Here are two people who wouldn't even hurt a fly. Unless they're really, really provoked, that is. A&E's Bates Motel, a modern-day prequel to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, kicked off Monday night in appropriately creepy fashion. Starring Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his mother, Norma (the creepiness extends even to their names!), Bates Motel featured a whole bunch of callbacks to Psycho. But that alone isn't the reason Hitch himself might have approved of this version of the story.
Bates kicked off with Norman and Norma arriving in an Oregon town, shortly after the death of Norman's father, where Mom had just purchased a motel and its adjacent Gothic mansion. These are almost exact duplicates of the ones featured in Hitchcock's film, right down to little details like the framed bird sketches hung on the walls of the motel's Cabin No. 1, where Janet Leigh's Marion Crane will one day take her fateful shower. A couple shots from Psycho are almost exactly recreated, including the famous overhead shot of the mansion's second-floor landing, where "Mother" will attack Arbogast (Martin Balsam) many years later. When Norma actually does stab the former proprietor of the estate, who breaks into their house and rapes her in his fury over having lost the place to foreclosure, she wields the exact same kind of butcher knife her son will later find to be his weapon of choice. And, of course, there's a lengthy, lengthy clean-up scene in the bathroom of Cabin No. 1. I half expected Norman, when a bunch of girls invite him to a party, to instead insist they have some sandwiches while he regales them of his love of taxidermy. For a later episode, perhaps.
Above all the references, the thing that's most Hitchcockian about Bates Motel is its identification with its characters. You're rooting for Norman and Norma, especially when she kills her attacker, a disgusting rapist who truly had it coming. And you're terrified that they might get caught with the body when, in the middle of their cleanup, two cops show up to check on them. What's particularly brilliant is that it isn't Highmore but Farmiga who's turning in the Anthony Perkins impression throughout the episode, with her hands in her pockets, hunched shoulders, and oddly contorted facial expressions — the mannerisms of someone trying and failing to act normal. That's what made Hitchcock such a perverse genius: his ability to make you identify with people who are mentally unbalanced or even outright murderers. Think about how, even before the final revelation in Psycho, we've almost completely shifted our loyalty from Marion Crane, ceremoniously dispatched halfway through the film, to Norman Bates, even though he's covering up her murder. The challenge for Bates Motel will be this: can Norma or Norman kill downright likable people, like a Marion Crane, and even still have us relate to them? That's something a show as self-consciously "edgy" as Dexter has never managed to pull off (he only kills bad guys!). It requires a remarkable level of characterization to achieve.
After the glossy, high-toned Vertigo and North by Northwest, Hitchcock returned to black and white on a shoe-string budget of $800,000 to shoot Psycho in 1960. For the production, he employed the crew for his TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. So Psycho has always been tied to the small screen, and bringing it to TV now in the form of Bates Motel isn't nearly as presumptuous as a more snobbish cinephile might think. And thankfully it's a helluva lot better than the 1987 TV movie-pilot Bates Motel, a sequel to Psycho III involving neither Norman nor Norman and starring Bud Cort (as the motel's new proprietor), Lori Petty, Robert Picardo, and Jason Bateman. Yes, that happened.
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[Photo Credit: Joe Lederer/A&E]