A Psycho prequel raised eyebrows from conception but does thrive in viewing the series as a separate entity.
Bates Motel is a modern day prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho. Anyone familiar with Gus Van Sant’s horrific remake in 1998 with Vince Vaughn would feel nothing but great trepidation at the thought of a present day prequel TV series. It really shouldn’t work but somehow it does.
The series begins with the death of Mr Bates, husband and father to Norma (Vera Farmiga) and Norman (Freddie Highmore) in Arizona before they move west to a coastal California town to buy an off road motel. 1950s aesthetics such as an Antony Perkins wardrobe, black and white television and old station wagon car first indicate the series to be one set prior to where the film finished. “Why does Norman Bates have an iPhone?!” summarizes my initial disappointment. Where an earlier period prequel would be difficult to preserve, I felt it would come across more authentic and would avoid modern day ‘Hollywood’ characterization and distractions.
The first episode does indeed subscribe to our image of a young Norman Bates. Freddie Highmore, a 21 year old British actor, known for roles in his youth such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008), was definitely a supreme casting choice with his natural disturbed looking dark demeanor; lanky and shy, he could definitely be a young Antony Perkins. My issues with the modern day setting is that his character has been moulded into the archetypal ‘tortured geeky boy’ trope. Scenes such as jumping into a silver convertible with his schools ‘popular, valley girl’ contingent and later sneaking out of his bedroom window to go one of their house party’s seem bordering on oh so contrived and cliche. Equally cliche and twee is his on-going kinship with Emma (Olivia Cooke) -his ‘geek girl’ trope equivalent who proves to help and understand him and the towns unlaying crime.
My personal issues may just be a result of my hero worship of the original film because somehow the series thus far has worked very well. Major props must be given to Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates. An obvious choice for the role due to her ‘horror mom’ roles in Orphan (2009) and this years The Conjuring. Giving the prequel format and few details we know about Mrs Bates, the creators had an immense amount of freedom to characterize her. Early into the series we see her warm, protective motherly side yet a sinister air that leaves gaps to be justified, such what happened with her oldest son, Dylan (Max Thieriot).
Norman Bates is one of the most interesting characters in the horror genre; A psychological madman. Bates Motel has used the first series potentially as a building block to first portray Norman and his mother as victims who gradually delve into their own psychosis because of the people around them. It is this victim stature that separates them from who we know them as and the show begins to become something separate to the outcome and film. The creators likened their intentions of the show to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, saying “They only did 30 episodes… I thought we’d do the 70 that are missing.”
Despite my other qualms, the producers have not spared an ounce of vulgarity and terror. A very graphic and body curdling rape scene early in the series has proven that the Bates family have a lot of adversity to endure, especially in their debauched small town. One problem with this is that because everyone in the town is corrupted, it has a habit of detracting from Normans singular madness.
The theory of Chekov’s Gun is that if there’s a gun in the first scene, at some point it has to be shot. And since we know the eventual outcome of Norman, the series has freedom to portray a great story of what we don’t know that may make Psycho 50 years on more poignant as well. Here’s hoping.
Bates Motel is shown on the Universal Channel every Thursday at 9pm.