‘Psycho II’ is a surprisingly thoughtful depiction of mental illness

Poor Norman Bates.

This is certainly not a thought that would cross most people’s minds while watching Alfred Hitchcock’s original masterpiece Psycho. While Bates certainly always evoked some degree of sympathy compared to other horror villains, that is still what he was: a villain. We were supposed to root for the victims, not the murderer, which, when you put it in these terms, certainly doesn’t seem illogical. However, in 1983, Richard Franklin and Tom Holland (not the spider one) decided they had other plans for the character. They set out to make a film in the honor of Hitchcock, one that would honor his legacy and still manage to be completely different from its inspiration. With the blessing of Hitchcock’s daughter and a renewed interest from Perkins, they could start to make what would turn out to be an excellent sequel and an equally solid work of its own.

Sequels often have bad reputation. Horror sequels even more — they are perceived to be silly cashgrabs way more often than sequels from other genres do. This might be due to the fact that a lot of classic horror films weren’t ever made with the idea of a sequel in mind, and that the ones that ended up being produced did come from a drive to renew the financial success of the first one. However, every rule needs its exceptions: Psycho II is, without a doubt, one of them.

Released 23 years after Hitchcock’s groundbreaking classic, the film shows Norman Bates returning to normal life after spending the last two decades in a mental institution. Of course, normality won’t last long, and soon enough, Norman will start questioning his own sanity again. Lila Loomis, Marion’s sister, is convinced he still has murderous instincts and is desperate to put him back behind bars. Simultaneously, Norman starts working at a diner and meets a young waitress named Mary, who soon moves in with him. As the two get increasingly closer, murders start occurring again around town — and we are left wondering who here is truly going mad.

Psycho II has on some level horror characteristics — but at its heart, it is a tragedy. Norman is largely presented in a sympathetic light, something that is rare in a genre so well known for its questionable depictions of mental illness. We know of course what he has been capable of in the past, but we pain to see the monster that Lila unrelently describes. What we perceive instead is often vulnerability, sometimes even weakness. There’s no point for the film to call Norman a monster: he already takes care of the job very well.

This is something that the film truly nails: how scared one can become of their own mind. As it soon turns out, the murders occurring around Norman are far more complex than a case of Mother coming back to haunt him, but he has no reason to believe anyone else could be responsible. He has been living for years with the weight of the pain he has caused on his conscience, and it shows in every single one of his action. He’s scared to touch knives, scared to be too close to people. And this is where the true tragedy happens: the others he is so scared of hurting are the ones that will end up hurting him.

With years of dubious media representation, the reality that mentally ill people are way more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators has been considerably distorted, even erased. Although Psycho II isn’t perfect in that regard either, it takes a great first step in the right direction (especially considering the film came out in 1983; some films from this current decade are way more damaging than this). Norman is shown in a sympathetic light almost all the way through — and while the audience may also at times doubt his sanity, these moments are always accompanied with a pinch of the heart.

This feat could not have been achieved without a key new character that the film introduces: Mary. The young woman becomes the eyes of the audience more than once. As all of us, she is scared of Norman at first — but then she sees beyond what she’s been told to see. “Just don’t let them take me back to the institution”, sobs Norman after realizing his symptoms are acting up again. “I won’t”, she replies while holding him in her arms. “I won’t.”

Of course, Norman is not allowed happiness with his new friend for a long time. The longer the runtime goes on, the more aware we become of the fact that a happy ending is near impossible. Yet, when it comes around, it is still heartbreaking. Norman may be insane — but the world around him is more cruel than he’ll ever be. The ending is as depressing as it is inevitable. The film is successful in blurring the lines between hero and villain, sanity and illness. While in 1960 the “psycho” of the title might have been the audience’s opinion, in 1983 it is a word that only the true villains of the story could use. Psycho II isn’t perfect by any means, but it has its heart in the right place — it’s too bad it might just end up breaking ours.

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