I had no real expectations when I went into this. I had learned of the basic story over the years (someone who befriend Norman Bates in the asylum is left the Bates Motel after his passing and reopens it) and that there wasn't much to it besides that, so I was expecting a mediocre TV horror movie that was about strange things happening when the motel reopens but wasn't suspenseful or scary in the slightest. Well, I didn't even get that; this isn't a horror film at all, let alone a psychological one as Wikipedia describes it. It's a hard to call it a horror film when nobody dies (except for Norman, who dies off-camera from natural causes) and it's even harder when the tone isn't even trying to be scary or moody. Instead, this is a cheap, silly movie that's more of a comedy than anything else, with not much happening for a good chunk of it, lame attempts at trying to make it feel as if the property is haunted, and a sudden veer into Twilight Zone territory during the third act, making it seem like a completely different movie. I debated about whether or not to make this an entry of Movies That Suck and I ultimately decided not to because there's nothing about this that made me angry but, that said, there's very little to this movie and it's not something I'll ever watch again once this review is finished. (Heads up, by the way: most of the images here will look like crap since they're from an old VHS rip.)
Following his arrest for his crimes in Fairville, California in 1960, Norman Bates is sent to the state mental hospital, which is also home to Alex West, a troubled child who murdered his horribly abusive stepfather. Dr. Goodman, deciding that he needs a friend, introduces him to Norman and the two of them become very close friends over the following 27 years, with Norman becoming the father Alex never had. Following Norman's death and cremation, Alex, who is going to be released soon, receives the urn full of his ashes and, during the reading of the will, is bequeathed the Bates Motel, with the hope that he will be able to make it into a thriving business again. After some reluctance on his part since the asylum is the only home he's ever known, Alex leaves for Fairville and, after some difficulty due to people claiming to have never heard of the place, makes his way to the rundown motel courtesy of Henry Watson, a handyman who once worked at the motel and knew Norman when he was a kid. As he settles in to living at the motel, Alex goes through the troubles of getting a loan to begin work on the place, having to deal with those who want to destroy the motel and house to turn the property into something else, and meets Willie, a young woman who's been living in the house for some time who agrees to stick around and help Alex, whether he likes it or not. Work begins smoothly enough but things turn sinister when Mrs. Bates' remains are uncovered during an accident with a bulldozer and Alex begins seeing a mysterious, female figure in black that no one else does along with other strange, seemingly supernatural, incidents. Has Mrs. Bates returned from the grave to haunt the property, as everyone in town believes? And when the motel opens for business, will Alex be able to make enough money in time to pay off the $10,000 loan he borrowed?
Bates Motel is one of only two directing credits, the other being a couple of episodes of an 80's TV series he created called Deadly Nightmares, of Richard Rothstein, who's primarily a writer. His most well-known credit is writing the story for the original Universal Soldier (he had nothing to do with the sequels) and before that, he'd written obscure horror films like Death Valley, a 1982 film that featured Peter Billingsley before he became legendary for playing Ralphie in A Christmas Story, and Invitation to Hell, a TV movie that Wes Craven directed right before he hit the big time with A Nightmare on Elm Street. According to IMDB, he hasn't been active that much since the 2000's rolled around, with his most recent credits being a producer on the 2004 TV series T.H.E.M. and Kitchen Trends 2005, a TV documentary that sounds absolutely fascinating doesn't it? (The guy is so obscure, I have no clue what he looks like and as a result, I didn't know where to begin with trying to find an image of him, especially since there are other people with that name.)
While I can understand why Robert Galluzo chose to focus only on the movies starring Anthony Perkins for the documentary, The Psycho Legacy, I kind of wish he would have delved into this too, if only for a special feature on the extras disc (there is a very small deleted bit on it that you can find on YouTube), because I'm very curious as to what the mindset behind it was. I'd like to know who thought a TV series based around the Bates Motel itself done in this way would have been successful and, moreover, why they thought it was a good idea to do it the year after Psycho III kind of took the wind out of the franchise's sails. They must have understood the latter since the story only acknowledges the original film (despite using Psycho II's opening at the beginning and end) but I would still like to know why they thought it would be successful regardless and why they decided to go in the direction they did. A television show based around the Bates Motel isn't a bad idea and neither is the general story of this but the way they went about it is mind-boggling to me. It would have been interesting to have someone who is as disturbed as Norman become the new caretaker of the motel and have to deal the property's troubled history becoming back to haunt it, whether they wanted to do that in a literal, supernatural way or take the psychological route, but instead, they decided to be so cheesy and tongue-in-cheek, as well as sappy with the friendship that developed between Norman and Alex, that it feels like they're mocking the source material. It gets especially bad when they suddenly begin telling a completely different story that feels more like a Twilight Zone wannabe during the third act, which I think we can view as a prelude to what the show would have been if the network decided to go with it. It's so bizarre and the fact that it was backed by Universal and shot on their backlot blows my mind even more. In that regard, it's weirdly fascinating but that's really the only reason to watch it.
I know it sucks but it's the only image of Norman from this
film I could find.
This is the image I mentioned earlier that almost caused me to
drop my teeth when I first saw it.
Despite that stupid joke about her knives needing sharpened at the beginning, it originally seems like this film will at least treat Mrs. Bates, who's renamed Gloria here when it was always Norma before (they also rename the town of Fairvale as Fairville, for some reason), with some respect, as it's hinted throughout the movie that her evil spirit is haunting the property. While they don't go into the sordid details, they also don't gloss over the fact that she was a cruel woman, with Henry Watson telling Alex that he can't believe what she did to little Norman, mentioning that she always locked him up. The film also makes mention of Norman's father, who's given the first name of Jake, and how he spent more time at the motel than at the house, making sure the customers were satisfied, especially the women, which Mrs. Bates absolutely hated. It's initially said that he simply disappeared and that his wife mourned for him, waiting for him to come back, but it's later suggested, albeit through one of Tom Fuller's scare tactics, that she may have murdered him in a jealous rage, which is an interesting idea. The same goes for the concept of her spirit haunting the house and the motel... if they had pulled it off right. Unfortunately, this movie, being what it is, doesn't know the meaning of the word "creepy" and so, when Alex begins seeing visions of a woman dressed completely in black at the burial of Mrs. Bates' remains after they're unearthed (the only explanation given as to why they weren't buried after Norman's arrest is because of the "shockwaves" in the area, which is a very weak, vague one) and in the bedroom window, it isn't eerie or unsettling in the least. And even before she's revealed to be nothing more than Fuller dressed up as her in a Scooby-Doo plot to drive Alex and everyone else away, the sight of this apparition dressed entirely black, with a hooded skull for a head, and brandishing a knife, yelling in an over-the-top, elderly female voice, "Leave my home! Leave and never come back!", is impossible to take seriously (the cheesy slow-motion that sequence is filmed in doesn't help matters either).
The biggest sin this movie commits is that it's not entertaining in the least, not even in a bad way; moreover, even though it's only a little over 90 minutes long, by the time you get into the third act, it feels like you've been watching it for three hours. It's abysmally slow and the story is not engaging at all, as all you're watching after the opening is Alex fumbling around the town, making himself at home at the motel, going through the troubles of getting a loan, fending off those who want to talk him into leveling the place and turning it into a more profitable business complex, getting a contractor, running into problems during construction, beginning to become frightened and feel that there is something supernatural going on, and having to deal with Willie's appearance and refusal to leave. I know it was meant to provide the setup for a weekly TV show but it just goes on and on and on without much happening, and at some point, even Burt Cort and Moses Gunn's good performances can't save it. You can't even rely on the mystery of whether or not the strange happenings are supernatural and if the mysterious figure Alex keeps seeing is Mrs. Bates' ghost to give you something because, as I just described, it's not scary at all.
In describing the wildly different third act where the motel finally opens up, my friend Newt described it best: it's as if the combined the pilot episode with a little bit of the second. After the motel is finished and opened for business, the first customer is a woman named Barbara Peters (Kerrie Keane) who claims to be an aspiring writer looking for peace and quiet but is actually a depressed woman who feels like she's failed at life and is planning on ending it all that night. A group of teenage partiers also arrive at the motel, booking it solid, and one of them, a perky girl (Khrystyne Haje), wanders into Barbara's room, stopping her from slashing her wrists in the bathtub, and after some talk, convinces her to join the party she and her friends are having in one of the rooms. Once they arrive, the girl introduces Barbara to Tony (Jason Bateman), a reserved young man and, despite her hesitation given the difference in age between them, they end up dancing and having a great time. However, Barbara stops herself short of kissing him, feeling that it's wrong, and after he storms off, the two of them have a heartfelt conversation outside where she admits that she felt special while dancing with him but, in her mind, it's inappropriate since she's not in high school anymore. Tony, in response, tells her that he feels cold and alone, which Barbara feels is nonsense since his whole life is ahead of him. After telling him she'll always be grateful to him, she sends back to the party and goes back to her room, again to try to commit suicide, when the girl arrives again to stop her. She tells Barbara that she knows what she's going through and says that as long as she herself and friends, she's a fool to throw it all away... revealing then that she knows her name is actually Sally. That's when she drops a bombshell: she knows what Barbara is going through because she herself committed suicide 25 years before, as did all of the other teenagers there, including Tony, over the years and they've come to stop her because, as she says, "It stinks." Needless to say, Barbara is taken aback by this and, after a parade of the teenagers revealing who they were and when they took their lives, it appears as if she's going to do the same because she's so distraught but the ending reveals that she didn't. In fact, she now has a new appreciation for life and drives off ready to face it, which is when Alex invites the viewer to come by the motel if he or she ever needs a room, although he admits he's not sure what they'll find if they do. You get a feeling that this is an example of what the series might have been had it been picked up, which, like I said, makes you feel like you're suddenly watching an episode of the 80's revival of The Twilight Zone. As for whether or not this would have worked on a weekly basis, I don't know. It might have if they had gotten some really good writers to do the stories, whereas this in particular isn't the best example as it's predictable (I called the twist a while before it was revealed), stops the film's main story dead in its tracks for a good chunk of time, and doesn't feel original enough to warrant being the catalyst for a weekly series. I think that's a trap the show might have fallen into if this section was indicative of what would have come: it wouldn't have had enough of its own identity to be that successful.
Considering how tiny the budget must have been, one thing the people behind this movie were extremely lucky in that it was officially backed by Universal and, as a result, they were able to use the actual motel and house sets on the backlot. I will say that, while the film really sucks at creating atmosphere, it is interesting to see the place looking more rundown and deserted than it ever has been when Alex first arrives, with most of the cabin doors left open, weeds growing out of control here and there, the rooms and parlor left unkempt, and the tumbleweed blowing by giving it a potential feeling of loneliness (I say "potential" because the music score here doesn't give it the chance to feel that way). Speaking of potential, what's really frustrating is that I could see how those shots inside Mrs. Bates' bedroom and the nighttime exteriors with the glowing, buzzing motel sign could have been really creepy if they'd been done better. It's also noteworthy that Alex and his crew do build some add-ons to the place, like a big fountain out in front and a dining hall, to make it a little more welcoming. According to IMDB's trivia page, these additions remained there as part of the backlot tour until 1993. And if you look at the second image here, you'll notice that the tire marks in the parking lot appear to form a question mark leading towards Alex, who's meant to be the dot. I'm guessing that's meant to question whether or not the motel will do fine as Alex feels but, to be honest, I didn't even notice them until I read about them elsewhere.
As you can probably tell by this point, the music score is another aspect of the film that I find to be very lackluster. It's often really generic and uninspired in the way it sounds and then there other times where it feels like the composer was just fooling around. What's double disappointing about this is that said composer is J. Peter Robinson, who went on to do a creepy as hell score for my favorite Nightmare on Elm Street movie, as well as my favorite Wes Craven film, Wes Craven's New Nightmare (although, looking at his filmography, which includes movies like Return of the Living Dead Part II and Vampire in Brooklyn, it doesn't seem like he's had the best track record with horror films in particular). The main theme, which starts out kind of creepy at the very beginning of the movie, is this sappy, light piano piece that absolutely makes me cringe whenever I hear it, which is quite a few times throughout the movie. The music for the opening scene with the newscaster is just as over-the-top and hammy as he is, the piece where Alex first arrives at the Bates Motel tries to sound ominous and eerie but it doesn't work at all (the eerie high-pitched sounds there are rendered useless by a hollow "dun-dun, dun-dun, dun-dun," that's hard to take seriously), the music that plays when Alex meets Willie in her chicken outfit is just as stupid as that scene is itself, so it kind of works in that regard, and the music for all the scenes that are meant to be scary are often too overdone or not creepy enough to work, especially the scene at the end where Alex is confronted by "Mrs. Bates." The piece that is absolutely unbelievable is this electronic, country-sounding one that plays during the montage that shows them finishing up the renovations to the motel. Words can't do it justice; you have to hear it yourself to get how corny it is. And as if that wasn't enough, you have some bland covers of 50's songs like The Twist and such by the band in the cabin where the party's taking place in the third act. The only theme from this movie I kind of like is the one you hear when Alex goes into Mrs. Bates' bedroom. That bit of music is, surprisingly, kind of eerie, which is more than I can say for everything else.