The Out of Order Series
How much room does Hannibal-the-TV-series have to tell a story? If you’ve read Red Dragon or watched Michael Mann’s Manhunter or Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon, or really know anything about the character of Hannibal Lecter, you know how this series is going to end. Presumably, the series is going to expand the collaborations between Graham and Lecter, but does knowing how this relationship ends spoils the series? Spoilers aren’t quite as important as we often make them out to be. In fact, audiences often want to know what the story is behind characters, especially charismatic evil characters. We know the ending; bring on the beginning.
Which brings me to Bates Motel, the 2013 series. Psycho, the 1959 novel by Robert Bloch, spawned an entire franchise of movies and TV shows that are very different from the original novel. Bloch’s Psycho was influenced by the story of Ed Gein, a Wisconsin serial killer that is pretty far from the gawkily charming Norman Bates of Hitchcock’s 1960 film. The next two sequels moved further away from the, well, Hitchcockian and toward 80s slasher horror sensibilities. They weirdly worked, carried mostly by the performance of Anthony Perkins. (Bloch wrote two more Psycho books as well. His Psycho II poked at slasher films as an escaped Norman Bates makes his way to Hollywood.) A 1987 TV pilot called Bates Motel killed Norman off and left his motel to an insane asylum friend. Psycho IV: The Beginning was the first to delve into a cause for Norman’s complications and pretty much ignored all the previous sequels. Young Norman was played by Henry Thomas, better known as Elliot from E.T..
The Psycho franchise has a canon history that rivals many 60-year comic book runs. The stories are subtly retold within the sequels (and even in Gus Van Sant’s remake). Histories change. Heck, even futures change depending on what thread is followed by a viewer. As a whole, both movies and books, the only constant essential is Norman and his mummy. Which means that the new Bates Motel is in the same position as Hannibal. Eventually, the inevitable needs to happen.
Despite the changes–the motel is now on the California coast, Norman is a high school kid with girl problems, there’s another Bates sibling–and my love of Hitchcock’s film, I like Bates Motel the best out of this crop of shows. The essential thing about the Psycho franchise involves the character and (future) history of Norman Bates. He doesn’t even need to be an Anthony Perkins’ Norman, but it certainly helps. Freddy Highmore brings his own quirks to the character and the series is being ambiguous about what is going on and what is only going on in Norman’s head.
Let’s Get Meta
Every story has a story behind it. At least one. When a writer writes a novel, there are stories about what inspires the novel and stories about the actual writing of the novel. Movies, with so many people involved in their manufacture, have a lot of stories. I love stories about movies almost more than I love movies.
Usually movies about movies are documentaries. Hitchcock is not. Hitchcock tells the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s career and personal life around the time that Psycho was made. I know very little about how factual this film is, but to a fan of Psycho, it’s a lot of fun. The performances are uncanny. Sometimes Anthony Hopkins, Scarlett Johansson, and James D’Arcy are so much like Hitchcock, Janet Leigh, and Anthony Perkins that it’s a let down when they’re not.
The movie begins, incongruously, with Ed Gein offing his brother Henry. The camera pans to show Hitchcock standing at the scene, drolly commenting on what Ed would ultimately inspire. Gein, played by Michael Wincott (an actor I hadn’t seen in a while), becomes a touchstone in the movie, appearing to Hitch in moments when a steel heart seems necessary. Hitchcock is certain that Psycho is his next film, the film that will make him more than the director of safe films like North by Northwest. The rest of Hollywood thinks that the tale of a gruesome serial killer isn’t a good idea at all. Against the backdrop of Psycho‘s production, we have Hitchcock’s relationship with his wife Alma Reville, a screenwriter, editor and collaborator with Hitchcock. I had no idea that Hitchcock collaborated with his wife. Considering my own circumstances, that’s a nice story to see, especially since things don’t always run smoothly in a marriage or a collaboration. The film is as much about Alma as it is about Alfred. The two need each other to be more whole, like a Norman (or Ed) needed the woman in his life.
Again, as a viewer, we know the outcome of this movie. Psycho is a huge success. Alfred and Alma’s marriage survives. Getting there? That’s interesting part.