Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" broods so deeply in the psyche of most American moviegoers it is doubtful any film could ever elicit the same measures of giddy fascination and revulsion, let alone another sequel to the 1960 classic. But boy, "Psycho IV" manages to get under your skin.
Premiering tonight on cable's Showtime premium network, this edgy, erotic new production once again stars the dead-eyed Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. It also benefits enormously from a spare script by Joseph Stefano, who wrote the original "Psycho" screenplay (from a novel by Robert Bloch).
In a somewhat backward scheduling, Showtime unveils the new film at 9 p.m., and follows with a screening of a remastered, uncut and digitally sound-enhanced print of the original. Janet Leigh, Hitchcock's shower scene victim, is the host.
In two earlier sequels -- "Psycho II" (1983) and "Psycho III" (1986) -- -- viewers learned what became of the murderous motelier after they locked him away in his mother's dress. Basically, he went on killing.
"Psycho IV" finally asks why. While continuing Norman's quest for normality, it is also part "prequel," using flashback sequences to probe some matricidal theories on what drove him to slice up Leigh in the most famous murder scene in the movies, not to mention a succession of other women to whom he was attracted.
Olivia Hussey turns out to be the main reason, portraying young Norman's mother as an alternately seductive and savagely repressive influence on the withdrawn boy. Hussey's workup of this whacked-out single mom (a widow) leaves no mystery about Norman's compulsion to do her in and then, as we all know from "Psycho," try pathetically to keep her alive.
Yet the best thing about the movie is how 19-year-old Henry Thomas, who played the alien-harboring boy in "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," manages to persuade viewers we are seeing the pre-"Psycho" Norman.
The facial likeness is pretty good, and Thomas captures Perkins' physical and voice mannerisms with uncanny skill. You wonder how many times he watched the Hitchcock film to prepare for this. He's awkward and hesitant and sullen all at the same time. And even at the moments of methodical savagery, he remains a scared, sympathetic figure.
Unfortunately, like Norman, "Psycho IV" has a split personality. While the flashback sequences are riveting and rich with undertone, the sequel elements ultimately seem contrived and exploitative. They're just another exercise of numerous suspense formulas which the original "Psycho" spawned. Worse, they're not very suspenseful.
It would be unfair to detail too much plot, for the film frequently tingles hypnotically, like one of those nightmares from which you cannot awake. But here is the basic structure.
A nighttime radio talk show hostess doing a segment on matricide (C C H Pounder) gets a call from a guy -- he calls himself Ed -- who says "I never dreamed you'd come up with a show so personally relevant."
It's Norman, of course, and we soon see the haunted Perkins pacing around a kitchen as he talks on the phone. He is apparently rehabilitated and married to a psychologist he met "in one of those places." But he divulges early on that, "Oh, I've killed before and now I'm going to have to do it again."
Over the course of several hours, Norman stays on the line and vividly recalls his earliest murders -- seen in flashbacks -- while the radio people try to figure out how to persuade him not to commit yet another murder.
Viewers should know that four killings are presented with exceptional vividness. But only one is the modern unsubtle, graphically bloody kind of which Hitchcock would likely disapprove. The others depend more on other graphic elements, including sound and context, for their power.
There is really no reprise of the shower scene, other than a brief and clever parody early on. But this film could be remembered as the "Psycho" with the staircase scene. It's a shocker that creepily captures the fundamental intimacy of Norman's crime.
The staircase, by the way, is the same one down which detective Martin Balsam careened in the first "Psycho," for the eerie old house behind the Bates Motel once again plays a strong role. (The movie was made in a replica of the original, on display at Universal Studios in Florida.) Oh, and will there ever be a "Psycho V?" Let's just say the possibility is left open.
Steve McKerrow's Media Monitor column appears Monday through Friday in the Accent section of The Evening Sun.
Anthony Perkins still chilling as Norman Bates in 'Psycho IV'