Fictional Histories

I like reading history books especially ones about very particular things–particular persons, places, crimes, and engineering projects.  I’d really rather read about an individual train station than the history of the island of Manhattan. Unfortunately, problems arise when finding history books worth reading.  As I complained about Eric Larson’s The Devil in the White City:

Larson devotes a couple chapters to Holmes murdering young women. If you take the time to read over the end notes (who does that?), you’ll find the admission that these scenes are almost completely fiction.

An author is bound to take certain liberties with an historical subject; it’s impossible to know everything.  But the more “popular” a book tries to be the more the author seems to lose sight on the fact that what he’s supposed to be writing about is something that actually happened.  It is quite possible to make a work exciting and interesting without resorting to writing something almost indistinguishable from a novel both in style and fact.

I began, today, to read a book called The Year of Fear by Joe Urschel.  It’s about gangsters, the 1930s, the FBI… seemed like a good follow on to Killers of the Flower Moon.  I didn’t make it past the first page of chapter one.  It begins, however, with an introduction and the line:

As J. Edgar Hoover lay asleep in his home in the early morning hours of July 22, 1933, he was fitfully aware of the tentative hold he had on the job he had come to know and love.

Never mind that one generally isn’t “aware” of anything while asleep, how does the Urschel know what J. Edgar was thinking on any particular morning in 1933?  It is simply a hamfisted way of getting across that Hoover might not have been sitting pretty at that moment in time. One often sees authors claiming that someone thought this or that in order to segue into relevant information. It’s not a bad enough line to stop one reading right there but it isn’t good.

Then in the third paragraph of chapter one we have this describing Kathryn Kelly getting dressed:

When she finished tucking and smoothing, she snapped the waistband closed with a definitive click, like the sound of a .38 slug sliding into its chamber.

I confess some ignorance on the matter of women’s clothing, especial that of the 1930s, but do skirts usually “click”?  Well, maybe there’s some type of super clicky snaps or whatever.  I don’t know.  But I do know what .38s sound like and I don’t think the author does.  We have gone beyond taking liberties in the realm of absurdity.  Urschel is making crap up and then describing it as if he’s writing a potboiler.  I wouldn’t want to read this if it were fiction.

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The Last Psycho

I had seen it claimed that Psycho IV: The Beginning gives Norman Bates a happy ending. This is bunk. Even if it weren’t, Psycho IV is a pathetic excuse for a movie. Despite having Joseph Stefano return as writer, it has no plot. Nothing happens except in the last five to ten minutes. Norman talks to a radio call in show. We see flashbacks of his wretched childhood and early murders. Then Norman goes to murder his wife, decides not to, and burns down his old house. The end.

Norman Bates Anthony Perkins Psycho IV the Beginning

Norman’s very exiting kitchen

The radio show and flashbacks constitute the vast majority of the film. While Anthony Perkins is doing a better job than he was in Psycho III, a good part is following his younger self and the actor playing him is bleh. The kid is wooden and devoid of the awkward charm that Perkins had in the first movie.

The flashbacks themselves are unnecessary in the grand scheme of the franchise. They’re unpleasant and pointless. Perhaps they would have been more palatable with a better young Norman but there is nothing here we need to know to help understand or sympathize with Norman.

Then there’s that happy ending… (Spoilers) Norman decided to kill his wife because she was pregnant and he was convinced that his insanity is genetic. Therefore, he does not want to bring another monster into the world. She convinces him not to and they go off, have the baby, happily ever after whatever.

But it’s disturbing and creepy that his wife is a psychologist from the institution he was last committed in, his psychologist, whom Norman says fell in love with him at first sight. Norman not being the most reliable perhaps this isn’t true but he also says he took longer to fall for her. So an authority figure marries a mentally disturbed man under her care. He tells her he doesn’t want to have kids and why. She agrees to this, then deliberately goes off birth control without telling him in order to get pregnant. Now as a Catholic, I could go off in the weeds about how the marriage wouldn’t be valid and so on and so forth but from a purely secular view this still isn’t good. She’s controlling and manipulative. One wonders, given Norman’s behavior, exactly how “well” he really is. This is a sick relationship, and I’m not inclined to think well of the juxtaposition of Mother’s final demand with the crying of the baby. Genetics you know.

Even More Psychos

cover art pyscho house robert blochAs the respective Psycho IIs had no relation to each other, Psycho III the movie and Psycho House by Robert Bloch continue going their separate ways.

Psycho III picks up shortly after the ending of Psycho II. Norman is back to being bonkers, Mother is back where she belongs (sort of), and the motel is open.  Two very different drifters take up residence there: a young nun who has lost her faith and a sleazebag.  The nun begins to develop a romance with Norman while the sleazebag thinks it’s a good idea to blackmail a serial killer.  People, of course, are dying at the Bates Motel.

If it weren’t for a couple issues, Psycho III would be about on par with Psycho II. The biggest problem of all, regrettably, is Anthony Perkins. He directed the movie and was apparently unable to direct himself properly. The scenes were Norman talks to Mother are a little better but for the most part he is wooden and talks in the same tone throughout. He seems entirely too crazy in normal situations. The homages to the original begin to get thin and more annoying. And they decided to make the content worse, more gratuitous nudity and gory, slasher style violence.

The movie is not without a certain type of charm and few nicely done intense scenes. The one where Norman drives into the lake is particularly good. And the ending thankfully reverses the nonsense about Norman’s mother introduced in Psycho II.

The third in Robert Bloch’s series, Psycho House, has the dubious distinction of being better than book Psycho II. Since almost anything would be, this doesn’t mean much. A local entrepreneur rebuilds the Bates Motel and the house intending it to be a tourist attraction. Before it can open a young girl is stabbed to death after sneaking inside and the mannequin made of Mother disappears only to turn up again in the bed of another victim.

If book Norman is less sympathetic than movie Norman, he’s still got an edge over Amy Haines. Amy is our protagonist, a true crime writer who’s come to Fairvale researching Norman. Amy spends most of the book convinced at every man she’s talking to is hitting on her or wants to hit on her. With the exception of a lecherous, drunk character, there’s nothing to support this. She has an enormous feminist chip on her shoulder, accusing the town of Fairvale of convicting her of being “female” and that’s why they don’t like her. Rather than the possibility that she’s an obnoxious bitch and people have already stated they don’t like anyone dredging up dirt from the past. It is with deep regret that I inform you she survives the book.

The reveal of the murderer this time is run of the mill. I actually hoped that Bloch’s hinting about demons wouldn’t turn out to be a red herring. He had Norman interested in the occult in the first book, it might be an interesting way to follow up on it. Alas, no. It’s just a boring murderer with a stupid plan which makes very little sense. One wonders especially how it is that he just happened to have a knife with him to stab the first victim if he weren’t planning to stabbing anyone that night.

Robert Bloch’s writing is really frustrating. The prose is decent, occasionally clever in its descriptions.  It keeps you reading, but he clearly can’t write women and some times things make no sense. At times, Bloch appears to be trying to be extra clever but for no reason. At the beginning of Psycho House, two characters sneak into Bates Motel, they have boys’ names and it is at first written as if these are teenage boys. He then pulls the rug out and surprise! They’re actually girls! But why? He’s playing with assumption about boys’ behavior but to what end? It serves no purpose and leaves one with the impression that Bloch has a contempt for the reader, like they’re just something to be toyed with and discarded.

While it’s a shame that the quality slipped, Psycho III is a logical continuation of Psycho II. There was somewhere to go from the end. In the world of the books, there isn’t a logical continuation. Norman can’t go around killing anyone else. There’s nothing supernatural about the Bates Motel or house which would lead to more horror surrounding the location. It just sort of happens, accidentally, to be linked to Norman Bates. If Robert Bloch had been smarter, he would have left things alone with the first book.

Psychos

One might imagine that making a sequel to a masterpiece is probably a bad idea. And making a sequel to Psycho is a really bad idea. Yet some studio genius decided that bringing Norman Bates back was a good idea. He wasn’t entirely wrong.

Unfortunately, Robert Bloch had the same sort of idea and he was wrong.

Pyscho II, the book, is an awful piece of trash. It allegedly exists to comment on Hollywood splatter films, the sins of which the book readily indulges in. Oh, sure, maybe the violence isn’t quite as gratuitous as it could be. We don’t get treated to graphic descriptions of people being decapitated or mutilated. Just the aftermath. But sexual violence is okay. We also don’t need to know what Norman Bates did to that nun after he murdered her nor did we need the disgusting drug fueled flashbacks of the psychotic Italian director before he tries to rape someone.

The wretched trashiness of the book aside, the plot is retarded. Norman Bates escapes from the mental institution and his psychiatrist chases after. For some reason convinced that Norman will be obsessed with stopping a movie about his murders, the psychiatrist tries to put a stop to it himself. Why the movie needs to be stopped is unclear aside from it being gratuitous and violent and therefore bad. A bunch of people then die leading to a particularly idiotic twist at the end.

Thankfully, the movie Psycho II has nothing to do with the book. In a bizarre way, it’s almost the perfect sequel while being a terrible sequel at the same time. It’s terrible because it’s trying to follow a work of art and it is not. It’s perfect because of Anthony Perkins’ performance and because it manages what so many sequels fail at miserably: to be the same while being different. It has a number of call backs to the original–scenes, actions, camera angles. Mary’s shower scene was the only one I found particularly irritating because there was no reason for her to be acting like that in the shower. No one is trying to be Hitchcock here but it’s enough to tug the heartstrings of nostalgia without making it overly intrusive.

Unlike the book, Norman Bates has been released after having been declared sane. Marion’s sister Lila is still around insisting that he needs to be kept locked up. Maybe she’s right. People promptly begin being murdered or disappearing around the Bates Motel. It’s got slasher elements but it’s a who-done-it of sorts more. Has Norman snapped already and is killing? Or is someone else? Is he hallucinating the notes and calls from Mother or is someone trying to drive him insane?

Anthony Perkins Meg Tilly Psycho II

Towards end, the movie gives somewhat mixed signals as to whether Norman has lost it for real or not. His expression at certain points and a few things he says almost make it seem as if he is messing with another character, perhaps as a way of getting revenge for what they’ve done to him. But that seems incidental to the contrivance pileup of the climax. The audience should never feel as if an ending is contrived, especially not to this extent, but somehow this works. Everyone who needs to die does so very conveniently.

The biggest problem is the answer to the mystery. Who’s really killing people? The murderer is pulled out of a hat at the end. Oh, sure, they’re there in the movie but not enough. This could have very easily been solved with the addition of maybe five minutes. The murderer needs a couple more appearances, just small ones, to remind the viewer that they are in the film. So when they show up at the end, the audience does not think “oh, I forgot about you.”

It’s a good thing that the film makers decided to avoid the direction Bloch thought was better for his characters. Even if the reveal of the murderer leaves something to be desired in the movie, it’s a million times better than the nonsensical twist Bloch saddled the book with. The characters are better, the plot is better, and while Psycho II the movie is a little silly and contrived, it’s not trash like the book.

Psycho

Interested as I am in book to movie adaptations, it came as quite a surprise to discover that the book upon which Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is based is incredibly close to the movie. Psycho by Robert Bloch is a very short novel and screenwriter Joseph Stefano needed to remove almost none of it in order to fit the whole plot in a movie.

Psycho the book was perfect to abridge to fit the screen. A great deal of space is taken up by Norman’s interior dialog and his conversations with Mother–the former left out by necessity in the format change. But oddly enough, the movie actually adds to the plot by expounding on action which the book glossed over. Marion’s (or Mary in the book) flight after her theft is told rather than shown. The movie adds details to her trading of cars and adds the figure of the sinister cop with his well meaning but darkly ironic advice: it’s safer to sleep in a motel than by the side of the road.

Norman Bates

People will point out the biggest change of course being Norman himself.  But Norman Bates as a fat, middle aged loser versus Norman Bates as a young, awkward creep is more of a change from written to visual medium than any significant change to the plot. Other than the exclusion of any mention of Norman’s occult dabblings, it just means he hasn’t been crazy for quite as long thanks to age. It means more of a shift in tone, one that makes Norman Bates more relatable to viewers but also more horrifying because at first glance there’s nothing repulsive about him.  Just normal, a little awkward. Most other changes between book and movie are simply translating this character change into Norman’s interactions with others. Hitchcock, by making him both more disturbing and more sympathetic at the same time, creates a change that builds on and enhances the source material without fully rejecting it.

As similar as the plot is between movie and book is not that easy to compare them. Psycho the movie is a visual masterpiece. Sure, people can complain about the psychologist’s scene or John Gavin’s wooden acting, but screw them because this movie is a work of genius. The book by contrast is good. It’s decent. It’s not amazing. Bloch in his format doesn’t do what Hitchcock does in his. It almost seems unfair to compare the two.

Visual Interest

Modern movies are artistically boring.  Flat, similar, ugly more often than not.  I’ve argued that color led to laziness but laziness is now pervasive throughout film making.  It’s not just color and light and shadows that movies failure to utilize.  It’s everything else too now: action, movement, framing, pacing, camera angles, shot length… the list could go on forever.  It’s hard to find beautiful movies.

It’s always unfair to hold up a genius as a standard for others to measure up to, but if modern film makers could do half of what Kurosawa did, they’d be a thousand times better than they are now.

A couple examples of how Kurosawa made use of his medium to create great art:

 

The Blackcoat’s…?

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a glacially slow horror movie which is heavy on atmosphere, light on plot, with a little WTF thrown in for the ending. The description of the plot on both Amazon and IMDB is wretchedly inaccurate. “Two girls battle an evil entity” is what it says essentially and nothing could be further from the truth.

Our two girls, Kat and Rose, are students at a boarding school. Neither’s parents arrive to pick them up for winter break. Kat’s because they’re… dead? (It’s never stated explicitly.) Rose’s parents are late because she deliberately told them the wrong date. So the two of them are left behind in the dorm with only the nuns at the near by house to look after them. (I think they’re supposed to be nuns but it’s hard to tell because they’re the non-habit-wearing variety who refer to each other as “Ms” instead of “sister”.)

The Blackcoat's Daughter poster

“Abandoned as a child”? By whom?  Where?  How is that even in the movie?

Meanwhile, another young woman named Joan who is obviously an escaped mental patient shows up at a bus station and is offered a ride by a kindly man who is driving towards the school with his wife. What these two plot lines have to do with each other is unclear until the middle of the film where it becomes apparent that the story is not being told sequentially.

The film relies more on atmosphere than typical horror scares–though it has a few of those–and makes excellent use of both its discordant and weird score and lots of silence. The slow pace succeeds in places with creating tension and growing uneasiness, and while it seems like molasses in January in places, it picks up past the midway point as the nonlinear nature of the plot is accelerated.

I saw other reviews saying that the revelation of Joan’s part in the film is a “twist” but I guessed part way through who she was. Who the couple she’s riding with is also fairly easy to guess so if you’ve fallen asleep maybe you didn’t catch it, but this isn’t much of a twist.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter has more of a sense of deterministic loss than horror. Sure, there’s demonic possession going on, but by the halfway point, you know what’s going to happen to one character and from there on it’s just waiting to see how she meets her fate. The major problem lies in that I didn’t care, not about any character except maybe a little for the guy who gives Joan a ride. He I could sympathize with more than anyone but he should have known better than giving random strangers rides. Having guessed who Joan was I assumed his fate correctly.

I found myself watching to the end not because I cared what happened to anyone but because I was curious about what the story was building to. But I should have known better. The movie just sort of stops and we are left to ponder the meaning, if any, of the expression on a certain character’s face. Does it mean anything? Is she simply pausing in her sobs or did she see something? I’m tempted to think of the ending as something along the lines of the devil breaking his tools when he’s done with them but suspect I’m reading too much into it.

In a strange coincidence, I watched this while in a minor Psycho obsession (that sounds bad) and didn’t learn until afterwards that it was written and directed by Osgood with the score by his brother Elvis, the sons of Anthony Perkins.

This is a movie that I can appreciate on one level for its craft but it is not the sort of movie I like. The slow pace could be more easily forgive if it were working up to something more comprehensible but the movie would rather hint and dance around than actually explain or elucidate. People have complained for decades about the psychologist scene at the end of Psycho and how it ruins everything by hand feeding the explanation to the audience; this movie is like the polar opposite of that scene. Explain nothing. It relies on confusion too much to unsettle the audience. Leaving things to the viewers’ imagination can be good, but I don’t find confusion very horrifying. The impression it leaves isn’t one of terror but of huh?