Monday, May 31, 2010

An Acute Case of Sequelitis: BATES MOTEL (1987)

To paraphrase James Karen's character in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, "I have seen weird sequels come and I have seen weird sequels go." You can't really get more misguided and strange than BATES MOTEL (1987), a late 80s attempt to bring the PSYCHO mythos to the small screen after two pretty darn good sequels (PSYCHO II in '83 and PSYCHO III in '86).

The film opens in 1960 with Norman Bates being sentenced to spend his years in an insane asylum. Also at the asylum is an emotionally introverted ten year old boy named Alex West. Alex's only friend is his stuffed bird and his doctor (Robert Picardo) feels the best recourse of action to bring Alex out of his shell is to pair him up with fellow bird enthusiast Bates (really!). Cut to 27 years later and the grown up Alex (Bud Cort) learns his good friend Norman has passed away and left the soon-to-be-released Alex ownership of the Bates Motel. Released into the 80s wilds, Alex makes his way to his new abode and, after securing some financing from banker Tom Fuller (Gregg Henry), decides to keep the place and run it with new found friends Willie (Lori Petty) and Henry (Moses Gunn). This can mean only one thing - 80s house repair music montage as Alex decides the place needs a Southwestern make over (really!!!). But strange things keep happening as accidents plague the construction crews and dead bodies keep showing up on the grounds. Is Alex still crazy? Is the place haunted? Or is someone trying to keep him from making the motel a success?

As I mentioned earlier, I like both of the PSYCHO sequels. I think PSYCHO II is just about as good as sequel as one could expect 23 years later as it is respectful yet presents a new mystery integral to the events of the original. PSYCHO III came a few years later with star Anthony Perkins in the director's chair and, while the slasher elements are given heavier emphasis, he does well as a director, even throwing some nods to his old boss Hitchcock in there. So what better way to squash a solid trilogy than creating a goofy anthology TV series based on the famous location? Fantasy-based anthology shows were all the rage in the mid-80s thanks to series like Spielberg's AMAZING STORIES and the revivals of THE TWILIGHT ZONE and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, so, go on Hollywood, give it your best shot. Uh oh.

It seems only fitting that Hollywood would latch onto one of the most successful horror franchises at the time. The concept of weekly visitors bringing their own unique stories to the Bates Motel grounds actually has some promise. What couldn't have been expected (but should have severely been stopped) was writer-director Richard Rothstein's attempt to wedge super lame comedy into the mix. Seriously, can you think of a funnier gag than a guy being released from an insane asylum and having a confused conversation with a chicken billboard at a drive thru? It's funny cuz he doesn't know what is going on! Whooweee! And who casts Bud Cort and Lori Petty together (the poor sound guy) and then tries to stoke the romantic flames? And also lets thank Rothstein for having the brain damage to make mass murderer Norman Bates a sympathetic character right off the bat. Yeah, nobody can show a shy kid the meaning of life like a guy who kept his dead mother in the basement and wore her clothes! It is doubly confusing and disappointing because Rothstein had previously written the intense HUMAN EXPERIMENTS (1980) and the underrated kid-being-stalked flick DEATH VALLEY (1982)

Not that the plot is any great shakes to begin with. You can guess the villain solely by the fact that this character is introduced and then rarely shown again. I've had more investigative and mysterious games of Clue. And while I tend to throw this line out there a lot, the climax is truly a SCOOBY DOO ending as the mystery villain you guess 20 minutes in appears in a monster get up and has their mask ripped off to reveal their identity. Ruh-row! This pilot also gives viewers a glimpse of what the potential TV series would have been like at roughly an hour in when suicidal Sally (Khrystyne Haje) checks in but soon finds her self destructive ways changed by a chance encounter with some ghost 50s teenyboppers (including Jason Bateman). So not only has the Bate Motel gotten a horrific make over, but the grounds are apparently a passageway for supernatural activity now. The show ends with Cort addressing the camera and asking folks to stop by for a visit every week. Thankfully, the viewers stayed away and this never got off the ground as a TV series. Whew, made it all the way through the review without one Master Bates joke! On the plus side, look for George "Buck" Flower as, what else, a vagrant.

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