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The oddity of the 'Psycho' slasher franchise


It is up for debate which film sparked the significant cultural interest in the slasher sub-genre of the 1980s that would pave the way for the video nasty moral panic of the same decade. The sleazy rape-revenge horror The Last House on the Left released in 1972 was undoubtedly an early signifier for the trend to come, though the later terror of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre would more closely resemble the horror tropes we see today. Preceding the release of both these films by over a decade was Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic Psycho, that whilst revolutionary, had no part in the burgeoning slasher sub-genre until its unlikely sequel in 1982. 

Regardless as to who, or what film, was responsible for kicking off the trend, it was John Carpenter’s Halloween that would be the first to garner considerable public attention, inspiring many other production studios upon its release in 1979. Soon Friday the 13thA Nightmare on Elm Street and many more would join in the gory thrills, sparking a ludicrous amount of sequels and spin-offs through to the end of the 20th century. The release of Psycho II in 1982 was certainly an unexpected one, however, following up on the celebrated horror classic over twenty years since the release of the original film.

Without Alfred Hitchcock at the helm, the sequel wasn’t taken as seriously in the commercial landscape, with many simply viewing the film as an opportunity to cash in on a booming business. Starring Anthony Perkins once more as the titular psycho Norman Bates, the film rejoins the character after twenty-two years of psychiatric care, seeing him attempt to return to a normal life at the Bates Motel. 

Originally turning down the offer to reprise his role as Norman Bates, once Universal began offering the role to other actors, including Christopher Walken, Perkins quickly backtracked. Student of Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Franklin was chosen to helm the project, directing a film a year earlier named Roadgames that itself was inspired by 1954s Rear Window. Franklin then hired Tom Holland to write the screenplay, with Holland commenting at the time, “You didn’t want to mess it up, you really had almost a moral obligation to make something that stayed true to the original and yet updated it the same time”. 

A surprising commercial success, Anthony Perkins began to recognise the value in the series, asking to direct the series’ third instalment in return for no directing fee at all. Taking inspiration from the Coen brothers debut film Blood SimplePerkins took the entire cast and crew of Psycho III to a screening of the movie so that they could appreciate the scope of his vision. The film would, unfortunately, be the first to be a significant failure, earning Universal little on the budget they had given Perkins for the film. 

This wouldn’t be the end of the Psycho series, however. Inspired by the ongoing Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series, Universal would release the TV special Bates Motel in 1987, followed by Psycho IV: The Beginning in 1990, which would, ironically, mark the end of the film series. Its legacy in the context of slasher horror is a truly strange one, forever overshadowed by the commercial success of other more popular horror franchises, as well as by the burden of Alfred Hitchcock’s original film. Ultimately few people cared about the Psycho series, perhaps as they knew that no matter the outcome, a sequel film could never match the quality of the original.

The same can be said for the unusual Texas Chainsaw Massacre series that simply never met the heights of its adversaries. Perhaps, to build a franchise of schlock and commercial interest, it has to be built upon an already sinking surface.