Posted May 2, 2013
By MELISSA CASTILLO
Norman Bates was an unusual man who kept his mother’s rotting corpse in his house, materialized arguments with her, and took on her personality during which he murdered a woman as she showered.
He was so attached to her when she was alive that once she passed away, he became her. Alfred Hitchcock’s fictional character from his masterpiece “Psycho” poses the question, what could lead a man to such insanity?
Hitchcock is best known for directing classic psychological thrillers from the 1940s to the 1970s, including “Birds” and “North by Northwest.”
And “Psycho,” released in 1960, is considered to be among his best and well-known films. Since then, a frame-by-frame remake was released in 1998 starring Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates.
The plot begins with a secretary, Marion Crane, steals $40,000 from her job that she was supposed to deposit into the bank and flees town in hopes of meeting up with her boyfriend, who is in need of money. But as she’s driving, it begins to pour and she pulls over to a secluded motel where she meets the proprietor, Norman Bates.
And as is the case with many of Hitchcock’s films, the plot is simple but there’s always an unforeseen twist at the end. In comparison, the television show is far from simple.
Carlton Cuse, executive producer and screenwriter for the hit series “Lost,” and Kerry Ehrin, producer for another hit series “Friday Night Lights,” have taken on the challenge to answer this question through the new A&E television show, “Bates Motel.”
The series is meant to be a prequel to display Norman’s dysfunctional upbringing that led to his eventual mental demise. It seems as though this concept of telling the unknown background has become a trend, such as with the television show “The Carrie Diaries,” based on the “Sex and the City” character Carrie Bradshaw and the movie “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which shows how the Wizard of Oz came to be.
Norman Bates, played by Freddie Highmore from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” is a modern day 17-year-old boy in high school with an iPhone. A queen bee of the school has developed an interest in him, an awkward misfit is yearning for his attention, an overbearing mother forbids him from going to a party, and he has regular quarrels with his older half-brother. That seems like a fairly average teenage life.
Except, the queen bee’s father is a middleman for a $5 million marijuana enterprise and is burned alive as retaliation for angering someone. The awkward misfit and Norman come across clues that imply a possible sex slavery operation in town. He also attempts to slam his brother over the head with a meat tenderizer. And within the first episode he witnesses his mother repeatedly stab a man.
Norman’s mother, Norma Bates, is played by Oscar-nominated actress from “Up in the Air,” Vera Farmiga. The challenge with this role is that she must be able to show subtext and maintain a cryptic demeanor. She portrays this within the first few scenes of the pilot.
Norman finds his motionless father lying on their garage floor with blood seeping out of his head and a storage shelf on top of his body. When he yells for his mother to come, she is oddly calm and shows no sign of shock but her eyes still water with despair. She bends down and repeats, “Norman, Norman,” as he cries. She then hugs her son and says with sincerity, “I’m so sorry.” Within the first five minutes of the series, there’s already mystery.
Another characteristic of the mother that Farmiga successfully portrays is her dramatic temper. Norma says in a broken-down tone, “We came here to start over. We came here to start over,” and in an instant she has a fierce expression and raises her voice, “I am starting over!”
Highmore is equally skillful at playing the complex Norman Bates. Just like Norman from “Psycho,” the 17-year-old is tall, lanky and socially awkward. In public he comes off as a shy and decent. When the queen bee Bradley Martin, played by Nicola Peltz, takes him to a party, he stands off to the side while girls dance on tables in skimpy, neon clothing and other teens pass around a bong for smoking marijuana. Bradley walks over to him when she notices him alone and says with a smile, “You’re different, aren’t you?”
While Norman sometimes seems so innocent, there are instances when his eyes scream death. In one scene, he’s walking over to Deputy Shelby’s house late at night to break in and steal evidence that could link Norma to the murder. His walk is stiff, his head is tilted slightly forward, with a subtle grin, and his eyes look as though he’s possessed. A motorcycle is driving in the opposite direction, causing the headlight to shine over him and create a haunting effect.
This would not be a “Psycho” prequel without the strangely close bond Norman has with his mother. He professes his love to Norma while they’re dumping a man’s corpse into a body of water. “Mom you’re everything. Everything to me,” he says, “You’re my family. My whole family, my whole life, my whole self.” That last part, “my whole self,” is particularly interesting since Norman’s memory of his mother in “Psycho” takes over his mind.
Besides the main characters, the other significant similarity is the setting. Using the same ominous house, the never-ending stairs, and the shoddy motel is a beautiful touch.
Although “Bates Motel” is based on Hitchcock’s brilliance, it has hardly paid homage to “Psycho” beyond the famous setting and the timeless characters, Norman Bates and Norman as his mother. The mother in “Psycho” is domineering. This has been effectively displayed through Norma forbidding him from going out with his friends and being disappointed when he joins the track team since it means he won’t be home as much.
Norman in “Psycho” is socially awkward and refers to his mother as his “best friend.” This is seen in “Bates Motel” through Norman’s willingness to do exactly what she says and showing jealousy when Norma goes on a date.
Only four episodes have aired so far and it’s already addictive. The slow-paced plot development of “Psycho” had to be replaced to fit the overly stimulated modern day viewers. To capture the audience, each episode begins with a shock and to keep them wanting more, each episode ends with a shock.
• “Bates Motel”
• Aired: March 18, 2013
• Network: A&E
• When: Monday 10 p.m.
• Length: One hour
• Actors: Vera Farmiga (Norma Louise Bates), Freddie Highmore (Norman Bates), Max Thieriot (Dylan Massett), Olivia Cooke (Emma Decody), Nicola Peltz (Bradley Martin)
• Executive Producers: Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin
• Genre: Drama, thriller