No points for guessing if you could discern what this series is about just off of the title. For the others who might still be wondering, the catchphrase here is ‘Bates Motel’ which incidentally is the very same “Bates Motel” from the classic Hitchcock thriller Psycho. The 1960 film is no less than the proverbial mecca for generations of film students as well as thriller enthusiasts, giving us some of the most iconic shots in film history. The shower scene where Hitchcock kills off the supposed lead actress, can safely be said to be one of the most viewed scenes ever ! Unsurprisingly, this scene soon became the epitome of his signature style and has since been re-created in one way or another in scores of thrillers.
Psycho was not about crime or horror or even the inherent unpredictability of the human condition. It was more about the deep, overwhelming relationship between an over-possessive mother and a devoted son. Through the course of the film, we saw Norman Bates’ transformation from a decent, well-mannered Hotel Manager into a blistering psychopath. Yet, there was a part of us which was left unquenched, wanting to delve into Norman Bates’ past. Netflix’s Bates Motel takes us into his little known past when he was still an impressionable, simple-minded 17-year old boy trying his best to help his mother cope with the untimely death of her husband, his father. Norma Bates, played by Vera Farmiga, leaves behind her old life and moves to White Pine Bay with her son in anticipation of turning over a fresh page and starting a new life there. Even though the mother and son show unconditional affection for each other as is evident from the opening scenes, you can’t help but feel an ever so subtle, lurking madness in Ms. Bates mannerisms. The Motel, which Ms. Bates had fortunately acquired in a Bank Foreclosure at a throwaway price, is an exact replica of the film but seems more realistic as seen in color with a more visceral outlook due to weeds growing around the property, paint peeling off of the walls of the buildings, giving it a more run-down personality than what we were used to seeing.
The TV adaptation as developed by Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano , aims to not only create the Hotel itself but a whole Bates Universe through the story. This is evident from a slew of other characters who project a dark, unrevealed personality of White Pine Bay – as a town with a flawed sense of morality, where people dealt with things their own way with little regard to any law the “outside” world followed. You are torn between the Bates family and the town itself, asking yourself – who is the victim of whom. Is the Bates family a victim of the town’s effect on them or is it the other way around ?
Its interesting to note that even though the story is based in the time in Norman Bates’ past, the time-frame is not before 1960. Bates Motel is actually based in the contemporary world where people have iPhones. However, you can’t help but notice that there are certain aspects of the film which feel very 1960s. Many of the shops in the town have the kind of old lettering used to display their names, Norman Bates’ teacher’s dress at school, etc., keep pushing this old-world imagery on to you. There are times when you subconsciously start feeling as if the story were fleeting in and away from 1960s. The creators possibly wished to pay homage in their own way to the original and this is an interesting way to do so, as you play with the mind of your unsuspecting audience.
Everything aside, the centre-point of this story is none other than the Bates Family, of course. Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates are phenomenal in their characterizations. Farmiga’s charming personality subtly deteriorates as you progress into the story, gradually bringing out a primal instinct hidden deep inside her. She teeters between a broken down woman on whom the world has meted out injustice after injustice, and a yelling, sweltering maniac who completely dominates over her son’s life. Highmore brings a squirmy quality to Norman which fits perfectly against backdrop of his mother’s raging dominance over him. He is a social misfit, uses a 1960s vocabulary and is hopelessly attached to his mother. You start questioning the definition of love itself and are more inclined to term his attachment as Stockholm syndrome.
We just love transformations don’t we. Breaking Bad gave as one the most well-rounded character metamorphoses in recent times and we loved both sides of Walter White. The transformation of the Bates’, is far more complex and deep. Norma Bates’ traumatized past seeps into her present and consumes her in the way she sees the world. There is no one she can trust anymore but her own son. This suffocating dependence on him, takes its toll on Norman as well who marks himself as a shield born for the sole purpose of protecting his mother from the devilish world. However, he is unaware that in the act of taking care of his mother, his psyché is becoming intertwined with hers and that his last few remnants of innocence are being smothered to death.
Side-Note: There’s a scene where a character remarks that it was weird that Norma’s son was named Norman. It does seem peculiar if you think about it – it probably was done intentionally by Hitchcock to strengthen the dual personality of Norman. But I also keep thinking of the names as a jab and a jeer to the word ‘Normal’ as these characters are a far cry from any definition of the word.
Bates Motel is a richer, more nuanced version of our beloved 1960s thriller. It misses the signature style of Hitchcock but carries the essence of the characters boldly. It would be interesting to see how Highmore plays upto the finale as promised by that vicious stare.
gobblpoint: Even if you keep aside the Psycho reference, the story itself is a well-executed thriller with all the elements of an engaging crime narrative.
Disclaimer: The images used in this post are the sole property of the makers of this series and are not owned by us in any form whatsoever.