Oscar nominee Vera Farmiga’s elegant features bear little resemblance to those of the rictus-grinning corpse that made audiences jump out of their skins in the climacticscenes of “Psycho.” In fact, there is almost nothing about the TV prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror masterpiece that bears even a vague likeness to that big-screen original.
True, most of the story’s shocking events take place in and around a motor inn called the “Bates Motel” — from which the series takes its name — and the sinister-looking old house that perches ominously, vulture-like, on the hilltop behind it.
Mrs. Bates (Farmiga) lives in the house with her son, Norman (Freddie Highmore, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). The modest motel — 12 cabins, usually 12 vacancies — is their only visible source of income.
And that is where the similarities between the movie and the series end, pretty much. Created by Carlton Cuse (“Lost”), Kerry Ehrin (“Friday Night Lights”) and Anthony Cipriano for the A&E network, “Bates Motel” imagines the dysfunctional relationship between Norman and his devilishly domineering mother (whose first name is Norma, what else?), and the young man’s psychological unraveling, beginning at age 17 and presumably leading all the way up to future horrors that would include poisoning, taxidermy and bloody murder in a shower.
While those familiar with the movie might imagine Mrs. Bates as a witchy old hag, the creators of the series present her in the fine form of Farmiga, a fiercely independent woman unafraid to stand up to unscrupulous males who see a vulnerable single mother ripe for plucking. Farmiga is perfectly cast as a wily and enigmatic woman who’s given to fits of ferocious anger when cornered, and is adept at working angles of her own when opportunity lands at the motel’s registration desk. She’s a heroine — or an antiheroine — who skillfully walks a thin line between sympathetic and scary in this unique role, which is no mean feat.
Highmore is fascinating as the mama’s boy who can switch from meek to mad and back again with dizzying deftness, but even more compelling is the brooding Max Thieriot as Dylan Massett, Norman’s wandering half-brother (Yes! Norman has a black sheep bro!), who shows up at the motel shortly after Norma and Norman move to town and set up shop.
Which brings us to the other alterations and additions TV lends to the Bates story. While the movie version takes place in the tiny burg of Fairvale, Calif., “Bates Motel” finds mother and son moving to the coastal town of White Pine Bay, Ore., from Arizona, shortly after Norman’s father’s death in a freak household accident. And for some reason, the TV version is set in contemporary times, complete with cellphones and the Internet, perhaps for budgetary reasons, since the cost of assembling a fleet of ’50s and ’60s automobiles and other period trappings would have been prohibitive for a series produced for basic cable.
No matter, because an origin story about the Bates family and hotel is a can’t-miss proposition in capable storytelling hands, no matter what narrative direction it takes, simply for the status of “Psycho” as one of the most beloved stories in modern horror literature.
— Gene Triplett