Bait and Switch at the Bates Motel

House by the railroad tracksBait and Switch at Bate’s Motel

Horror fans tend to be both highly critical of their beloved genre and yet highly optimistic. I call it “horror dissociative disappointment disorder.” Like most who suffer from degrees of insanity, we see the same bad movies over and over and continue to hope for a different outcome. We watch these movies knowing the marketing team works wonders with bad films and that more often than not, the best part of the movie is the trailer. Still, when we see these promo gems we disassociate with our previous disappointment and promise ourselves that this time “it will be different.”

The upcoming series,  “Bates Motel” is case in point. If you’re a true “Pyscho” fan and believe you are getting a prequel to the life and times of Norman Bates then you will be disappointed. The series warns  – “We’re not remaking Psycho, we’re using it as an inspiration.” Hmmm.  Carlton Cuse, the producer ( Lost) went on to say, ““We did not want to do a homage to ‘Psycho,’” Cuse told journalists at the Television Critics Association press tour. “We just wanted to sort of take these characters and the setup as inspiration. … And it may surprise you what you actually learn about what the relationship is like between these two characters and what drives Norman Bates to be the guy that he becomes. We didn’t want to stick to what had been done.” An “inspiration” that then allows us to “learn about the [ _ ] relationship between these two characters.” Not sure how it can be both, if it’s not the story of Norman Bates then it’s not connected to who he becomes – but okay. So it’s a modern setting where a young, seemingly nice boy begins to demonstrate psychotic tendencies? In case you’re wondering I just pulled that description from the movie, The Good Son. My point is are we getting a young Norman Bates or are we not? I’m a tad leery about being pulled into a story that markets on one of my favorite films, but won’t commit to anything other than the use of names and settings. I mean call the kid Nick Tate and have his mother purchase a bookstore if you want to do an “inspirational” piece. Oh that’s right, it’s marketing and they know we horror fans are just suckers for a good trailer. I can feel my horror dissociative disappointment disorder coming on as I write. And with it is a measure of hope that this will join my television favorites of the likes of American Horror Story and the Walking Dead.

But before I get too deep into my horror trance I’ll take a moment of your time to explain why I’m pretty certain we’ll be do an early “Check Out” at the Bates Motel. Prequels are at best difficult and usually disastrous.  Even a master like George Lucas had to feel a little regret. Probably stayed up at night thinking – “dude, why did Luke kiss his sister?” or “If only twenty years have passed since episode three, why is Obi Won so old in episode four?” As for our boy Norman’s story, whether a true to form explanation of his past or an inspirational alternate universe there are five good reasons this television series won’t be able to deliver.

1. Cutting Edge: Hitchcock’s 1960 film (inspired by the novel of the same name by Robert Bloch) became an icon for good reason. And it’s damn near impossible to prequel or sequel an icon. Pyscho broke a lot of rules, introduced a new horror element (the psychopath) and it was frightening. But even Hitchcock took some liberties with the story line. Bloch character was based on a real killer who was forty something. That could have been a decent story but Hitchcock recognized the “surprise” of transforming meek Norman into the angry killer. It was a new and unexpected concept. In addition,  Hitchcock’s shot the film in black and white to create the right atmosphere. There were other elements like the shower sequence where 77 different camera angles were used and even the depicting an adult couple sharing a single bed was controversial in 1960. Today, it is difficult to shock an audience (well there is the Human Centipede). It doesn’t seem likely that anything in a television series could come close to cutting edge. And if you’re bold enough to throw the name “Bates” into your show – you should deliver cutting edge.

2. Pop Psychology: The particular psychosis of Norman Bates holds great interest to those in the field of psychology. Papers have been written on the proper diagnosis of Mr. Bates. In 1960 we still had a lot to learn about human psychology (we still do). Remember this was an era where public service announcements warned that women “working outside the home” were just courting rape and where they warned of the “dangerous homosexual” of which they diagnosed homosexuality in much the same way we diagnosis pedophilia today. All that aside, you could get a way with a generalization of Norman’s condition as being psychotic.  In truth Norman Bates suffered from dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities) and one of those personalities was psychotic. While there are arguments as to the actual existence of DID, what is documented is the cause. Traumatic events usually sexual abuse, at least in part, cause the individual to develop a unique personality to deal with a particular situations. In the movie, Norman talks to his mother (like schizophrenia) which is not true D.I.D as without counseling most suffers are not aware of the other personalities. So our problem with a young Norman Bates is we have to get from there to there. Consequently he needs more trauma then being locked in a closet or pushed around by a mean mama’s new boyfriend. He needs to be sexually abused or severally and consistently physically abused and we need to see an immediate formation of the different personality. It isn’t something that comes up later. If we build him as a “psycho” then he needs to be a creepy kid that kills small animals and that can’t be right because Norman Bates #1 who we meet at the hotel is actually a shy and nice guy. Basically, unless we are seeing week after week of mom abusing Norman, the Prequel won’t be based in any substance that explains Norman Bates.

3. Not gonna go there: And let’s say someone was daring enough to film the kind of visual environment that could create the Norman Bates of Psycho. Do you think that would play on television? Do you think we could stand to sit through it? I read Jack Ketchum’s, “The Girl Next Door.” Probably one of the most disturbing books I have ever encountered. When they made it into a film I was hesitant to watch it, knowing what was in store for the young girl in the story. Thankfully, most of the abuse was just eluded too although I kept my finger on the fast-forward button throughout. But that was a film. It was under two hours. How can a television show “avoid” abuse for sixteen weeks? My guess is they will take so many liberties here that they’re will be no psychological connection between this “young Norman Bates” and the adult version.

4. Finding Nemo the Jaws Prequel: Even if Norman is a victim of environment, we can’t loose sight of the fact that in the end he’ll grow up to murder a lot of people. It makes him an unsympathetic character, although today we do love to champion the criminal as the “victim.” It’s sort of like a story about Jaws as a baby shark and how mean fishermen abused him and that’s why he grew up to eat people. I mean, yes, life can suck, but I’m still not going to give Jaws a pass on his actions because of a tough upbringing – I’m gonna call in Chief Brody to blow him up. I think the problem here is viewers will spend week after week asking, “so when does he go crazy?”

5. It’s A&E – I may be biased but if there was any real hope for the series I think it would have to be on a different network – FX, AMC, hell the CW. These guys at least have experience with “edgy” (see American Horror Story), “supernatural” (see pretty much everything worth watching on CW) or blood (see The Walking Dead).  A&E isn’t exactly known for edgy shows unless you think Duck Dynasty and Storage Wars are dramatic television. I’m just not feeling good about the odds that they will put something controversial on the tube…and if nothing else Psycho was controversial.

If there is any hope for this prequel it lies in two places – and I remind you, I am hopeful. The first is that they will tell such a great story, supported by excellent acting that I can fall comfortably into this alternate Norman Bates story line and appreciate it as something “inspired” by the original and yet true to the great work that Hitchcock delivered.  The second hope is actually Carlton Cuse. He did a nice job with Lost although I think they got lost at the ending. But of course that show was big on questions and short of answers so in the Cuse “hope” there may be a drawback.

I guess the bottom line is I’m a horror fan, I love Psycho and with the end of Fringe I have a slot available on my DVR -so I’m in for at least a couple of episodes. I hope I look back at this post and am wrong. I hope it’s a solid reminder that commentators make better Monday morning quarterbacks than fortune tellers. In the horror business we “hope” a lot.

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3 responses to “Bait and Switch at the Bates Motel

  1. I’m with you on this one, man. I don’t think it’ll be an easy task to chronicle the youth of Norman Bates and make it scary, edgy, and interesting. We might not even get through the first season.
    But hey, at least serial killers are getting their own series now. It used to be they were relegated to bad movies or one or two episodes of crime shows. Now we’ve got American Horror Story: Asylum with Bloodyface, The Following, and NBC’s developing a show based on the first Hannibal Lecter novel, Red Dragon. I cannot wait for that last one.

    • I agree it’s good to see horror popularity rise on television. I haven’t caught the Following yet and I’m also looking forward to Cult on the CW. I just want them to do as good of a job as AHS has done.

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