South by Southwest 2013 | Bates Motel, Evil Dead

Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel

Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga in Bates Motel

A haven for undershown cinema that periodically transforms into a commercial launching pad for mega-releases, South by Southwest sometimes has trouble reconciling its own split identity. If you want to see the latest movie from experimental director Jem Cohen or check out the 600 films that indie darling Brie Larson has appeared in this year, there's a pretty good chance they're here. If, on the other hand, you're a producer whose goal is to find a receptive audience for your unnecessary revamp of The Evil Dead, Austin will supply fans who line up around the block, ready to woop and cheer. (It helps if you bring in Bruce Campbell for a genuinely raucous and funny Q&A.)


Although it largely jettisons the slapstick element of the original, Fede Rodriguez's in-jokey Evil Dead reboot is, perhaps self-defeatingly, aimed squarely at fans of Sam Raimi's cult favorite. Is there a reason to bother? The chief addition is a drug-addiction back story that never quite pays off. (Jane Levy's heroine is originally taken to the cabin for detox.) But after a sluggish and willfully arch first hour, the movie picks up with an inspired scene of self-amputation and never relents from there.


I wasn't expecting the same level of fan enthusiasm at this morning's screening of episode one of A&E's Bates Motel, a series that depicts Norman Bates at 17, when he was just an aw-shucks kid living with his widowed mom. (It's evidently aimed at viewers unfamiliar not only with Psycho, but with 1990's Psycho IV: The Beginning.) At the risk of stating the obvious, a large part of the point of Hitchcock's masterpiece is that Norman at first appears to us to be a dutiful son, an archetype of wholesomeness who turns out to have nasty taxidermical secrets in his closet. Depicting the roots of his repression is, to an extent, giving the game away—and any work that aims to do so has a high bar to clear in terms of justification.


Hardly the first property to prostitute the Psycho brand, Bates Motel is more an appropriation than an homage, a few Herrmann-esque riffs in the score notwithstanding. It signals that it's a departure at the outset, when mom Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) buys the motel as an impulse purchase after the death of her husband. (In the original, the motel was the idea of her lover, MIA so far.) The time period is the present, when a text-messaging Norman (Freddie Highmore) is the new kid at school and the object of curiosity for a gaggle of attractive coeds. The question remains of whether Marion Crane's iPhone would be traceable in the swamp. And how to solve the dramatic problem of not having any murders until the series' end? Simple: Contrive a setup that has mother and son forced to cover up an unplanned act of bloodletting. It's the episode's most Hitchcockian idea—but one that completely changes the notion of Norman as a character.


At a Q&A with co-creator Carlton Cuse, fans gushed about Cuse's work on Lost but didn't mention Hitchcock at all. The writer paid his respects before describing the series as a Batman Begins–like reimagining, as well as "one part Friday Night Lights, one part Lost, one part Twin Peaks." That's enough to make Psycho fans a little mad.



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