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TV Reviews : The 4th Time Around, ‘Psycho’s’ Blade Dulls

Poor Norman Bates. His adventures in cutlery carry about as much horrific weight as Julia Child’s pitted against the current pantheon of serial-killer chic, like the unmotivated killing sprees of “Henry” or Bret Easton Ellis’ abominable anti-novel “American Psycho.”

Anthony Perkins’ signature character has been reduced to plying his schizophrenic wares on the small screen, his murders too conventional, too psychologically explicable to be on the cutting edge of slice ‘n’ dice Americana anymore. And “Psycho IV: The Beginning"--a made-for-cable sequel premiering tonight at 9 p.m. on Showtime--is nothing if not a bundle of superfluous motivations, consisting largely of flashbacks to Norman’s youthful torment by his equally psychotic mother. It’s a lot more Oedipus for the buck.

Would Alfred approve? Get serious. The law of diminishing returns proves itself again with this, the most meager of the “Psycho” sequels, in which Perkins’ half-grin performance--shaded and sympathetic as recently as “III"--turns into just one big nervous tic.

This time, the producers actually went back and hired Joseph Stefano, the screenwriter who adapted Robert Bloch’s source novel for the original Hitchcock film. But this only serves to inadvertently point to the auteur theory about Hitchcock, as it’s difficult to believe anyone involved in the creation of “Psycho IV” contributed much of artistic significance to the first one.

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Stefano and director Mick Garris have set up the first--and most watchable--two-thirds as a framework for the flashbacks, with Norman calling into a radio talk show on the ever-popular theme of matricide, reminiscing about his love/hate relationship with Mom as well as the seductresses who tried to get him into bed.

These scenes work, inasmuch as the two principals of the flashbacks have been perfectly cast. Henry Thomas (E.T.'s buddy grown way up) is ideal as a nervous, teen-age Norman, bearing no small resemblance to the youthful Perkins. Olivia Hussey (“Romeo and Juliet”) plays Mrs. Bates as a psychotic shrew, but a very sexy psychotic shrew--young and lovely yet with that awful voice we’ve heard Norman imitate so often.

They’re both terrific, and there’s a harrowing power in a few of their scenes together, which come uncomfortably close to approximating recognizable child abuse. But the introduction of any real trauma into this tasteless, hokey confection is all too incongruous, especially when most of the women characters are one-dimensional, hot-to-trot floozies introduced just long enough to be offed.

In the last and most embarrassingly dumb act, the radio framework is suddenly dropped, those characters never to be seen again, as twitching Norman decides to stalk his pregnant bride--who, get this, is a caring psychologist who fell in love with him (“at first sight”!) during his latest post-murder-spree institutional stint. There are more motivations aplenty, but by the anti-climax you’ll find out just how little you care what makes Norman’s tics tick.


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