Bates Motel is one of those “has to be seen to be believed (but isn’t worth spending any time on)” movies. It’s even better because it’s a late eighties TV movie slash pilot with a lot of contemporary television personalities guest starring, “Love Boat”-style. But it’s also a sequel to Psycho.
It’s also a complete mess of all those elements.
First, there’s lead Bud Cort. Having grown-up in the eighties and nineties, I eventually heard of Bates Motel, but I thought it was about Cort being this creepy motel manager and Jason Bateman being his assistant, possible victim, young adult lead. Like a mystery show.
Bates Motel is about how Robert Picardo, in a high contrast, black and white flashback, gives just institutionalized Norman Bates a friend. It’s ludicrous, but writer Richard Rothstein really runs with it. And since he also directed the Motel, he’s always very nostalgic for Norman. Cort carries an urn with his ashes around the entire movie.
It’s nuts. Only it’s saccharine. Because Bates Motel, which actually does a Scooby-Doo reveal at the end, isn’t about being scary. It’s about being life affirming. Rothstein writes it for the commercial breaks; the break provides some transition, whether in the present action or just in Cort all of a sudden becoming the protagonist instead of a possible psychopath. Then Lori Petty shows up and everything goes crazy in a different direction.
Both Cort and Petty are bad, but Petty’s doing a schtick. She’s trying to sell herself (or the network is trying to sell her) and she doesn’t do a bad job of being calculated and commercial. As far as her terribly-written part? Well, no, she doesn’t do much with it. She’s unlikable, but better than Cort. And still bad.
Even Moses Gunn is bad, but in his case it’s because Rothstein can’t stage a scene. Bill Butler’s photography is actually pretty good too. Bates Motel isn’t cheap (I had always assumed it was cheap, it isn’t); it has good production values. It just has a crap script, crap direction and crap acting.
Except from Khrystyne Haje. Against all odds, she’s good. Jason Bateman, who has no scenes with Cort, is terrible. As the primary “Love Boat” guest star, the one in need of life affirming, Kerrie Keane is bad. You want to like her, but you can’t. I guess she does earn some pity, but it’s for being in the movie.
The super sweet music from J. Peter Robinson just makes it even more of an awkward, unpleasant misfire. However, it’s hard not to watch the first act, as Motel desperately tries to engage a vague franchise awareness with its viewer, and see it as a proto-franchise reboot.
Bates Motel is, just as I always thought, a piece of crap. The only surprise–besides Haje being good and Petty being worse than expected–has to be Cort. I expected to have sympathy for him being wasted in this crappy TV movie knock-off Psycho, but I didn’t. His performance is so distant, so cocky-eyed, it’s like I’d never seen him before and had no attachment (big problem for a TV pilot, incidentally). Rothstein can’t do anything right, not even cast Harold as a socially isolated, middle-aged man intrigued with death.
Directed by Richard Rothstein; teleplay by Rothstein, suggested by a novel by Robert Bloch; director of photography, Bill Butler; edited by Dann Cahn; music by J. Peter Robinson; production designer, Robb Wilson King; produced by George Linder and Ken Topolsky; aired by NBC.
Starring Bud Cort (Alex West), Lori Petty (Willie), Kerrie Keane (Barbara Peters), Gregg Henry (Tom Fuller), Robert Picardo (Dr. Goodman), Moses Gunn (Henry Watson), Jason Bateman (Tony Scotti), Khrystyne Haje (Sally), Lee de Broux (Sheriff) and Kurt Paul (Norman Bates).