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Tuesday
Aug132013

Checking Into The "Bates Motel" on Hitchcock's Birthday

Glenn here. Can I talk a little bit more about Alfred Hitchcock? After all, he was born on this day 114 years ago and it's pretty astounding that his works are still being mimicked, adapted and homaged to this day. So few classic directors can be spoken about in this day and age and still have new and interesting things to be said. My personal favourite is Psycho (1960), but then I've always had a softer spot for his more pulpy work. Think of others like The Birds (1963) and The 39 Steps (1935) for instance. He's known for refined, classy, adult thrillers, the likes of which are barely made today, but it was his embrace of genre that continues to impress me the most. He supposedly hated horror movies and wanted to go about reinventing them. It's hard to deny he succeeded.

Several sequels followed, including Psycho II, which is actually quite impressive if still nowhere near the genius of Hitchcock's original. That one was directed by Richard Franklin who, much like Brian DePalma, frequently lifts Hitchcock wholesale for his own movies to sometimes incredible effect (see Road Games with Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis for a rather fantastic open road retelling of Rear Window). I'm also a huge, huge fan of Gus Van Sant's much-maligned 1998 remake starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore and Viggo Mortensen. It's the last mainstream experimental film and the very reason people hate it is why I think it works so well.

And now in 2013 Psycho has been reinvented once more in the form of A&E's Bates Motel

 

A preposterously absurd, but wickedly entertaining series that reposits Norma and Norman Bates to the modern day and surrounds them in all sorts of wacky, grisly, mysterious events. It's a prequel and it's fun watching the writers insert little bits and pieces from the movie into the plot: Norman learns taxidermy! Norma fights city planners to keep a bypass from being constructed! Norman has "blackouts"! It's not subtle, but I was entertained so much by the first season that I can't wait to see how the show weaves its way towards the ultimate conclusion. Mother won't be happy. As Gawker succinctly put it:

[Like] Jessica Lange on the first season of American Horror Story... there's something about macabre television that brings the best-worst out of its women."

What's curious about Bates Motel, however, is that despite its origins as a riff on Psycho, it is David Lynch's Twin Peaks that the show most resembles. And deliberately so. Bates Motel is like the unofficial sequel to that groundbreaking prime time murder mystery soap opera of the early 1990s that we never knew was coming. The action of Bates Motel has been moved from California to the same region as Twin Peaks, it's set in a small town where murders and drug dealing and all sorts of illegal activity take place below the surface just like Twin Peaks, and there's a secret diary of sorts that the high school kids try to solve just like Twin Peaks. The series even utilised Twin Peaks iconography in its marketing, not to mention favoured Lynchian directorial trademarks like buzzing neon and car accidents.

Audrey, Shelly, and Donna piece clues together in "Twin Peaks"

I recently returned from Twin Peaks Fest, a fan convention held in the town where Peaks and its cinematic prequel were films. It was basically one of the greatest weekends of my life, but while I was there I asked if any of the other Twin Peaks obsessives had watched the show. They hadn't, but I hope they do. I can't imagine Alfred Hitchcock would have liked it all that much, but it stands as one of the zanier and more entertaining ways that the Master of Suspence's legacy lives on.

Recent Hitchcockian Goodies
The Hitchcock Ten
Shadow of a Doubt Best Shot
Rope
Top Ten Memorable Performances
Great Moments in Gayness: Suspicion 
Oscar Horrors: Terrifying Mrs Danvers in Rebecca 

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Reader Comments (17)

Glenn

Great article... I am in total agreement with you about Bates Motel... cannot wait for its return next season

the only area of disagreement for me are the sequels to the original Psycho... didn't like them at all ... also Gus Vant Zant's movie was a waste of film

Thanks for the post

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Gus Van Sant's much-maligned 1998 remake starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore and Viggo Mortensen. It's the last mainstream experimental film

Not true.

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Ahhh 3rtful to the rescue.

Brilliant article, I adore this show far more than Nat does ;) Vera for all the awards - it started odd and got odder and odder but it seemed to revel in it after a while, giving it a knowing sort of camp feel and I loved loved loved it.

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermorganisaqt

Man, I have always wanted to go to the annual Twin Peaks fest! Maybe one year! I think you should write an article on here about that!

August 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

/3rtful -- okay, i'll bite (sigh). what mainstream experimental film has emerged since Psycho (1998)

glenn -- i also love the Van Sant recreation so TFE is a safe haven for it. It's such a weird use of his post oscar run 'free pass. do whatever you'd like' but even if it weren't as good as it is, for its fascinating sameness and total difference, Anne Heche is marvelous in it. and I always approve of movies that know how to use Anne Heche.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

I do so enjoy /3rtful's baiting, one-sided comments that add zero but antagonism. I honestly don't even know why you come to this website considering you genuinely seem to never have anything positive to say about anything we write.

And, yes, Van Sant's PSYCHO is fascinating for all the reasons people say it's not. I love it love it love it and love knowing that TFE is also on team PSYCHO '98.

Rick, the only PSYCHO sequel I've seen is PSYCHO II and, as I said, it's much better than I ever expected it to be. Richard Franklin's affinity for Hitchcock certainly helps. I've heard the one directed by Anthony Perkins himself is terrible?

Marsha, as much as I'd love to, I already have two pieces to write for local magazines. I'm sure Nathaniel can link to them once they go to the printers and I pop them up on my website.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

@ Nathaniel

I'm stopped by Glenn's use of experimental in relation to a remake of a studio movie for a studio movie. Hyper-styled equals experimental? If that's the case then I'm correct in stating it isn't true.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I'm completely hooked up on Bates Motel. Never thought of any similarities with Twin Peaks (Twin Peaks is THE Shit, nothing has come close in all these years), though.

I found the Emmy nomination for Vera Farmiga quite surprising. I mean, she's the heart of the series and does a pretty good job, but am I the only one who found her performance in the second half of the season (right after *SPOILER ALERT* the first confession -confession?) too light? As if she mistook the character's loss of her burden with a light tone, a light tone that doesn't fit with the season finale and/or with the world of Psycho we all know. I don't know, maybe that's where the series is going, more Weeds and less Twin Peaks. I hope not.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

3rtful -- it's a shot for shot recreation, rather than a remake. It's aiming to be the same But in color and with different performers which exposes all the ways in which you can't be the same even when you're faithful -- or that you can't help exposing yourself... different artists cannot make the same art.. The movie is totally film-nerdy for those who are open to it. But people got on this weird thing about it being sacrilegious. I think a normal remake would have been but not this one.

Iggy -- i gave up after 3 episodes so i can't speak to Vera's performance in the latter half of the season but as much as i love her as an actress, I thought the writing of her character was terrible "people suck, Norman" and i didn't really understand what she was doing with the role since she seemed so different from scene to scene... possibly a writing problem as well. But she couldn't fix the busted

August 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Great article, and whilst I don't think Bates Motel is quite up there with the best TV airing at the moment (there's just so much to choose from!), after a rough few episodes it settled into its own groove that absolutely warrants discussing.

I can see the Twin Peaks connection, which has always been a show that's endlessly cribbed from with few people understanding what that show's appeal was in its first season (French zombie drama, The Returned, which I'm not sure if it airs in the US?). But Bates Motel has almost nailed those peculiar tonal shifts, and even if not all of its characters are quite there yet, the writers have managed to make Norman, Emma and its teen characters relatively compelling in their own right. And Vera Farmiga is like a black hole – that performance is something else, a sort of magnet that draws everyone else around her into its crazy, and yet somehow not without its moments of genuine compassion.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterben1283

I wouldn't called PSYCHO '98 hyper-stylised. It *is* an experiment though. An experiment to see if, as Nathaniel pointed out, one artist can recreate another and how in doing so it opens different ways of viewing the material.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Auteur exercises continue to receive funding and release through the majors. Albeit less so today but certainly after '98 and 1999 was a fruitful time for these kinds of exercises whether they're simply stylized or a true experiment.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I liked the show at the beginning when it was in full Twin Peaks mode but loved it as it found its Psycho footing the back half of the season. It became about the family and relationships and Vera's performance clicked into place, balanced on the line between campy and feral.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTom M.

I'm Not There (2007) is a mainstream (Oscar nominated) experimental film, IMHO.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

A.I. (2001) A posthumous collaboration released through Warner Bros.

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I'm going to give you my opinion: You should have mentioned Marnie in the article, the best Hitchcock film.

And I'm disappointed that you mentioned the remake of Psycho. That movie was an embarrassment for everyone involved, everyone was miscast, and it should be forgotten completely.

August 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGuest

I agree on all counts. Bates motel is fantastic, psycho II surprised me, and Psycho '98 is good if you can accept it for what it is. Not many people can (which I personally don't understand seeing as it in no way alters or affects the original or it's reputation. In fact, I find that only horror buffs even know it exists). I actually have had the "psycho bug" since Bates Motel started airing and even recently got to see an original 35mm screening at Harvard. Quite the experience to see it on the big screen with an audience that, for the most part, had never seen it.

One tiny correction though...isn't the original set in Arizona, not California?

August 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKm84

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