‘Bates Motel’: How does it compare to ‘Psycho’?

Anne T. Donahue
omg! TV

A&E's "Bates Motel" is no tribute to Hitchcock. If you remember "Psycho," you'll remember that director Alfred Hitchcock's power came from what you didn't see. You never actually saw Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) get stabbed -- you saw Norman's (Anthony Perkins) motions, you heard Marion scream, you saw shots her skin and the blood running down the drain, but you never saw the assault. With "Bates Motel," the TV reboot is pretty much the opposite.

In "Bates Motel," your imagination can't get carried away. If there's violence (and there is a lot of violence), you see violence. If there's sexual tension, it's in your face. If a motel is creepy, there's a bright blue neon sign outside of it. And from the very first scene, you knew what you're getting into.

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When 2013-era Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) walks in on his dead father in the garage who's been (seemingly) crushed by a shelf of paint, he calls his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), who comes to his aid, but couldn't care less. From there (and that red flag), we're moved six months ahead, where mother and son re-plant their roots at a defunct small-town motel, where they'll work together and clean it up.

However, where Hitchock's Norman was awkward and shy around female guests like Marion in the 1960 original, the 2013 teenage version is more willing to break the rules. First, by watching his mother change in the window of their mansion (so that's where Norman Bates began spying on women?), then later by sneaking out with a group of girls who invite him to a party -- all of whom he also stares at.

But then it gets worse; violent, upsetting, and terrifying -- but not in the cinematic sense. Where Hitchcock stressed creepiness, and gave credit to his viewers' minds, "Bates Motel" stresses shock value. After the disgruntled ex-owner of the hotel property confronts Norma and tells her to leave, he returns later to brutally rape her (which you see, so be warned), which prompts her to stab him to death. Then, she forces Norman to help clean up the scene and dispose of the body -- in the lake (in true "Psycho" style), all while telling him how much he means to her.

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So, the stage has been set for Norman's descent into madness (courtesy of PTSD). But what's most distressing -- aside from the overt violence and lack of strong, sound-minded female characters -- is Norman's affinity for a book of bondage-themed sketches he finds in one of the motel rooms. More distressing yet, is that they're sketches of an actual woman being held captive, merely adding to the disturbing nature of the A&E series.

"Bates Motel" is not for the Hitchcock aficionado -- at least, not if what you valued about Hitchock was his flair for imagination, his creativity, and female leads who were both flawed and strong. And while Vera Farmiga does a fantastic job playing the distressed Norma, and Freddie Highmore succeeds at capturing Norman's delicate vulnerability, the show's penchant for violence and failure at creating relatable characters fails "Bates Motel. (Remember: Norman Bates is memorable because he was compelling.)

There's no creepiness in this type of overtness. Even as Hitchcock had swarms of birds chasing his protagonists (in "The Birds") and Norman Bates screaming "mother!" you wanted to know why, and you wanted to watch more. Here, you know why: because the writers wrote it that way. There's no real guessing, there's only violence -- and without a story, it's just a TV slasher film.