Checking in Late to Bates Motel

Horror director Lucky McKee, who's seen Psycho countless times, finally dives into its small-screen spin-off – and finds something remarkable.

If you’re a film lover, chances are you have an intense relationship with the classics. There is something holy about the great films. Something that makes us protective of them. We get nervous when we hear of a sequel, a prequel, a remake or, Scorsese* forbid, a television show based on one of our nearest and dearest films. The common reason for our anxiety is usually very simple: We don’t want some new iteration or chapter to sully our view of the original.

When I first heard of A&E’s Bates Motel, my reaction was just, “Meh.” It seemed like over-trodden territory. I didn’t figure I’d ever get around to watching it, though I’ve had fun with the sequels over the years. Psycho II is a pretty damn good film and, well, Meg Tilly. Psycho III was one of the first horror films I ever saw without a parent in the room, so that was special for nostalgic reasons. I missed Mick Garris’ Psycho IV. (Sorry, Mick, I will correct that with the forthcoming Blu-ray.) I never saw the unsuccessful 1987 sans-Perkins NBC pilot (also called Bates Motel) and I only have acid-like flash-memories of Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot ’90s remake. I figured that was plenty enough Bates for Lucky. Universal had successfully run the franchise into the ground.

Then one lazy weekend, the wife and I said, “What the hell. It’s got Farmiga, right?” I’ve been a fan of hers ever since her first date scene with Matt Damon in The Departed, and my love of her work grew with an overlooked Wayne Kramer film called Running Scared, and solidified with – of course – The (motherfucking) Conjuring. Here is a woman who continually proves she is one of the very best, most unique and intelligent popular actors working today. She obviously has fantastic taste in material and it would be highly doubtful that she would sign up for a hack-job TV show sucking the bone-marrow out of one of my beloved classic films. Farmiga’s involvement – and the fact that television had finally grown into its potential as a platform for novel-paced cinematic narrative – were the deciding factors that made me give this show a chance.

And boy, oh boy. What a juicy damn show.

Much in the same way the Fargo TV series has honored the original film by focusing on the technique and tone that made the original special, Bates Motel takes the ball from the Hitchcock** film and runs away with it, laughing and stabbing with glee. This show continually and respectfully nods to the original film, but it’s never heavy-handed and it always manages to expand my love of the original, not make me pine for it.

In a way, Bates Motel makes more sense than most film-to-TV adaptations. Hitchcock’s film was made at the height – and also as a result – of his tremendous popularity in television. He realized how cheaply a theatrical film could be made on a television budget and schedule, so he made Psycho – one of the most enduring classics of cinema, a benchmark of the horror genre, a seminal work of art – with a television crew. TV is in this material’s DNA.

Fast-forward to today, the true Golden Age of Television. There’s more great TV right now than great feature films, when you do a pound-for-pound comparison. We find ourselves losing entire days bingeing hour after glorious hour with our favorite characters, our favorite plots. We get to live with these characters. There’s no real time-limit, so a story can unfold at a relaxed pace. After a while, the characters become our friends, our enemies, and even our inspiration. This is very difficult to do in a two-hour theatrical format.

Serialized storytelling has a major advantage. It keeps the audience hooked, waiting for the next development and it’s done in smaller, more digestible chunks. Audiences typically get to think about each beat of the story for a week before we get the next one. As a filmmaker, my primary interest is in theatrical narrative, but the more I become immersed in all the great shows being made these days, I feel my interest beginning to shift to this exciting narrative form. Some of my stories are getting a little longer, so who knows? Maybe some of the beloved stories in my drawer could find life in a format I never imagined when I first created them.

Bates Motel is one of the key shows that’s beginning to pull me in this direction. And the overriding reason for this pull toward serialized story is simple: actors. The idea of getting to explore a character with an actor for more than a couple months is just too damn juicy. I’ve begun to imagine exploring a character for years. What’s exciting about this is it leaves room for characters to find a life of their own. I can have a basic idea of where I might want them to end up but by leaving myself open to surprising developments in a potentially endless narrative, I may get closer to creating characters that resemble life in a deeper way.

When you have actors like Vera Farmiga and the astoundingly good Freddie Highmore, the sky is the limit. Ten years ago, a film actor wouldn’t be caught dead on television, but now we’re seeing Oscar winners and box-office giants on network, cable and streaming shows. It may seem at first glance that this is because it’s the more reliable place to make money these days – and I’m sure that’s a big factor – but it’s also because of television’s lack of censorship constraints. Shows don’t have to pull their punches anymore. They can go into darker, more realistic places. Characters can curse. Characters can get naked. Shows can bring up themes and subjects that would’ve never flown with the advertisers and network execs back in the day.

This is supposed to be about how great Bates Motel is, though, so back to the show…

Watch how many emotions Vera Farmiga is able to display within a given scene. Watch how deftly she switches between internal conflict, sadness, hope, calculation, hysteria and madness. It’s top-notch, Oscar-worthy stuff and she manages to keep you on your toes at all times. And we get this every week for several months! Her Norma Bates is such a wonderfully disorienting character. What the hell is she doing? Why is she doing it? Who is she … really? You can see so much in her eyes, so much in her body language and you’re constantly trying to puzzle her out. She’s a damaged human, trying to make the best of a messed-up life. You may not like some of the moves she makes, but you sure as hell can relate to her impulses and her reasoning for doing the things she does. She’s at once attractive, repulsive, endearing, tragic and inspiring. It’s incredible.

Then there’s Freddie Highmore playing the young Norman Bates. He’s mind-blowingly great. I’ve read interviews where he says he didn’t study Anthony Perkins very much, but I just can’t believe it. This kid is nailing it. The subtle effeminate qualities Perkins had layered in. The internal conflict. The body language. Even the way his speech is patterned. It all feels so closely entwined with Perkins’ interpretation. Maybe I’m projecting that onto what Highmore’s doing, but I’m a guy who has seen Psycho maybe a hundred times. I know every beat and tick of what Perkins did in that movie. I know where he stutters and why. I know what pisses him off, I know what pleases him, and I know what scares him into madness. And I just know Highmore does, too. It’s so faithful, so perfect, yet he’s opening up the character in new ways I hadn’t imagined possible.

Highmore’s performance is just one of the satisfying, fresh and surprising ways in which the show aligns with the original film. Norman’s odd fascination with taxidermy? Check. (And it feels even more odd in the modern-day context.) Norman’s frustrated sexuality? Check. The list of great women characters on this show is staggering and each one pushes Norman toward madness. Norman’s jealousy of his mother’s potential love interests? Check. Big-time “Aw, hell no!” stuff going on in that department. The development of Norman’s split personality? Check check. In fact, this latest season is making a meal out of expanding and exploring what’s behind one of Norman’s most chilling moments in Psycho, namely his little sandwich sit-down with Marion Crane in the back office. There is something she says then that irks him in a terrifying way. We can sense Perkins is trying to keep horrible memories at bay in this scene and Bates Motel shows us what those were. It’s thrilling.

Bates Motel‘s makers know every inch of Psycho and are constantly expanding and opening up the meaning of everything that was established in 1960. Every time I think they’ve covered all the beats, they bring something new to the table and do something ingenious with it. I’m half-expecting the final season of the show to slowly drain – episode by episode – into black and white, somehow revert back to the late ’50s time period – maybe as a visual extension of Norman’s madness – and then end with a season finale that is just a televised presentation of the original film!

One last thing about the show. The relationship between Norman and his mother dances a line so disturbing that it can make you physically ill. The writers and filmmakers push you to the edge and then pull back just before you feel like you’re going to fall and never stop falling. I will not give away anything that happens in the show, because I don’t want to ruin if for you, but, fuck, it’s some dicy, dicy shit.

And it’s goddamn wonderful drama.

So, there you go. Watch Bates Motel immediately. I guarantee it will surprise you. Take a good long look at the original Psycho beforehand, and it’ll treat you even better. If you’re like me and consider Psycho a classic, rest assured this new expansion of the story is done in the right spirit, at a high cinematic quality level that gives Hitchcock’s work the kind of respect it deserves.

Until next time, keep watching and I’ll do the same.


*God of Cinema
**Shakespeare of Cinema

Lucky McKee is a writer-director best known for his work in the horror genre, such as the 2002 cult hit May, the 2006 schoolgirl chiller The Woods and the 2011 Sundance hit The Woman. He most recently contributed a segment to the 2015 anthology film Tales of Halloween. Also an actor, he played the lead role in the 2006 film Roman, directed by his regular collaborator Angela Bettis.