Bates Motel has proved to be an impressively unique spin on the concepts of both the prequel and the television adaptation. Like many other film geeks, I was terrified to see what would be done with the iconic Alfred Hitchcock classic Psycho. I especially wondered how it would be framed. How could a 53-year-old film about a woman-hating murderer, with a now outdated Freudian psychosis, be responsibly portrayed on TV today? The idea made me so uncomfortable that I avoided the show until its fourth season had completed.
Once I finally got the nerve to check it out, I realized this was not a simple rehashing, nor was it a thoughtless manipulation of the kill-the-pretty-girl trope that #Psycho, for all its brilliance, troublingly brought about. Bates Motel is best described as a love letter to film history and a tribute to one of its most notable pioneers. Flawlessly updated to appeal to a new audience (some of whom probably haven't seen or do not recall its source material), Bates Motel never forgets where it comes from, or where it is.
Proof of this is not only in the action-packed, plot-twist-heavy narrative, but also in the Hitchcockian cinematography, which even includes many redolent long shots. Hidden within the narrative and cinematography are a number of obvious Psycho homages, but there are also some less obvious tributes. Here are eight subtle nods to Hitchcock that you might have missed in seasons 1 through 4 of A&E's #BatesMotel.
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9. Keith's Swift Demise
When Psycho was first released in theaters back in 1960, #Hitchcock made an unusual demand. Cinemas were instructed to bar any latecomers from entering the cinema once the film had begun. The reason was simple: Entering the film too late would lessen the impact of Marion's death. From the very beginning, Psycho leads us to believe she will be our main character; but half an hour in, she is shockingly murdered.
This famous plot twist is played with in Bates Motel when we meet Keith, the disgruntled former owner of the motel. Like Marion, he's a shady character (arguably way more so), and we soon realize he will be punished for his transgressions. His death is certainly no big loss; he's terrible, but it is surprising, given that he is set up to be an antagonist we might expect to hang around causing trouble for a while.
8. The Toilet 'Doesn't Flush'
1960 was still a conservative time in the film industry and Hitchcock had to be very aware of this. His choice to film in black and white rather than color was, in part, a way to avoid being slapped with a high rating due to gore. The sight of blood is a lot less jarring when it's gray. But for all his efforts, Hitchcock still managed to stir up a ton of controversy with, of all things, a toilet. The obscenity of a toilet flushing on screen was unheard of, until Marion tore up her letter and flushed it — in a closeup, no less. The film took a lot of heat for this daring scene, and Bates Motel seemed to delight in paying clever tribute.
After Norma hides Keith's body in a motel room bathroom, Sheriff Romero asks to use its toilet. Norma panics and claims the toilet doesn't flush. Romero insists it just needs a jiggle, and is able to use it after all. Later on the series, Norma makes a secret phone call from her bathroom, and when Norman calls for her, she flushes the unused toilet to cover her tracks. In fact, many scenes take place in the Bates' bathroom.
7. Shadow Of A Doubt And Uncle Caleb
Long before Psycho, Hitchcock directed the 1943 classic Shadow of a Doubt. In this thriller, a young woman takes an immediate interest in her mysterious Uncle Charlie, whom she is named after, when he comes to visit. As they spend more time together, an uncomfortable intimacy develops and she begins to suspect he has a violent side. The incestuous undertones were amped up for the 2013 homage Stoker.
Season 2, Episode 2 of Bates Motel is titled "Shadow of a Doubt," and for good reason. The episode introduces Uncle Caleb, who first happens upon Norma's son, Dylan. He is surprised to discover his mother has a brother of whom he's never heard, and becomes very intrigued by Caleb. He is somewhat enamored by his relative's stories, in much the same way Charlie was in the film Shadow of a Doubt. Also like Charlie, it isn't long before he learns some uncomfortable truths about his uncle. Bringing incest to the forefront of this already dark narrative, Caleb turns out to be Dylan's father.
6. The Lie Detector Test
At the very end of Psycho, #NormanBates is examined by a psychologist while trapped in the persona of his mother. After evaluating Norman, the doctor exits the room, and explains that he is suffering from a rare psychosis in which he believes he is his mother, and that the mother persona has committed the murders. Norman is, therefore, unable to recognize himself as the killer; for all intents and purposes, he is innocent.
After hearing this disturbing explanation, the camera cuts back to Norman, who is still sitting in the interrogation room. A final shot gives us a closeup of Norman's face, so lost in his own delusions that he can't even be bothered to bat a fly from his face. This final haunting image is topped off with an eerie smirk that spreads across his face.
Redone to great effect, Bates Motel uses a similar shot at the end of the Season 2 finale. During a lie detector test meant to prove Norman killed his teacher, he recalls the events of the night of the murder. Having committed the crime while under the influence of his mother's persona, Norman remembers seeing his mother commit the crime, rather than himself. This allows him to pass the test. When the polygraph technician leaves to inform the sheriff of the results, we are once again left with that haunting image, right down to the smirk.
5. Norman Peeps On Guest
In one of Psycho's most iconic moments, Norman takes it upon himself to peep on a beautiful motel guest. Having just learned that Norman and his mother have a complicated dynamic, Marion opens up and shares a little of her story. She admits she has come to the motel because she is on the run, but is now ready to face her mistakes.
Afterwards, she returns to her room and decides to take a shower before bed. Unfortunately, she is unaware that Norman is watching her undress through a hidden hole in the wall. By the time she enters the shower, Norman has lost it. Cue the famous score, and Marion is dramatically sliced to death under the running water.
In Bates Motel, Annika Johnson takes a room in the motel, immediately catching Norman's attention. Later, as he changes a lightbulb for her, he unloads a little about the relationship he shares with his mother and about how difficult their life can be. In return, Annika tells him a little about herself, including that she is at the motel because she is in town for an escort gig. Later on during her stay, Norman happens upon her readying herself for a shower, and peeps at her from a window. When she goes missing soon after, it is difficult not to suspect Norman.
4. The License Plate
This one requires quite the eye. In Psycho, after killing Marion, Norman stuffs her body into the trunk of her own car and pushes it into a lake. As he watches it slowly sink beneath the surface, there is a closeup of its backend. Subsequently, the license plate is very prominent: NFB 418. This is significant because the letters represent the name Norman F. Bates. This alludes to his middle name being Francis, in reference to Saint Francis, the patron saint of birds. Even in the movie, Norman was a taxidermist, obsessed with — you guessed it — birds.
The license plate is reused in Bates Motel on Bradley's car when Annika returns to White Pine Bay in Season 3. The first closeup of the plate is when Norman finds her and they drive off together. After he kills her, he sinks her car, and like in the film, we see the letters drowned. It is one of the last images of the Season 3 finale.
3. Audrey's Strangulation
In 1972, Hitchcock directed one of his more violent films, Frenzy. The British thriller follows the lives of people in a small town plagued by a series of grotesque murders. A serial killer is raping and fatally strangling women using neckties. The killer is a fruit merchant who, FYI, has a very troubling relationship with his mother.
Similarly, when Audrey visits Norman to convince him to give a letter to Emma, she is made incredibly vulnerable. During the interaction, Norman is already in his mother's persona, and volatile. When he snaps, standing behind Audrey, he uses her own scarf to strangle her to death. It's not his tie, but it's a piece of fabric nonetheless, and this definitely seems intentional.
2. The Peephole
As mentioned earlier, Psycho features a very famous scene involving Norman peeping on Marion through a hole in the wall as she undresses. The hole is accessed by the room next door, where it is hidden behind a painting.
Although the scene most like the one in which Norman peeps on Marion has him simply use a window to watch Annika, the peephole does eventually make a significant appearance in Bates Motel. In Season 4, Norman is upset to find out his mother is engaging in a romantic relationship with Alex. So it's no surprise that he's enraged to see Alex's car pull up to his mother's motel room in the dead of night. He enters the room next door to hers, removes a painting from the wall, and discreetly enlarges its nail hole. Through that hole, he watches his mother and Alex get physical. Very disturbing.
1. Mother's Death: Psycho Meets Shadow Of A Doubt
Within the original backstory of Psycho, we learn that after becoming insanely jealous of his mother's relationship with her soon-to-be husband, Norman poisons the two of them to death. He then forges a suicide note to make it seem as though his mother committed the murder-suicide.
However, Bates Motel makes a slight adjustment to this story. Instead of using a pesticide (strychnine) on the lovers, Norman gasses himself and his mother with carbon monoxide one night, which calls Shadow of a Doubt to mind. Near the end of that movie, a distraught Charlie, realizing her uncle is dangerous, threatens him. As it turns out, he does not take well to threats. Charlie then finds herself locked in a garage that is quickly filling up with car exhaust, and almost dies. Unfortunately, in Bates Motel, Norma does die in the incident, even though Norman survives. Moreover, she has left a goodbye letter to her husband that night, causing the police to rule it a suicide.
Catch Season 5, Episode 6 of Bates Motel on March 27 on A&E. Tell us in the comments section of any other subtle Hitchcock references we might have missed.