Bates Motel was filmed as a pilot episode for a TV series that never happened. Anthony Perkins, the original Norman Bates, had no involvement, and actually spoke out against the production, arguing that its plot completely contradicted the ongoing story of the Psycho sequels he was still making at the time (which it does – more on that in a minute). What he really should have taken issue with was the script’s treatment of Norman as a character (more on that later, too... show some patience!) but perhaps that only became apparent when the movie first aired on TV.
In lieu of Norman, we’re introduced to creepy young crazyperson Alex West – played by Harold and Maude’s Harold, Bud Cort – who looks like a mentally ill Paul McCartney. (And could I have fitted any more names into that sentence?) For the last 27 years, Alex has shared the same sanatorium as Norman Bates, after pushing his father into an industrial tumble dryer at the age of six (the man was abusive, though, so it’s okay). Inside the loony bin, Alex and Norman formed a close, father-and-son-like bond, but after the death of his mentor (see, I told you it contradicted the Psycho sequels) Alex finds himself released into the community (well... L.A.) to fend for himself. Luckily, Norman has bequeathed him some property – a certain drab little motel, overlooked by a towering house on the hill.
Here’s where the alarm bells first starting ringing concerning this film’s handling of Norman Bates and his legacy. At the reading of Norman’s will, we also learn that he’s bequeathed his turkey to the asylum cook, who’s been teaching him culinary skills (and by “turkey”, I refer to a large, apparently plastic cooked bird, which hits the table with a thud as the will’s executor hands it over). And then there’s Norman’s record collection, left to the friend who taught him to dance (the Twist and the Huckleback, we’re told)… I’m not sure if all this is supposed to suggest that Norman had been successfully rehabilitated, or was crazier than ever. Either way, it jars with almost everything we know about him.
From here on in, Bates Motel plays like a weird drama about renovating an old motel: Alex hires a handyman (Moses Gunn) to oversee the renovation, as well as local girl Willie (Lori Petty) – who’s been squatting in the house in a chicken costume (don’t ask) – to run the motel’s new diner. I began to wonder how this was intended to pan out as a TV series... Perhaps Ann Maurice would visit and offer some style tips, or Ruth Watson, the Hotel Inspector, would show up and criticise the sausages. Instead, the bulldozers occasionally uncover skeletons buried on the grounds, Alex has visions of a ghostly Mrs Bates, and none of this really goes anywhere.
Until around two-thirds of the way through. Then we get a taste of what the Bates Motel TV series would actually have been like – and it’s not too bad. We meet a guest (Kerrie Keane), she meets a guest star (Jason Bateman, or should that be Bates-man?), there’s a little storyline with a supernatural twist, and we’re all happy. Well, at least until Alex appears again to send us off with a straight-to-camera monologue that goes like this:
- “Nobody ever said life was easy, but then nothing really worth it ever is. You know, I think, with a little luck, we’re going to do okay here. I think Norman would’ve liked that. Oh, by the way, if you ever need a room, come on by. Can’t say for sure what you’ll find, but that is what makes the world go round... Hahahaa!”
Sorry, I added that “Hahahaa!” myself. I just think it needed it. Anyway, what exactly makes the world go round, Alex? Staying in motels? Finding things in motel rooms? I’ve no idea what you’re on about there but, then again, after a climax that involved not one, but two characters dressed up as the ghost of Mrs Bates, I’m prepared to accept anything. The original Psycho also ended with an address of sorts to the audience, but it has to be said that deranged psychopath Norman made a little more sense (or Anthony Perkins remembered his lines).
In any case, Bates Motel won’t put any of the Psycho sequels released between 1983 and 1990 out of business, and falls particularly short of the rather brilliant Psycho II – one of the best and cleverest movie sequels of any kind in my book. By ignoring the events of the sequels, Bates Motel does manage to create a pleasing continuity of its own but, as is perhaps the nature of unpicked-up pilots, leaves a few plot threads dangling.
Speaking of dangling, the movie has its own memorable shower scene – a completely gratuitous shot of a naked Bud Cort, masked only by a flimsy shower curtain that’s either less opaque than the director imagined or the handiwork of a malicious set designer. Let’s just say there’s some uncalled-for “wiggling” – and it’s as disturbing as anything in the original Psycho.