Bates Motel Breathes New Life into Psycho 

Originally published on Junkee

American network A&E liked the concept of Bates Motel so much, they picked it up without a pilot. It’s been so popular in the States that it has already been renewed for another season. Commencing its Australian run on Foxtel last night, there’s little doubt it will succeed with audiences here, too. After all, the Psycho franchise is killer – literally and otherwise.

Since 1959 — the year Robert Bloch’s novel providing the Psycho origin story was published — the series has spawned four books, two docos and six films (including Gus Van Sant’s controversial 1998 recreation). It was even adapted into an uncommissioned NBC TV show — also called Bates Motel – in 1987 (if you dare, there’s a pilot with Harold from Harold And Maude and Michael from Arrested Development floating around, although *spoiler* it’s not great).

So what’s the 2013 Bates Motel about? What makes it so special and shiny and new? Well, not a whole lot. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad viewing.

Haunted by Hitchcock

Obviously, we’re fascinated by Norman Bates and his mother, Norma. As characters, they offer endlessly entertaining fodder, and Psycho’s renowned mythology is a psychoanalyst’s wet dream. Also, right now — whether it’s nice to admit or not — incest is having its primetime moment (see: Game Of ThronesDexter), and new, aesthetically-charming, slow-burn suspense shows are starting to creep up on all those ol’ acronym-heavy procedurals (see: Hannibal). So, between the presence of all those sentiments and the powerful Psycho stamp, Bates Motel seems to be onto a winner.

Bates Motel stands in the shadow of a giant: it’s unavoidably haunted by Hitchcock’s seminal 1960 film (because, while Bloch had the original recipe for the franchise, Hitch made the Coca-Cola). Homage/rip-off/spin-off/prequel/sequel/remake: regardless, it’s all in the family. It’s inevitable that any additional rendering of an established mythology will retain residue from previous incarnations. At times, certain franchises are rehashed so often it can feel like creators and audience alike are clinging to a corpse (justifying the ‘quit while you’re ahead’ mentality). But, just like corpse-clinging worked for Norman Bates for a little while, it can also work for renewed content. Based on the first episode — ‘First You Dream, Then You Die’ — this may just be the case for Bates Motel.

Bates Motel is a prequel of sorts, so there are blatant references to Hitchcock’s Psycho throughout this first episode. There are also more subtle references, to help set up the mood (the man, the myth). Because the film looms so heavily over the series, I couldn’t help playing a game of free association, Bates Motel bingo. Here are a few spectres that visited my viewing…

The house and setting

This is the obvious one. Besides Norman and Norma, the most recognisable piece extrapolated from Hitchcock’s Psycho is the motel itself. Now placed into a modern-day Oregon (not ‘60s Californian) setting, the replica of the iconic manor and motel carries the required haunted house vibe and lends Bates Motel a Sliders-style bizarre world feel, at once holding the story in a bygone Hollywood era and the present day.

Generally, Bates Motel injects Norman and Norma with a nostalgic presence through their retro-stylings — costume, car, luggage — that aren’t completely out of place today. The show opens with Norman watching His Girl Friday (the clip about motherhood and home, mind you), so this blurring of time is not exactly dealt with subtly. But, along with the anachronistic house and history, their odd timelessness means that the use of iPhones gives off a futuristic feel before reminding us of Bates Motel’s contemporary timeline.

We are told that Norma bought the motel and house equipped with furnishings (via a repossession sale); accordingly, through this copy, Bates Motel tips its hat to the ‘history repeating’ feel, right down to the familiar rugs. “You can’t buy furniture like this anymore,” says Norman. We know buddy, we get it: it’s sorta, kinda the same place, but not really.

Norma and windows

The creepy, ghost-like image of Norman’s mother at the window in Psycho is iconic. Bates Motel takes this image and not only gives it life, but overthrows the meticulously maintained corpse in a rocking chair for a highly-sexualised, lingerie-clad MILF (ergh, the worst, but it’s true).

Throughout the episode, Norma — who’s alive and kicking and played by the transfixing hottie, Vera Farmiga — is framed by windows. Peering through windows for potential attackers, moments before the much-discussed assault sequence, Norma practices one of the more foolish suspense-thriller tropes. Likewise, when stoic Norma reveals the infamous neon ‘Bates Motel’ sign to Norman through a window, it’s raining outside, just like when the sign first appears through Marion’s (Janet Leigh) windscreen in Psycho.

Norman and Norman (or Perkins and Highmore)

You can’t discuss a Psycho rehashing without looking at who’s now playing Anthony Perkins playing Norman Bates… Because really, that’s what Freddie Highmore basically has to do here. And, he does it well: with immaculately groomed side-part, his histrionic social anxieties come off with the right amount of stammering charm, harkening back to Perkins’ classic portrayal. Likewise, his bursts of boisterous enthusiasm are believable (particularly given the way his mother youthfully bounds up the stairs when they first get to their new abode) and call to mind adult Norman’s (Perkins) giddiness upon meeting Marion in Psycho.

However, this inescapable comparison means I couldn’t help but be distracted by Highmore’s bright eyes. Yes, this is a tad persnickety but come on, remember this dark stare?

Not quite this guy.

Although, I guess the fun of Bates Motel is seeing how he gets there.

The psychiatrist’s monologue

The closing, explanatory monologue from the psychiatrist in Psycho spoon-feeds the reveal to the audience. Telling us all about Norman’s motive and illness, it provides insight into his history and it’s practically the premise for the world of Bates Motel.

So, when 17-year-old Norman is professing his love for his mother with, “You are my whole life, my whole self…”, the knowledge of murderous adult Norman/Norma’s split personality condition is the cause of additional dread (on top of the fact that they’re, you know, going for a boat ride to dump the body of a dead rapist about ten metres off-shore).

To paraphrase young Norman paraphrasing Jane Eyre to his mother (yep), there may be “a cord between [their] hearts”, but there’s also a cord between Hitchcock’s final sequence and this one in Bates Motel.

Music and books

The way that Hitchcock utilised specific objects to add to the life of a character is selectively picked at here; Bates Motel is the magpie nest full of shiny things belonging to the previous film world. The two that struck me specifically — as they were less a referential scream than a whisper for those who remember Psycho well — is the use of ‘the book’ and Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No. 3, The Eroica’.

In Psycho, when Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) enters the Bates home to search for Norman’s mother and clues to her sister’s disappearance, she enters Norman’s room: a setting trapped in childhood, featuring a small single bed and where toys abound. Lila proceeds to pick up a book and reacts with disgust, but we are never shown the contents of the book. What we areshown is Norman’s record player and a copy of ‘Symphony No. 3, The Eroica’.

In Bates Motel, the white Apple headphones connect this exact song from Norman’s iPhone to his fragile teenage mind, as he waits for a bus to school. Meanwhile, later that night, while removing the carpet from a motel room/crime scene at 2am (as you do), Norman finds (and keeps) a book with a spookily similar cover. This time, though, we get a peek inside the book, and Bates Motel gives its 1960 predecessor life with manga-styled cartoon drawings of women being tied up and tortured. Unlike Lila’s shock and disdain, young Norman is intrigued. We’ll be seeing more of this book as the blank pages of Norman’s life story are filled, for sure.

The shower

You couldn’t have a Psycho-styled drama without a reference to the iconic shower scene, and mere moments in to Bates Motel we get one (sans shower curtain, but full of steam). It’s also our first meeting with Norma, who is slinking out of the shower like like X-Men’s Mystique. This cool sexiness reveals her calculated style straight away because, you know, there’s no need to rush your beauty routine when your son is banging on the door because he found his father dead or anything.

The other shower scene takes place in motel room #4 (not #1, where Marion was killed inPsycho), and it does involve a corpse, a shower curtain, some Hitchcock-ian angles and suspense. Dumping the rapist’s body in the bathroom seems a tad unnecessary — merely an allusion — but it does progress the plot and gives a good dose of Psycho-style to the situation.  

The dad’s death

Okay, so the death of Norman’s dad is exposed straight away; he’s found lifeless in the garage, surrounded by tools on the floor. While this didn’t make me recall Hitchcock directly, I did think of The Simpsons’ fabulous Psycho parody. If the makers of Bates Motel did that deliberately, they are my heroes.

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