A&E Channel TV Series review: 'Bates Motel'

June 09, 2020
Bates Motel
Bates Motel

‘PSYCHO’ is a classic thriller by Alfred Hitchcock which was a big hit when shown in Manila in 1960. We remember the blurb on its ad saying: “No one will be admitted at the last 10 minutes of the movie and please don’t reveal the ending.” 

The movie featured the iconic shower scene where Janet Leigh as Marion Crane was repeatedly stabbed to death while taking a shower. The violence shocked a lot of people at that time, aided and abetted by the brilliant editing and the unforgettable discordant musical score by Bernard Herrmann which was imitated by other musical directors.

We think it’s the father of what would later be known as the slasher movie, and the notorious killer, Norman Bates (competently played by Anthony Perkins), is the granddaddy of infamous screen monsters like Jason Voorhes of “Friday the 13th”, Michael Myers of “Halloween”, Freddie of Elm St. and even Chuckie, the killer doll. “Pyscho” had several sequels and also had a remake, but none of them was as big a hit or as effective as the original, which is already definitive so how can you improve on something that is already perfect? 

Then on TV, it spawned a series on A&E Channel entitled “Bates Motel”, the name of the motel which is the setting of “Psycho”. It was so successful it ran for five seasons, with each season having 10 episodes. It’s actually a prequel, an origin story showing how the saga of the psychotic hero, Norman Bates (played by Freddie Highmore, the child actor in “Finding Neverland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), started. 

Of course, they have to make several changes to expand the material. To begin with, it’s now set in contemporary times and not in the 1960s. In the movie, we saw the mother only as a mummified corpse but here, we meet her as Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga), along with her very dysfunctional family. It’s actually hard to do a series like this because what happened is already established in the mind of viewers. 

It’s the final season that initially follows the plotline of the original movie, but they changed how it's concluded. We meet Marion Crane, now played by Rihanna, but she’s not the one who is murdered by Norman here but her lover, Sam Loomis (played by John Gavin in the movie and here, by Austin Nichols).

But the very first season is something really new. We meet Norman as a gentle soft-spoken teenager. His abusive dad just died under mysterious circumstances and his mom Norma decides it best for them to leave their home in Arizona and move to Oregon where they buy an old motel that is about to be foreclosed. They renovate it and call it Bates Motel. 

Its former owner resents this, breaks in and tries to rape Norma, but Norman hits him and Norma stabs him. Norma decides not to report this to the cops and covers it up. The town’s sheriff, Romero (Nestor Carbonell), investigates and in later seasons, he’ll marry Norma. We also meet Dylan (Max Thierot), Norma’s older kid who turns out to be the product of her incestuous relationship with her older brother, Caleb (Kenny Johnson).

In the local high school, Norman makes friends with Bradley (Nicola Peltz), the school’s most popular girl; Emma (Olivia Cooke), who is a person with disability as she has cystic fibrosis in her lungs, and Miss Watson (Keegan Tracy), their teacher who becomes a victim of Norman when he experiences his blackouts where he doesn’t remember what he has done. The show does get to establish its own main narrative and subplots.

The second season shows what happens after Norman unknowingly murdered his flirtatious teacher. In the third season, Norman becomes aware of his worsening psychosis and tries to regain control of his sanity, but his mom becomes more and more dominant in protecting him. In the fourth season, Norma marries Sheriff Romero as his insurance will help finance Norman’s stay in a pricey mental institution. But this backfires when Norman discovers his mom has remarried, leading to the death of Norma. In the fifth and final season, Norma returns as Norman’s alter ego in a clear case of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Norman is aware that his mom is already dead, but he cannot shake away her control on his life, leading to a truly bloody climax involving all the other characters.

As a whole, we’d say “Bates Motel” succeeds in reinventing a classic movie thriller, specially in its first few seasons, but toward the end, specially in the last season, you can feel they’re just needlessly stretching it and all the padding becomes very cumbersome viewing. But you can never fault the acting, specially by Farmiga and Highmore as they present on screen the creepiest mother and son relationship ever, uncomfortable getting very, very dark as they careen toward their inevitable heinous fate. 

Highmore is convincingly effective in showing the tribulations and total descent into madness of Norman. But Farmiga is even more fascinating in portraying the very controlling Norma who slowly gets deranged and unhinged as well. 

Take note that “Bates Motel” was shown almost at the same time as the TV version of another movie about a gruesome killer, Hannibal Lecter, which gave Anthony Hopkins an Oscar best actor in “Silence of the Lambs”. The series was titled “Hannibal” and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen played him. Also a prequel-origin story, we watched only the first season and didn’t bother to look into the succeeding seasons as we found the first one ridiculous. “Bates Motel” is fairly more engaging to watch.