Monday, October 29, 2007

bates motel


So, it's around 1986 or 1987, and a bunch of NBC TV executives are gathered around, trying to figure out their fall schedule (and no doubt doing blow off the ass of a hooker). As they go around the table, tossing out ideas ("Alf!" "My Two Dads!" "Punky Brewster!"), one of them comes up with an idea. "You know what would make a great TV show?" this Harvard business school grad (or was that an NYU film school grad?) exclaims," Alfred Hitchcock's 'Psycho!'"
A hush falls over the room, and seconds after Brandon Tartakoff has made the call, "Bates Motel" goes into production...
The 1987 TV movie "Bates Motel" has been much maligned, and perhaps rightfully so. It is, as mentioned previously, an attempt to turn the film "Psycho" (or at least elements from the film) into a weekly TV series. It also isn't very good. That said, there's certainly something pretty fascinating about it, and hints around the edges that perhaps some of the original ideas behind this weren't so bad in the beginning...


The film begins by ignoring the events of "Psycho 2" and "Psycho 3," which is an odd choice for sure because both of those films were reasonably successful, both commercially and critically, but even so...In the mental institution, the ultimately sensitive and kind Norman Bates takes a young boy under his wing, becoming a father figure to the lad (who happened to have killed his own abusive father). When Norman dies (natural causes), he wills the Bates Motel to the lad, now grown into a then-almost-40-but-still-barely-looking-20 (I should be so fucking lucky) Bud Cort. Against the advice of bankers (including Gregg Henry), real estate developers and architects alike, Cort (playing Alex) chooses to re-open the hotel, enlisting the help of Lori Petty (who he finds living in the previously-abandoned edifice) and Moses Gunn (formery a handyman of the Bates...Bates'? Bateses? Bates's?).
From here, there are basically three story threads. First, there is Alex's reintroduction to society, his attempt to prove something to himself by re-opening the motel and his uncomfortable social interaction with Petty. Second, in a plot very similar to that of "Psycho 2," it appears that either Mrs. Bates is making a posthumous return, or something is trying to drive Alex insane by pretending to be Norman's deceased mother. Finally, there a subplot involving involving Kerrie Keane as a suicidal woman who takes out a room in the motel, only to have her wrist slasher interrupted by a teenaged ghost (played by pretty Khrystyne Haje from "Head of the Class") who takes the woman to a ghostly sock hop of teenage suicides (don't do it!), including Jason Bateman in a non-comedic role.



Nothing in "Bates Motel" really works or even makes all that much sense. The film's main problem is that it doesn't really seem to know what it wants to be- drama, horror, comedy, fantasy- so it mashes a bunch of things together and they all manifest really unevenly. The drama on display here is of the ultra-sappy Hallmark card variety (the ultra saccharine recollections of Norman Bates' kindliness are especially bizarre), yet there are small flourishes of very dark humor (At Norman's funeral, the undertaker says, "Try to keep it short, we do a volume business here..." Later, Alex refers to 'finger sandwiches' as 'knuckle sandwiches'...). The casting of Bud Cort in the lead is obviously meant to recall his roles in cult films like "Harold & Maude" and "Brewster McCloud" (same for the credentials of the supporting performers- oddball Lori Petty, Joe Dante regular Robert Picardo, DePalma regular Gregg Henry and b-movie staple George "Buck" Flower, as a wino no less)...yet "Bates Motel" seems to strive for a middle-ground respectability. Meanwhile, the addition of ghosts to the narrative in the final half-hour adds a whole supernatural aspect to the proceedings that goes against not only the whole general idea of what's scary about "Psycho," but actually sort of contradicts plot elements fairly central to "Bates Motel" (if ghosts do exist, then why couldn't it be Mrs. Bates haunting Alex?). And it also raises the question as to how a bunch of teenage ghosts actually booked a sock hop at the motel, where did they get the money? Was it real money or ghost money? Did they really eat all the food that Cort and Petty prepared for them? Were the members of the band ghosts, or were they just hired by the ghosts? And so on and so forth...Meanwhile, the horror elements are generally pretty limp, and ultimately amount to little more than a Scooby Doo-ish "It was old man Jenkins!"-type pay off. It doesn't work as well here as it did in the cartoons...

And yet it's hard not to like "Bates Motel" at least a little bit, due in large part to the cast. Bud Cort is, as always, terrific, genuinely sympathetic and engaging, even when he isn't given all that much to work with. Petty plays the same part she's played in almost everything she's ever been in, from "Tank Girl" to the "Superman" cartoon, and you either enjoy it or you don't (or, like me, you don't really love it but don't really mind it either). Gregg Henry, Moses Gunn and Robert Picardo are all dependable performers and are appropriately cast here. They've had better roles in better films, but their presence in this elevates things a bit. Likewise the presence of Haje and Bateman as the ghostly teens, although knowing them both from comedies, I'd rather have seen them being funny than sappy. And "Bates Motel" has sappiness in spades. Indeed, the overall tone is about as schizophrenic as Norman Bates himself, and then some...
In a way it's too bad this didn't actually get turned into a series. Aside from the regular paycheck for Bud Cort, I'd be curious to see where the hell they wound up going with this, or if there really was anywhere to go with it. Would they focus on the humor? The sappy sentimentality? Would there be more ghosts? Would it be the same ghosts or different ghosts? Would Alex eventually snap and stab all his co-stars to death in the shower? It's almost kinda sorta maybe somewhat of a shame we'll never know, I guess...


Check back tomorrow for more pre-Halloween madness. Comics, films and more...

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