Studio: NBC Universal
Director: Richard Rothstein
Writer: Richard Rothstein
Producer: Ken Topolsky
Stars: Bud Cort, Lori Petty, Moses Gunn, Gregg Henry, Khrystyne Haje, Jason Bateman, Kerrie Keane, Robert Picardo
Alex West inherits the infamous Bates Motel and reopens for business to a new crop of strange guests.
25 years before A&E hit pay dirt with a TV series under the same title, NBC tried its hand at extending the “Psycho” universe on the small screen with a “Bates Motel” television program. Dismal ratings ensured that the 90-minute pilot (two hours with commercials) would become a forgotten movie-of-the-week rather than the premiere episode of a weekly show. Even before it was eclipsed by its 21st century cable TV namesake, 1987’s “Bates Motel” was doomed to be an obscure asterisk in the fictional legacy of Norman Bates.
Being twelve-years-old at the time, the thought of an ongoing “Bates Motel” show thrilled me to no end. With its Sunday night timeslot on a broadcast network, this was as accessible as a horror franchise could possibly be for a boy of my age. This enthusiasm let it sail right over my head that such accessibility would also equal watered-down entertainment.
“Bates Motel” aired shortly after a “Family Ties” rerun. Enlightened retrospect suggests that NBC suits were of course keenly aware that Sunday was a night for “Our House” and other friendly fare. Which probably explains why “Bates Motel” packs the bite of a toothless puppy with failed stabs at broad appeal and tongue-in-cheek charm.
The movie starts literally on an off note as tender piano keys accompany dawn breaking over an otherwise imposing silhouette of the Bates house. This little melody, repeated throughout the film as a leitmotif, would better fit a late-night commercial soliciting donations for starving children than a dreaded haunted house.
Things proceed further into a jumbled tone when an overzealous TV reporter recaps “Psycho” with some of the hammiest news copy ever written. Describing Norman Bates’ psyche as “twisted and bent out of shape like a pretzel” is something Mike Wallace never would have said on “60 Minutes.”
That same newscaster also glibly points out Iver’s Cutlery as the place where “Mother would send (Norman) to have her knives sharpened.” This is an introduction planting flags in offbeat territory where Hitchcock would not dream of setting foot. And the movie has only progressed sixty seconds beyond the opening credits at this point.
The first foot forward delivers the impression that “Bates Motel” wants comedy near the forefront. Curiously enough, the humor is so lowbrow that it causes chuckles partly because of how misplaced it is. As disappointing as it is to see the darker “Psycho” themes traded for lighthearted camp, it is funny hearing a funeral director tell the eulogist to “keep it short, we do a volume business here.” Or seeing a hobo mistake the urn of Norman’s ashes for some primo Japanese sake.
27 years after wearing his mother’s dress and butchering Janet Leigh in the shower, Norman Bates, seen only from the side in one very brief shot, drops dead in a mental hospital. But three decades of institutionalization gave Norman a friend in Alex West, a disturbed young man whose own past mirrored that of Norman’s.
The will bequeaths Norman’s three worldly possessions. For teaching him the art of cooking, Mrs. Fisher goes home with Norman’s plastic turkey. Or maybe it was a wrapped turkey. Either way, it looks ridiculous. Mr. Yokey gets the collection of 45 LPs as thanks for Norman having learned the twist and the hucklebuck. Alex takes top prize as the new owner of the Bates Motel, just in time for his release from the asylum. Alex then sets off to Fairville, inexplicably renamed from Fairvale, to begin his new life in hospitality management.
No matter its incarnation, the Bates Motel has always been a magnet for misfits. And Bud Cort is a perfect fit for Alex’s surrogate Norman character. Cort always comes with his unique blend of oddball awkwardness masking deeper troubles, making him an able ringleader for the motley crew about to be assembled. The yin to his yang is Lori Petty in her first credited feature-length role as Willie, the tough-talking tomboy persona that Petty perfected in subsequent roles throughout her career.
Together they embark on a mission to restore the Bates Motel’s faded glory in a series of scenes involving Alex applying for a bank loan, Willie reading codicil terms to verify property ownership, and a montage of contractors mixing cement and shingling roofs. If that sounds boring, that is because it is. Getting the business off the ground financially and physically comprises two-thirds of the runtime, giving “Bates Motel” a “This Old House” flavor when it should be laying a foundation of Hitchcockian suspense.
Considering the movie as a launch vehicle for a series, the goings-on at the house could get away with being moderately uninteresting as a framing device. Presumably, the slack would be picked up by the motel’s revolving door of week-to-week guests and their stories.
So the back act provides a glimpse of what that anthology format might look like by moving the story to the reopened motel’s first official visitor: a suicidal divorcee. She ends up embroiled in a tepid ghost story most notable for featuring a baby-faced Jason Bateman as well as Khrystyne Haje from the popular 80’s sitcom “Head of the Class.”
Whether a finger is pointed at the era, the idea, the script, or the network for giving the film a baffling personality, “Bates Motel” has such dull edges that its primary allure is as an anomalous oddity in the “Psycho” franchise. Maybe it was a bold decision to forget the first two sequels and to try running in a different direction with the premise. Unfortunately for the telefilm, history had the last laugh by retroactively forgetting this version of “Bates Motel” instead.
Review Score: 45