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The Psychonomics Of Sequels

First Look at the Studios

July 10, 1986|DAVID T. FRIENDLY | Times Staff Writer

Midway through "Psycho III," there's a scene at once frightening and hilarious. "You can't get rid of me," shrieks Norman Bates' (Anthony Perkins) "mother" from her bedroom in the fabled Victorian house above the Bates Motel. "I'll always be with you, always!"

The same might be said of the "Psycho" films. The third installment, which also marks Perkins' directing debut, opened July 2 at 1,400 theaters across the country. "Pyscho III," released by Universal Studios, joins the wave of Hollywood's summer sequelmania: 20th Century Fox has "Aliens"; MGM, "Poltergeist II" and Paramount, "Friday the 13th Part VI" (yes, that's part six). And those are just the horror-film sequels.

Why do they keep bringing Norman Bates back?

The motivation has been mostly money. Call it Psychonomics: The numbers are as eye-opening as one of Norman's brutal murders. The original "Psycho," which starred Perkins and Janet Leigh (who was killed off in the first 20 minutes in that classic shower sequence), cost only $800,000--about $400,000 less than the cost of a single television episode of the "A-Team" or "Miami Vice" today. "Psycho" took in a whopping $20 million in ticket sales. (Allowing for general inflation and the increase in ticket prices, that figure would translate to roughly $70 million in today's market.) "Psycho" remains one of the top-grossing black-and-white films of all time.

While "Psycho II" (1983) was no megahit, it took in a respectable $34.7 million in ticket sales and cost about $5 million, a healthy enough profit to set the wheels in motion for a third chapter.

But like a good Hitchcock thriller, the "Psycho" box-office saga is yielding some unexpected plot twists. In its first five days, "Psycho III" took in a disappointing $5,047,000 at the box office--numbers that may make you wonder why anyone would risk following--not once but twice, and maybe more--Hitchcock's 1960 classic.

While the movie has garnered some favorable reviews, notably from Vincent Canby of the New York Times and Roger Ebert of TV's "At the Movies," audiences have not been rushing to the theaters to see it. Universal executives are not ready to count the picture out yet. They are hopeful that initial business was dampened by the Fourth of July festivities and that the coming weekend will bring larger audiences to the film. "The numbers were definitely a disappointment, but we're confident the film will go into profit," said one studio executive who insisted on anonymity.

It is safe to say the "Psycho" sequels are not made to respond to unanswered questions from the first film. If that were the case, why would Universal have waited 22 years to make "Psycho II"? The thinking has been that there is a sizable-enough audience familiar with Norman Bates and his scary past that will queue up to the ticket window on the strength of the title alone. According to the press kit furnished by Universal, a recent study showed that fully 90% of Americans over the age of 12 know the "Psycho" story.

The original "Psycho" was actually an experiment of sorts, said Hilton A. Green, longtime Hitchcock associate and producer of "Psycho II" and "III."

Coming off the expensive and enormously successful "North by Northwest," Hitchcock wanted to make "Psycho" quickly and cheaply, Green said.

"He loved to do the unexpected," Green explained in an interview on the Universal lot where the "Psycho" house today resides on a dusty bluff. "Hitchcock said, 'Wouldn't it be great if I made a low-budget movie and it was a quality low-budget movie?' "

Made in just 35 days by Hitchcock's television crew (he had a feature crew for his movies and a TV crew for his series "Alfred Hitchcock Presents"), "Psycho" was a Paramount movie made on the Universal lot. Universal wound up with the rights to the film and its offspring when the studio purchased Hitchcock's production company, Shamley Productions.

"The second one ends with Norman supposedly rehabilitated, so we thought it lent itself perfectly to going on to a third," Green said. "But if 'Psycho II' hadn't been successful, there never would have been a third. Sequels depend entirely on whether people want to see more."

The impressive thing about all of this is that Hitchcock, and now Perkins, has been able to make audiences feel compassion for a psychopath. In "Psycho III"--the most expensive of the three at a cost of about $9.3 million--perhaps more than ever before, the audience is asked to see the world through Norman's eyes.

"It's his sweetness," said Perkins, 54, carving an apple with a steak knife while he finished off a pint of cottage cheese. "It's his unwillingness to just give in and say, 'Oh what the heck, I'm just going to be a bad guy.' You're not rooting for his failings; you are rooting for his good side."

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