Let’s talk about Alfred Hitchcock—master of suspense and arguably categorized among some of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. One of his most acclaimed thrillers, as well as one of my personal favorites, was the 1960 American classic, “Psycho.” Some critics called it the most terrifying film ever made. It was not only groundbreaking stylistically but ideologically as well. Having wanted it to retain the look and feel of a cheap exploitation flick, “Psycho” featured sexually explicit content and brutal violence that was largely frowned upon by studio censors—it had a shower scene before the shower scene was a thing. Whether or not you agree, cinephiles of the last fifty years continue to applaud him as a pioneer in the industry for his precise pacing and ability to subvert our expectations through meticulous plot construction, impressive camerawork and clever editing, among other things.
So what does this all have to do with TV? The circumstances of “Psycho”’s production were in line with the tradition of television. It was shot on a cheap budget with the help of the crew he employed for his television series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” For this reason, I suppose it isn’t too outlandish for A&E to have unveiled their interesting take on the American classic, “Bates Motel.”
I’m sure by now your faces have contorted into various looks of disdain. Who dare try to recreate the work of Hitchcock, master craftsman and one of cinema’s most championed auteurs... for TV? The answer is creator Anthony Cipriano, I guess. Bold move, Anthony.
So how does Hitchcock fair in the hands of the modern-day showrunner? I’m scratching my head for a number of reasons.
First of all, “Bates Motel” is rather difficult to classify. The show presents itself as a prequel to “Psycho.” Like any prequel, the series seems to revolve around the events that took place before the untimely death of Norman’s mother, which is hinted at towards the end of the film. The Bates mansion and the motel itself were replicated convincingly, and the show has exhibited various homages to classic murder scenes. Similarly, it explains and elaborates on some of Norman’s most notable quirks, for example, his fascination with taxidermy.
But the similarities appear to stop here. For example, the two works diverge drastically in terms of time. Though it retains a lingering feeling of the past, “Bates Motel” technically takes place in the ongoing present, complete with iPhones and today’s Top 40. The show’s writers have also decided to give Norman a brother, and there is an added plot element involving the hidden criminal nature of the small town in which the Bates Motel resides.
Despite all of this, the cast of “Bates Motel” is spot on. The Norman in “Bates Motel” (Freddie Highmore) is likeable, emits an aura of innocence and is reminiscent of the original Norman in the film. Though Highmore’s performance is well-fitting as the budding psychopath we have all come to know and love, the real star of the show isn’t Norman but Norma (Vera Farmiga)—real creative—his ever present mother who remained unnamed in the film. Throughout the majority of “Psycho,” Norman’s mother was a rather elusive character whose voice only echoed throughout the halls of their mansion or whose silhouette could be seen perched like a vulture through the upstairs window. In the movie, we never see her face because—plot twist—she’s been dead for years. But the mother in “Bates Motel” is quite different than the skeleton that’s revealed in the film. She is very much alive, in every sense of the word.
I guess we know where the show is headed. Norman’s psyche continues to deteriorate and if “Bates Motel” wishes to remain true to its predecessor, Norma’s days are waning, which would be a real shame since I am convinced that “Bates Motel” cannot survive without Norma—the actual Norma, not Norman in a wig masquerading as his mother.
Though Hitchcock himself was no stranger to television, I’m not so sure a small screen homage suits a film like “Psycho,” which relied so heavily on illusion and audience naivete. Hitchcock often went to great lengths to conceal his brilliant plot twists—even the movie posters plastered around cities warned viewers not to reveal the surprises. We’ve had 50 years to watch the film and mull it over, so I think it’s safe to say we should all be aware of the surprise. Unless Cipriano has his own Hitchcock-ian plot twists hidden up his sleeves, “Bates Motel” doesn’t rattle my bones like the original “Psycho.”
Do you prefer “Bates Motel” to Hitchcock’s “Psycho?” Let Callie know why at email@example.com.