It seems that we’re in the age of the remake, or more correctly, the reimagining era. This goes hand-in-hand with a time where television is the new silver screen. The ‘80s idea of the movie star is all but dead (someone please tell Tom Cruise). The safe bet for financial returns lies in the small screen. So inevitably characters that experienced former glories with cinema goers are finding new places to breathe once again. We’ll look at two that are best known for stopping breath.
Two characters that transcend their appearances on film and permeate into popular culture are Norman Bates and Hannibal Lector. Hitchcock’s original Psycho is still as effective today as it ever was. There are no scenes of graphic violence or gore, but it chills and scares better than most horrors ever placed on celluloid. Anthony Perkins was engaging and complex and key moments that could have descended into a parody were perfectly disturbing.
The Silence of the Lambs played for shocks at times whilst allowing us to engage with the fascinating Lector. Another Anthony, this time Hopkins, played the role with a malevolent menace. Beneath the intelligence in his eyes was a primitive warning. Before the Hopkins version Brian Cox played him deliberately void of outward evil, itself proving effective. But it is the Hopkins version that became the public’s Lector, and the benchmark subsequent versions are faced against.
This brings us to the newest incarnations of these two popular icons, and the very different paths they have taken. Lector’s small screen reboot came first, in the form of Hannibal. We find him in a pre-Red Dragon era. He’s still a practising psychiatrist working alongside the man from the novel that we know eventually catches him. However, the original timeline of events won’t unfold on this show as they have elsewhere. This will help with its longevity and prevents it becoming too predictable.
And it does defy predictions and assumptions. It would have been easier to cheapen the source material and exploit the obvious areas that lean to excess. There are moments that make you want to turn away from the screen, but even they have a fitting place in a show that is shot in a contemporary fashion. Mads Mikkelsen doesn’t redo Hannibal Lector with his portrayal – he makes him feel alive for the first time. We know the evil that lurks beneath, we never know when we’ll see it, but it’s brooding and bubbling whilst he plays people like pawns. He’s understated with the horror, delivering it with a fear of anticipation. Going back to Psycho, remember that shower scene, remember that you don’t actually see that much, but it works better than anything plainly laid out before you. The Mikkelsen Lector is just like that.
So the reboot of Norman Bates surely follows a similar path, right? Played and shot with subtle expertise? Well, it did have this particular line: “You’re like a beautiful, deep, still lake in the middle of a concrete world,” delivered to Norman Bates from a love interest, and that’s where its excursion into anything remotely poetic ends.
Where Hannibal had subtle suggestion that blurred lines (I got peckish watching Lector’s dinner parties), Bates Motel has no such restraint. It unashamedly over does the Oedipus complex; if there’s a gun going off there’s oodles of blood to view; if there’s a bad guy we need to meet we almost get some pantomime booing.
At times, with certain camera angles and colours, it feels like it’s paying homage to horror’s successful era. Then it plays out like an average thriller. If the success of Hannibal was down to its strong lead and excellent supporting cast then Bates Motel could be in trouble. It’d be unfair to say any principal players are poor but it would be a lie to say they engage in the manner they should. Freddie Highmore, the new Norman Bates, obviously believes imitation is the best form of plagiarism. At times he is Anthony Perkins, and with it we lose any sense of fear. We’ve seen the shock of Bates in this form before. The makers should have taken note of the 1998 film version of Psycho, it was pretty much shot-for-shot a replica of the original, and it was panned.
If it’s new it has to be different, otherwise the original will always be best.
Another poignant line from Bates Motel was delivered by Norma, she asked, “Who is gonna book a room in the rape-slash-murder motel?” For now we’ll keep returning in the hope it’ll meet its potential, but as soon as Hannibal is cooking again our attentions will return to a much classier killer.