since it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and almost instantly received classic status.

The Norman Bates found in the pages of Bloch’s book are a million miles removed from any screen performance, and consequently, we don’t think he’s the beloved anti-hero that matches the conception of him in popular consciousness. In Bloch’s pages, Norman Bates is a fat, middle-aged drunk.

Alfred Hitchcock and his screenwriter Joseph Stefano agreed that their Norman Bates should hit the big screen rather differently. What’s so shocking about Hitchcock’s masterpiece (well, one of his greats at any rate) is that a deranged and savage killer is presented in the form of a gentle, stammering, handsome young man: the ultimate all-American boy next door. Hitchcock’s Psycho was like a punch to the celiac plexus of the comfortable 1950s and ushered in the vastly more radical Sixties.

Enter Anthony Perkins, allegedly Hitchcock’s first choice for the role of Norman Bates. Prior to Psycho, Perkins had been groomed for stardom, at one time mooted as a replacement for the late James Dean. He was good-looking, but also tall and gangly. As a personality, he was introverted and intellectual, and he floundered in the role of the romantic lead in which he was so often miscast.

Anthony Perkins

Take him home to meet your mother? The adorable Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.

For all that his Psycho image later hampered Perkins’ career, since audiences found it impossible to separate him from the part of Norman Bates, it’s more than likely that without the lead in one of the greatest films ever made he would be largely forgotten now. There weren’t many leading parts in Hollywood for awkward, nervous and gay actors, and the reason audiences mixed fantasy and reality when it came to Perkins/Bates was that he was wholly convincing. After all, Perkins brought a lot of himself to Norman. There’s an unnerving crossover in their respective backstories: Perkins’ own mother was overbearing and frequently a malign influence on his life. His father died when he was five. He spent decades of his life in therapy…

Norman Bates was the part Anthony Perkins was born to play.

When we see Norman dutifully cover up the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) – an audaciously lengthy passage of film with zero dialogue – we’re rooting for Norman and anxious that he might be discovered when the headlights of a car flare past on the lonely road. Hitchcock’s genius is that he invites us to side with the killer – something we can’t help but do even when we know who really killed Marion Crane. Is there any other screen killer we empathise with in that way? It’s part of what makes big screen Norman such a fascinating and memorable character. After all, we’ve had plenty of warnings Norman is a lunatic. Would we trust a loner whose hobby is taxidermy and who cites their vicious mother as their best friend?

The classic film Psycho appeared to all intents and purposes to represent the final word on Norman Bates, who would forever be the chilling young cross-dresser who dragged cinema audiences into the modern era. His mother would seemingly always be a frail old woman, or on closer inspection, a corpse – voiced as shrill, deranged and abusive by Virginia Gregg. The words “shower scene”, Bernard Hermann’s screeching string score, and the Gothic house on the hill would accompany Anthony Perkins’ face as the ingredients needed to rustle up a Psycho.

Anthony Perkins

Mummy’s boy. Anthony Perkins in Psycho, 1960.

Yet we would see Norman Bates again, and even be properly introduced to his mother. Perhaps it came about because after Psycho Anthony Perkins’ career never again hit such heights, despite working with the likes of Orson Welles and becoming hugely popular in Europe. With his career in the doldrums by the early 1980s, Perkins took little persuading to reprise his most famous role. Psycho II, released in 1983, saw Norman Bates released from the asylum and returning to his motel, attempting to rehabilitate himself into society. He had been found not guilty of murder for reason of insanity.

By the 1980s, cinema had changed, and an entire new genre of stalk and slash horror flicks had followed in the wake of Psycho, the film that redefined acceptable levels of cinematic violence. There were by then other popular cinema serial killers to compare and contrast Norman with.

Two decades in a mental institution has taken its toll, and the anti-hero of the first sequel forces us to reappraise Norman Bates. Ultimately, he’s even more sympathetic than he was the last time we saw him. Vera Miles, who had played Marion Crane’s sassy sister in the original (the one who discovers Mrs Bates in the fruit cellar… cue swinging lightbulb…) came out of semi-retirement to essentially play the villain of the piece, since the manipulative and vengeful Lila Crane uses her daughter Mary (Meg Tilly) to try to drive Norman crazy again. She makes such a great antagonist that we’re delighted when she has the familiar kitchen knife stuffed down her throat. But hang on – is Norman killing again? If not, then who is? And if so – why do we like him?

Norman Bates as interpreted by Anthony Perkins is no ghoul like the serial killers of other slasher movie franchises, hiding hideously deformed faces behind masks and appearing indestructible, using supernatural powers to keep returning from the dead for film after film. The very presence of most movie serial killers elicits our horror and revulsion. Not so Norman. He’s uniquely a decent guy, trying to do the right thing, except he’s suffering from serious mental health issues – something worthy of our sympathy and willingness to help, not censure.

Such characteristics make Norman Bates the most intriguing, human and empathetic serial killer in cinema history. What sets him off is generally overt sexuality. In Psycho II, he’s alarmed to discover that the new owner has turned his former business into “an adult motel”. Norman Bates resonates as a character because the dangers of sexual repression are all too obvious and believable. One only has to look to religions to see the malign influence obsessive prurience has upon otherwise decent people.

Janet Leigh

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in Psycho.

Meanwhile Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho II, which appeared around the same time, told a completely different story, using his original conception of Norman Bates and following him as he escaped from the asylum. (Bloch’s screenplay had been rejected by Universal in favour of Tom Holland’s highly original script. Holland would later go on to write and direct Fright Night and be behind the camera for Child’s Play.) The movie and literary versions of Norman Bates diverged for good, with the former’s depiction of the character winning the battle to present the definitive Norman in the eyes of the public.

The tagline for Psycho III (1986) was, “Norman Bates is back to normal. But Mother’s off her rocker…” Such macabre humour saturates the film, which Perkins made on the proviso he could direct it himself. Perkins maintained that Hitchcock (infamous for his pitch black and perverted sense of humour) had viewed Psycho as a comedy, but Perkins’ directorial is the first instalment of the franchise to make the humour explicit.

This time Perkins is twitching like crazy. It’s Norman at his most gruesome, and consequently least human, with only his touchingly-played (if unlikely) romance with suicidal nun Maureen (the brilliant Diana Scarwid) returning Norman to the level of rehabilitated psychopath he’d played in the second. The third movie is also the first time we see Norman speaking as his mother. The old crone’s voice, familiar from the original (and voiced for the final time by Virginia Gregg, who died in 1986), had stood for Norma Bates – at least as conceptualised in Norman’s mind – and became what we expected his mother to be. Perkins had completed his metamorphosis into Norman Bates as far as audiences were concerned, and whilst it has its problems, Psycho III is much better lit and moodier than the first sequel, and proves that if anyone had a right to claim to be Norman Bates, it was Perkins.

It wouldn’t be until Psycho IV (1990) that audiences saw Norma Bates on screen embodied by an actor. The beautiful Olivia Hussey, who had played Shakespeare’s Juliet for Zeffirelli, was chosen to play Norman’s mother. The production, now downsized to the status of TV movie with no theatrical release in the US, would also introduce the second screen incarnation of Norman Bates.

What promised to be a fine addition to the franchise (it was, after all, written by Joseph Stefano, Hitchcock’s screenwriter) turns out to be dull, worthy and ludicrous. Perkins is by this time cadaverous and clearly ill (he would die from AIDS-related pneumonia two years later). It’s not Perkins’ (or anyone else’s) finest hour – but the man synonymous with Norman Bates does at least manage moments of intensity, and at other times saturates his performance with pathos.

One of the (few) good things to emerge from Psycho IV is Henry Thomas’ turn as the young Norman Bates. It’s inspired casting, since he even looks a lot like Perkins from the early days of his career and he manages to exude a quiet menace. Olivia Hussey fares less well, perhaps because she’s not what we’ve been led to expect from Norma Bates. Hussey plays Norma as crazy and unpredictable, but perhaps it’s just that it’s better left to our imaginations as to exactly what went on between mother and son in the eerie house on top of the hill, than to have it depicted in a cheap TV movie? It would be some time before a rounded and worthwhile characterisation of Norma Bates hit our screens.

A short-lived experiment called Bates Motel appeared on television screens in 1987. It was another attempt to reinvent the Psycho mythology, with Norman Bates (played in brief cameo by Anthony Perkins’ stand-in Kurt Paul) having died during his incarceration in a mental asylum. Thankfully only the pilot was made.

Vince Vaughn

Oh dear. Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates in the atrocious remake.

In September 1992, Anthony Perkins died, and with him, seemingly, any chance of seeing Norman Bates on the screen again. Six years later, cinema audiences would wish that were true when director Gus Van Sant remade Hitchcock’s movie frame for frame. Despite the presence of some great actors, it was predictably awful, not to mention badly designed. Of all the manifold problems in a film that ought to have been aborted in pre-production, the largest is the casting of Norman Bates. The part went to Vince Vaughn, an actor who excels in comedy, but who proves hopelessly lightweight as a schizophrenic killer. In many respects, Vaughn is the polar opposite of Perkins. The latter would always struggle with levity. Vaughn, straying away from romantic comedy, was as hopelessly miscast as Perkins always had been playing romantic comedy. Vaughn is unlikely to top any chart for the definitive Norman Bates.

The psychotic motel owner mercifully disappeared from screens and print (Robert Bloch died in 1994), after the debacle of Psycho IV, Bates Motel and the Psycho remake. It seemed as if the franchise had run its course, and with the original writer and star now deceased, it was perhaps finally time to grant mother’s wish and leave that poor boy alone.

Except good ideas don’t die that easily. Since 2012, in an example of creative convergence, Norman Bates has returned to our screens not once but twice. The movie Hitchcock saw Anthony Hopkins playing the late director and featured James D’Arcy playing Anthony Perkins playing Norman Bates…

James D'Arcy - Hitchcock

James D’Arcy playing Anthony Perkins playing Norman Bates…

If James D’Arcy’s interpretation of Norman had merely aided a film about Alfred Hitchcock, the A&E series Bates Motel at long last had something new to bring to the Psycho mythology, and consequently we saw Norman Bates from a different angle.

Bates Motel is an enjoyable mixture of the familiar and the new, following an adolescent Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) displaced to the Twenty-First Century. It succeeds where Psycho IV fails, giving us a strong and credible depiction of Norma Bates. This time stepping into the part of the world’s worst mother is Vera Farmiga, who wisely avoids the pitfall Olivia Hussey had walked into, and she plays Norma as highly-strung but on the whole likeable. Turning Norma into the comic grotesque that lives in Norman’s mind would always be a mistake, and Farmiga’s sympathetic portrayal is of an over-bearing single mother doing her best to raise a mentally unbalanced son who isn’t quite like all the other kids. That we know her future, as a corpse in a rocking chair in the fruit cellar of her home only makes how her journey there unfolds all the more intriguing.

Bates Motel

Freddie Highmore as Norman with Vera Farmiga as Norma in Bates Motel.

In turn, Freddie Highmore retains likability for Norman, but finds the edge to suggest a dangerous anger lurking beneath. His lack of empathy for others is evidenced by his almost cruel rejection of his friend Emma’s amorous advances (a lovely performance by Olivia Cooke). It signals his emotional dissociation.

The series is stronger than many anticipated thanks to its willingness to take risks and honour the original mythology whilst adding something new. Norman now has a half-brother, played by the dishy Max Thieriot; and there’s yet another explanation as to how Norman’s father died. Was it a heart attack, bee stings, or did Norman have something to do with it..?

A cheeky bit of casting in Bates Motel is former Lost-star Nestor Carbonell as Sheriff Romero. Carbonell looks remarkably like Anthony Perkins circa Psycho II.

The first series of Bates Motel received mostly glowing reviews, and Freddie Highmore has seen himself nominated for the 2014 People’s Choice Award in the category favourite TV anti-hero. But as to our original question: who are Norman Bates and Norma Bates? There will only ever be one Norman Bates, and that is the brilliant Anthony Perkins whose career was defined by the role. Yet Vera Fermiga has made the part of Norma Bates her own, and her characterisation in Bates Motel is as outstanding as it is intriguing. It’s only a shame Perkins is no longer with us for the definitive Norman and Norma to be paired together on screen. Now that would be truly worth seeing.

Bates Motel is released on Blu-ray and DVD on 3rd February 2014 through Universal Pictures UK. 

By Greg Jameson

I'm the theatre editor and book critic, with an interest in cult TV, for Entertainment Focus.

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