You'd have to be kinda psycho to even think about penning a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 horror classic, Psycho. And Tom Holland certainly recognized the long odds he was up against when he accepted the impossible mission to write a movie that dared to call itself Psycho II.
"Everybody told me that we were going to get killed for doing it," the writer-director — who is no relation to the current Spider-Man — tells Yahoo Entertainment with a wry laugh. "They said it was going to be a career-ender! That there was going to be such hostility to us having the temerity to make a sequel to what's considered the greatest horror movie of all time."
Even original Psycho star Anthony Perkins recognized the insanity of the idea. "He said, 'No way I'm touching that,'" Holland recalls now. "Psycho had upended his whole career and he had a very ambivalent relationship with Norman Bates. He'd been a young lead and that movie put him in this position of having to play all these crazy people. He didn't want to do it again."
But a funny thing happened on the way to certain career suicide: Holland penned one of the rare decades-later sequels that didn't tarnish the reputation of the first film. Released 40 years ago, on June 3, 1983, Psycho II brought Norman Bates back into the pop culture consciousness in a major way, inspiring two additional sequels (both of which starred Perkins, who died in 1992), a controversial shot-for-shot remake from Gus van Sant and a popular TV prequel, Bates Motel. It also paved the way for Holland's successful move behind the camera as the director of such ’80s horror hits as Fright Night and the very first Child's Play.
"It was successful beyond my wildest dreams," the now 80-year-old Holland marvels. "And in some ways, that experience was never repeated."
Raised in Ossining, N.Y. — also home to Sing Sing prison, as well as the late, great Peter Falk — Holland spent his formative years at the town's public library, where he devoured the canon of literary classics in an effort to learn everything he could about storytelling. Those years of independent study gave him the confidence to move to Los Angeles to pursue a motion picture career as an actor and a screenwriter... as well as the foolhardiness to believe he could come up with the right story for a Psycho sequel when the offer came his way.
"Everything I did in Psycho II was based off the original Psycho," he says of his approach. "That was out of respect for Mr. Hitchcock, and because it my best defense against the critics! I didn't add anything to the given facts that I worked off of." (Hitchcock died in 1980, three years before Psycho II premiered in theaters.)
Psycho II acknowledges the long shadow of its predecessor upfront, opening by playing back the pioneering shower scene where Janet Leigh's Marion Crane is stabbed to death by Norman Bates wearing the clothes of his long-dead mother. From there, Holland jumps ahead two decades to Norman's release from prison over the strenuous objections of Marion's sister, Lila, played by Vera Miles — the only other star of the previous film to reprise their role.
Returning to his mother's house and the adjoining Bates Motel, Norman tries to lead an ordinary life, and even welcomes a houseguest — a young waitress named Mary (Meg Tilly). But a series of handwritten notes, and a series or murders, seem to suggest that "Mother" is back up to her old habits. Midway through the film, though, it's revealed that Norman is innocent of those crimes. Not only that, but Mary is actually Lila's daughter, and is a reluctant part of her mother's plan to hold Norman accountable for his past crimes.
Both mother and daughter are dead by the time the credits roll, but their plan succeeds. As the curtain comes down, Norman is really and truly mad, as demonstrated by his final act: killing old Emma Spool (Claudia Bryar) who reveals herself as his biological mother — and the real murderer — with a shovel to the back of her head.
"At the end, he's totally insane," Holland confirms. "Throughout the entire movie he hasn't killed anybody, and then in the very last scene he kills his mother — his real mother. It's a great character arc, because he starts out sane, or at least stable, and you almost feel sorry for him."
Holland says that Norman's trip from insanity to sanity and back again was what eventually led Perkins to put his reservations aside and reprise his most famous role. (Holland says that the actor also wanted to direct Psycho II, but Universal had already hired Richard Franklin, who had known Hitchcock personally. Perkins eventually directed 1986's Psycho III.) "God knows I wrote it for him," the writer says, chuckling. "What I did with that story was actor's bait. And it revitalized his career."
According to Holland, Miles was also reluctant to return to the Bates Motel given her own tortured history with the famously mercurial Hitchcock. Two years prior to Psycho, the director had planned for her to star opposite Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, but Miles's pregnancy led Kim Novak to take the role instead. "There was real tension in their relationship after that, because Hitchcock was going to make her into a star," Holland explains. "When she got pregnant, he couldn't do that and he was pissed off. Hitchcock was a genius director, but I got the impression that he was a mixed bag [as a person], too."
As expected, Miles repeatedly turned down the offer to reprise the role of Lila when Universal made its initial overtures. Considering that Marion's sister is very much the villain of the sequel — and also apparently married her dead sister's lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), in between movies — one might have expected that even reading Holland's script wouldn't have changed her mind. But the writer says that his screenplay had the opposite effect.
"After she read the script, she couldn't wait to do it," he recalls. "She thought the idea of releasing institutionalized people was a very tender area and she felt Lila had a lot of justification for disagreeing with it in the movie. She was absolutely lovely, and I kept asking her questions about her relationship with Hitchcock." (Now 94, Miles retired from acting in 1995.)
While the success of Psycho II allowed Holland to launch his own directing career, looking back he insists that he wouldn't have traded places with Franklin, who he credits with finding a way to echo Hitchcock without slavishly imitating the director. Franklin died in 2007, but his voice lives on in memoirs that he wrote in his later years. Holland has published excerpts from those memoirs in the new making-of book, Oh Mother! What Have You Done?, available now at most major booksellers and on his official website, Tom Holland's Terror Time.
Holland and Franklin's shared vision for Psycho II is most evident in their version of a Psycho shower scene. Midway through the movie, Mary rinses off in the bathroom shower in the Bates's dilapidated mansion while an unseen voyeur watches through a peephole in the wall. It's an echo of Norman staring at Marion in Hitchcock's film, but with an added visual flourish.
"Richard had always wanted to stage a shot that dollied in on a peephole in a wall, so I wrote that shot into that scene so he could show an eye appearing while the camera approaches the wall," he recalls. "It made sense for that scene given how famous the original shower scene was."
Meanwhile, Franklin's memoirs credit Holland with devising the movie's final short, sharp shock — Norman killing Emma after just learning the truth about his origins. "I needed a great reveal at the end, and that was Mrs. Spool," he says now. "Originally, I wrote that Norman poisons her with a cup of tea, but Richard and I both felt that wasn't strong enough. You really had to have a cherry on top of the sundae. So I came up with the shovel scene. When the preview audience saw that, they about fell out of their chairs."
"It's such a grim ending when you stop to think about it," Holland continues. "He just committed matricide! But there's something eminently satisfying about it, because it ends in the same way that Psycho did. I worked harder on that script that I have on any other, because everybody told me I was mad to do it. But it ended up being absolutely magical and exploded my career. I'm still a fan of the movie. We wouldn't be talking about Psycho II right now if we weren't all mad fans on some level."
Like the man said, we all go a little mad sometimes.
Psycho II is currently streaming on Peacock; Oh Mother! What Have You Done?: The Making of Psycho II is available now at most major booksellers, including Barnes and Noble and Tom Holland's official site.