A few days ago, it was announced that A&E were in the early stages of developing The Bates Motel, a new prequel series based on Alfred Hitchcock's landmark film PSYCHO, which would explore the formative years of a young Norman Bates and his twisted relationship with his mother Norma Bates that would eventually lead him to become the movie maniac we all know and have come to love.
While the idea of revisiting Norman Bates: The Early Years isn't new (PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING covered this territory), nor is the idea to do something PSYCHO related for television (there was a failed 1987 TV pilot for a series titled The Bates Motel fronted by Harold & Maude's Bud Cort), the potential for a fresh new spin on the PSYCHO legacy is an exciting prospect; yet the announcement has die-hard Bates enthusiasts split right down the middle. As someone who spent over 3 years researching and putting together a documentary on the entire PSYCHO franchise, I thought I'd weigh in with some of the pros and cons of bringing back Norman Bates for a whole new generation!
First let's start with what's been done before. The Bates Motel TV pilot back in 1987 was an attempt to continue the PSYCHO franchise on the small screen after the disappointing box office performance of PSYCHO III (helmed by Norman Bates himself, Anthony Perkins). In it, Norman Bates (as played by Kurt Paul who played "mother" is both PSYCHO's II & III) has passed on and left his motel property and attached Victorian-era house to fellow asylum inmate and friend, Alex West (Bud Cort). With the help of a drifter named Willie (Lori Petty), Alex aims to fix up the Bates Motel and turn it into a respectable business. While the only episode that was filmed was the 90 minute pilot, it's difficult to get an overall grasp of the tone and intent of the show. Part of it involved a group of teenage athletes and cheerleaders having a party at the motel on opening weekend, while in one of the rooms a depressed woman contemplates suicide, only to be swayed against it by young Tony Scotti, played by Jason Bateman! Turns out Bateman's character and all his fellow classmates were actually ghosts and meant to save that woman from taking her life. My guess is they were attempting to tell Twilight Zone-esque stories revolving around the weird and supernatural and using the Bates Motel as the backdrop for these stories. Another side plot involved Gregg Henry as a sleazy realtor who dresses up in "mother" garb in an attempt to sabotage the motel's grand opening. At the end of it, none of it really worked primarily because it deviated too far from the source material and since there was no real clear vision or focus for the overall story of the series, the pilot never quite earned the name Bates Motel. If you're curious, you may or may not be able to see the pilot on YouTube, but you didn't hear that from us.
A few years later in 1990, director Mick Garris was a lot more successful restoring Norman Bates' legacy by exploring his past as told in flashbacks by Norman himself in PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING. There were 2 pivotal aspects that made this prequel work. The first is that it truly delved into the relationship between young Norman Bates and his mother, depicted here as a vibrant and beautiful 40-something woman rather than the old crone her voice in the previous films had implied. There's no simple answer to why Norman became the murderer he would become in Hitchcock's PSYCHO. It wasn't a matter of "oh, his mother molested him and now he's crazy." There was a long, drawn out sense of rich perversity in the rapport between Norman and his mother that when all added up made it easier for us to completely understand how these series of consequential events formed such a unique and distinguishable killer. In other words, there was a great backstory that could easily be expanded upon into a series format if the show gets off the ground and (at least somewhat) follows this story. After all, Joseph Stefano who scripted the original PSYCHO screenplay for Hitchcock (based on Robert Bloch's novel) also penned the prequel story and left a hell of a foundation to work from. The second pivotal aspect? The cast. Henry Thomas portraying young Norman Bates (a doppelganger for Anthony Perkins in the original PSYCHO) and the gorgeous Olivia Hussey as "mother" were spot-on casting for the prequel portions of PSYCHO IV and if the new show is going to work, they'll need a terrific cast equally as great.
We've seen the results of miscasting with the 1998 PSYCHO remake. So who would you like to see as Norman and Norma Bates? If this was a theatrical feature we were talking about, the only current actor I can see that can fully embody the role in a similar way that Perkins did, and yet still make it his own is Andrew Garfield. Not only does he share a similar build and appearance to Perkins, but we're seen through his body of work over the course of the last several years (The Social Network, Never Let Me Go, the Red Riding trilogy) that he's a phenomenal actor. However, with his next big feature being The Amazing Spider-Man, it's highly unlikely he'd delve into a TV series. (Although let's not rule out that proposed Alfred Hitchcock and The Making of PSYCHO movie with Anthony Hopkins rumored to play Hitch.) The only other logical choice is to go the Superman route with Norman Bates and cast an unknown. Any recognizable actor would probably relish in the chance to play a young Bates, but it might prove too distracting for the audience; whereas if they cast a fresh new face, it'll be easier for us to accept a new actor as Norman Bates.
The other question about the proposed show is the timeline of it all. Will it be a period piece and take place in the late 50's prior to the original PSYCHO? Or will it be an updated interpretation set in modern times? And if so, how exactly would that work? For me personally, I always felt that Norman (as well as his mother) were products of their own time and that the best way to fully exploit that backstory and still have it be respectful to what Hitchcock established would be to set it back in the past. However, if the writers are able to cleverly figure out a way to make Norman Bates work as a character in the 2000's, I'd be curious as all hell to see how they do it. And also, would they follow the model from PSYCHO IV? Where young Norman is already a murderer but we flashback to when his mother was alive? Or would this new show take place before all that and simply set Norman's murder of his mother as the ending point for the entire series?
Why else might this show be a good idea? Well, for starters, in the last decade television has gotten really, really good and in some cases even better than most theatrical features. In particular, horror themed shows are more popular than ever now. Dexter (a modern day Norman Bates in my opinion), The Walking Dead, True Blood and most recently American Horror Story have proven that horror based television shows can work if done properly and taken seriously. Considering the complex psychology and nature of Norman Bates, I think a series that takes its time to fully realize and flesh out that backstory could make for riveting and intriguing television. Just respect and acknowledge the source material and we'll tune in.
Most importantly, it'd be great to have PSYCHO and Norman Bates back in the spotlight again after having been dormant for 13 years since the shot-for-shot Gus Van Sant directed remake. For those that love the original movie and series, introducing Norman Bates to a whole new generation of fans will only bring them back to the movies we all know and love. And quite frankly, it's about time that Norman got a little love.
If you're curious to catch up on THE PSYCHO LEGACY as it stands right now, be sure to check out the documentary of the same name right HERE.