Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Standout Passage from Robert Bloch’s Psycho II

One summer, I took a class in horror movies. I realize now that this decision resulted from a desire to live out the sitcomish notion of a throwaway college elective such as Intermediate Thumb Wrestling or Robert Loggia Appreciation. Of course, it backfired, and the class turned out to be terrible. All I could take away from the experience was the professor’s analysis of the scene in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare were Heather Langenkamp’s husband gets stabbed by Freddy Krueger’s claw: “metaphoric castration by the disembodied hand of infantile masturbation,” and yes, that’s an exact quote (I wrote it down) and no, I am not making that up. Well, I took away that and Psycho II.


Not that we watched Psycho II or even the orginal Psycho, I don’t think, but the class reader — which was thick, rest assured — included a chapter from the book Psycho II, the sequel that the original book’s author, Robert Bloch, published shortly before the release of the cinematic Psycho II. The two sequels, however, aren’t related: Bloch published his sequel after Universal rejected his story as a basis for the movie. In retrospect, Universal made the right call. Whereas the movie Psycho II focuses on Norman Bates returning to his hometown upon his release from the loony bin, the book Psycho II ditches Norman almost entirely. The story opens rather spectacularly, with him murdering two nuns and then escaping from a mental institution, but he then lurks in the shadows for most of the book, with the action focusing instead on his doctor and the cast and crew of a Hollywood film based on the murder of Mary Crane. (Yeah, it’s Mary, not Marion, as the character was named when Janet Leigh played her in the movie. Maybe they thought naming the victim “Mary” was too obvious a hint about Norman’s mommy issues?)

Once the story arrives in Los Angeles, however, it just meanders about, like a tourist trying to find where all the rich, famous people hang out on Hollywood Boulevard. The only commonality it has with the movie Psycho II, now that I think about it, is its treatment of Marion’s sister, the far more sensible Lila. In the book, Lila marries Marion’s boyfriend, Sam Loomis, and the two get stabbed to death in the hardware store they own. In the movie, Lila still married Sam, even though he doesn’t appear, and she dies from getting stabbed in the mouth in such a horrendous fashion that you actually feel bad for Vera Miles, who got her hair done and who put on her best dress suit to make this silly sequel and now look how they treat me.

But Vera Miles’s Lila is important, because she exemplifies a pronounced, recurrent theme though all the Psycho manifestations: twins, doubles, and good/bad twists on the same character. (By the way, is there a term that means “double but with a significant difference that makes the double an opposite as well”? Because there should be.) I mentioned before, Lila works as a more composed, rational version of Marion, and that’s why Lila is the Crane sister who survives the first Psycho, whereas Marion is the flighty twit whose impulse decisions take her to the Bates motel. If you look at Norman and Marion as the central characters of the first half of Psycho, Sam and Lila could be viewed as the flipside pair. In the film, they even look like Norman and Marion, respectively.

These sets abound in the later Psycho movies — and hell, even the movie itself got a “bad twin” in the form of the Gus Van Sant remake — and in the book Psycho II. However, the strangest instance of them happens in the very passage that was included in my horror movies class reader. It’s brief, but memorable, mostly because it’s the gayest thing ever, and it hits out of nowhere, and trying to imagine how it fit into the overall novel’s plot actually prompted me to buy a copy of the book and see for myself. The passage focuses on Paul Morgan, the actor playing Norman Bates in the movie-within-the-book. (I should point out that the movie being made is titled Crazy Lady, which… is a choice that Robert Bloch made for some reason.) A minor character, Paul struggles with the role because he’s convinced he needs to play Norman as gay even though that’s not really Norman’s deal.

The following passage appears near the end of the book, in a series of check-ins with characters connected to the movie and contemplating their existence in Hollywood:
“This really is a picnic,” Paul Morgan said. He gestured toward the nude males crowding behind him at the dressing table’s three-paneled mirror. “I mean, look at all those buns and weenies!”

Robert Redford giggled. “Speak for yourself, dearie. Whenever I see naked bodies, it just reminds me that God didn’t know very much about anatomy.”

“Let’s not be blasphemous.” John Travolta peered at his image intently, teasing his eyelashes. “Why are you always putting down religion?”

“Because my grandmother was raped by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t your grandfather?”

Everybody let out a shriek except Clint Eastwood. He glanced up from the chair in the corner, where he sat waxing his legs. “You’re a fine one to talk — you and your group-gropes.

Sylvester Stallone elbowed his way to the mirror, pursing his mouth as he applied lipstick. “Personally, I detest the action at orgies. It’s like opening a dozen beautifully wrapped Christmas packages and finding them all empty.”

“But isn’t that what we’re doing here?” Robert Redford asked. “We’re peddling illusions not just the bare necessities.”

Clint Eastwood rose. “It’s getting late. You’d better stuff your bare necessities into your jeans and get downstairs before Queenie throws a snit fit.”

Burt Reynolds tossed his powder puff into a tray on the dressing-room table. “Oh my God, I forgot! That party of Iranians is coming in again tonight.”

“Not again!” John Travolta made a face. “Iranians suck.”

“Doesn’t everybody?” asked Paul Morgan.

There was a hoot, and Clint Eastwood moved beside him, nodding appreciatively. “That’s telling them, hon. Don’t pay attention to what they say. I know it’s your first time here, but there’s nothing to get uptight about. Just remember, Queenie’s here to protect you.”

Paul nodded, reaching for his Jordaches and peek-a-boo blouse.
Yes, it’s a group of bad twins — celeb lookalikes working as prostitutes. You find out in the next paragraph that it truly is Paul Morgan posing as a Paul Morgan-looking rent boy, and he’s ended up in a gay brothel because he’s a method actor to the point that he’s willing to let a party of randy Iranians enter him. In no other section of the book does Bloch exude such a campy sensibility, and even more strangely, the scene concludes with Paul heading down to meet the clientele, at which point he’s never mentioned again.

So how does it fit into the plot of Psycho II, after all these years? It doesn’t, it turns out, even if it works thematically with the overall series. It’s just the section in Psycho II that makes you say, “Well, that was certainly something.” And you wonder if you’ll ever be able to work the phrase “his Jordaches and peek-a-boo blouse” into your own fiction.

In case you’ve made it this far, you can read a defense of the Psycho remake that I wrote back in 2003, when I was not even twenty-one. I don’t completely get where I was coming from back then, but I will maintain that there’s more going on in that movie, and people might see it if they could overlook the sacrilegious nature of its existence.

4 comments:

  1. The word you're looking for, or something close to it anyway, is "Bizarro [Name]", which is when something's a copy of something else, yet completely the opposite. Bizarro Superman is the most obvious example, but the Seinfeld episode "The Bizarro Jerry" is another good exploration of the concept.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ah yes. As a huge fan of both DC and Seinfeld, I'm chagrinned that I couldn't think of that.

      Delete
  2. Reverse Doppelgangerism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ... which could have been an alternate title for Twin Peaks.

      Delete