Psycho II at 40: Examining the sequel’s queer subtext

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 24 : Actor and director Anthony Perkins in front of the "Psycho" house at Universal Studios that was used in Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1960 film, June 24, 1985 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 24 : Actor and director Anthony Perkins in front of the "Psycho" house at Universal Studios that was used in Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1960 film, June 24, 1985 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images) /

This month marks Psycho II’s 40th anniversary. It took 23 years for the sequel to happen. Following Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Anthony Perkins hesitated to ever play Norman Bates again. The massive success of the first film changed the trajectory of his career, from an Oscar-nominated heartthrob of the 1950s to horror star by the early 60s.

Psycho II released on June 3, 1983. Considering the film’s anniversary, Pride Month, and Perkins’ complicated and closeted homosexuality, now is as good a time as any to assess the sequel’s legacy, including its queerness.

Perkins’ Career Before and After Psycho

Say the name Anthony Perkins, and Norman Bates immediately comes to mind. However, prior to landing that once-in-a-lifetime role, Perkins’ career was on a very different path. He earned an Oscar nomination in 1956 for Best Supporting Actor for Friendly Persuasion. Additionally, he received Tony Award nominations in 1958 and 1960. He appeared on the cover of Newsweek in March 1958 and was supposed to be the next Jimmy Stewart or Clark Gable.

Once he played Norman, that all changed.  Perkins had difficulty landing roles that once came easy pre-Psycho. Even his obituary in The LA Times from 1992, after he died of AIDS, mentions his role as Norman Bates in the very first paragraph, overshadowing his earlier career and award nominations. Tom Holland, screenwriter for Psycho II, said in a recent interview with Fangoria that Perkins hesitated to reprise the role.

Holland recalls, “That’s right, he had turned it down before there was a script because he had blamed the original film for, well, not wrecking his career but severely limiting it, because up until Psycho, he was a young romantic lead. He had just finished starring on Broadway in the stage version of Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward, Angel, and they had all these teenage girls lined up outside the stage door. Then he became the scariest thing after that: a horror icon.”

Holland adds that it took the right script for Perkins to finally agree to a sequel. Psycho II is very much a film in conversation with Hitchcock’s work. It’s also a movie influenced by the slasher heyday of the mid-80s, and perhaps most importantly, a story that can be read as having serious queer subtext, especially considering Perkins’ career and homosexuality.

Psycho II
This ad for a showing of “Psycho” ran in The Post-Crescent on Aug. 15, 1960.The Post Crescent Mon Aug 15 1960 /

How Psycho II Grapples with the Original’s Legacy

The iconic shower scene very well may have birthed the slasher genre that arrived a little more than a decade later. The sequel opens with that scene, which puts it in conversation with the original and meditates on the influence of that singular sequence.

Yet, Psycho II veers from its predecessor quite a bit. For one, Richard Franklin, not Hitchcock, directed it, but it’s also a very different storyline. Shortly after the shower scene flashback, Norman is released from prison and moves back home. He operates the Bates Motel again but also lands a job at a local diner. He tries his hardest to be good, and we as viewers generally want him to succeed. This is a man who did his time and tries to piece his life back together.

The only other familiar face from the original is Lila (Vera Miles), Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) sister. Lila and her daughter Mary (Meg Tilly) try to get Norman to snap by calling him and pretending to be his mother. Yet, for the most part, Norman maintains his sanity. Lila, however, isn’t convinced he won’t kill again. She wants him recommitted, even after Mary says multiple times Norman changed for the better.

Psycho really isn’t Norman’s story until about the halfway point, after he kills off Marion in the shower. The sequel, however, is Norman’s story through and through. In that regard, this is also very much Perkins’ film, and you can read the sequel as a metaphor for Psycho’s impact and Perkins’ reluctance to be a horror icon.

The whole film centers around Norman trying to prove he’s not a killer, even if some of the townies consistently call him crazy. He desperately wants to escape his past and the long shadow cast by the events from the first film, just like Perkins wanted to move on from horror fame status but struggled to land other roles.

Psycho II, Queerness, and Norman’s Character Arc

To try to blend in, Norman attempts to establish a heteronormative relationship, at least on the surface. He nearly begs Mary to stay with him, and eventually, she agrees. For Norman, appearances can mean everything and show the community that he’s not some crazed maniac with mommy issues. He can settle down and live with a woman, even if they’re only friends.

Yet, this doesn’t work. By the film’s conclusion, Norman’s old habits return. The kills in this movie are bloodier than anything Hitchcock ever put to film. Again, this is 1983, not 1960. We’ve already had Halloween, Friday the 13th, and other slasher knockoffs. Psycho II upped the ante in the gore department. There’s even a scene in which teens make out in Norman’s basement, only to be punished. One meets their untimely demise, but it feels shoehorned in to meet the slasher craze of the times.

It’s impossible to look at Norman’s struggles to appear “normal” and not consider Perkins’ closeted homosexuality. Had Perkins come out in the 1950s, it would have ended his career. He married Berry Berenson at 41 to appear straight, similar to how Norman lives with Mary. Perkins even tried psychotherapy to squash his homosexuality. The marriage followed years of gay affairs. 

When you consider Perkins’ closeted life, then it’s difficult to watch Psycho II and not reflect upon the challenges the actor underwent and how they’re reflected in the film through Norman’s character arc. He even struggles when holding a knife to cut a sandwich. Those urges he tries to ignore are always there.

Psycho II remains an important sequel. It grapples with the legacy of the first film, specifically its influence on the slasher genre and Perkins’ career. More importantly, it’s a film about a man trying his hardest to conform to the standards of a, narrow-minded community and appear “normal.” However, by the time those credits roll, Norman returns to his old ways. What he tries to bury and repress in the basement always resurfaces.

In terms of the horror genre, and even film more broadly, Perkins is an important queer icon. Now 40 years old, Psycho II deserves a reexamination. What better time to watch the sequel than during Pride Month?

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