Disclaimer: My reviews of media here do not mean that I lay any claim to the media in question. All reviews are entirely subjective. I may talk about how well the movie objectively works in my opinion, but it essentially all comes down to what I think of the movie. My liking a movie is not the same as thinking it's a great movie. If I trash a movie that you love, or love a movie you can’t stand, it’s not because I hate you. Also, all reviews are likely to contain SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen the movies in question and don’t want to know what happens, then you probably shouldn’t be reading about them here. Finally, a blanket trigger warning for people who don't want to read about common horror movie content such as sexism, racism, violence, etc.: I will likely discuss all of the above when they show up in the films I review, so please tread with caution. Check out this post for more on how my reviews are set up.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Horror Episode Review: Bates Motel, Episode 1

Episode 1: First You Dream, Then You Die

Overall: C+
Acting: B
Writing: C
Story: C
Technical aspects: B
Effects: C

Directed by:
Tucker Gates

Vera Farmiga
Freddie Highmore

Particular trigger warnings: rape, family being manipulative, creepy incest vibes
Passes the Bechdel test? no

After the death of her husband, Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) decides to move from Arizona to Oregon with her son, Norman (Freddie Highmore), to purchase a motel. They arrive in Oregon and begin to fix the place up, but the previous owner of the property, Keith Summers (W. Earl Brown), begins harassing them. Spoilers follow: Norma tries to keep Norman from going out, especially once it’s clear that some of the popular girls of the town are befriending him, but he sneaks out to party with them anyway. While he’s gone, Summers breaks into the house and rapes Norma, though Norman arrives in time to rescue her. She kills Summers, and convinces Norman to help her hide his body.

All right, I have my reservations about this show, which is an absolutely TERRIBLE pun that I didn’t intend at all, but now I can't bear to remove it. I’m sorry. It’s a contemporary prequel to Psycho, which is... meh. I’d prefer it be set in the correct time period to fit with the original story, and it’s odd because parts of it feel like they are. It’s not until the girls whip out their cell phones that it really feels like a modern piece. It comes across almost as if it was originally intended to be set decades ago, and then they just decided that was too hard to maintain. So hey, iPhones for everyone! BUT, since that’s personal preference, I’ll try not to let it cloud too much of my opinion.
It doesn’t quite feel like the same sort of horror as Psycho, though I can see it setting it up… maybe. I will say that Norma is written pretty well, alternating between almost girlish, giggly, creepily girlfriend-ish behavior toward Norman, and her controlling and manipulative side. It’s seriously creepy (and I think Vera Farmiga pulls it off very well.) The manipulation and guilting is very “real” feeling, to the point of almost being upsetting (especially the scene at the dinner table where she tells him that of course he can join track; she’ll just do everything herself, like she always does.) Plus, of course, the immensely creepy, obsessive, pseudo-incest vibes.
I’m not very impressed with their decision to include a pretty graphic (for something airing on a basic cable channel) rape scene. (Not that it really would have been any better if it’d been less graphic.) Yes, it’s a subject I’m touchy about, but it’s the kind of thing that it just shitty to throw in as “motivation” for something else. (In this case for Norman to stay closer to his mother and to help her hide the body.) It’s not a topic that should be used purely as a plot device, and it’s used that way far too often across just about every kind of media. That shit is not cool.
The episode also felt a bit rushed, which is maybe unavoidable. The series didn’t get a true pilot, but this was still the episode intended to establish the characters and setting. It does that, but it has to do so and have a self-contained story in 45 minutes or so. As a consequence, the development isn’t especially subtle.
The tech is fine, though not especially revolutionary. I did like the overhead shot of the officer in the bathroom. The set design is very good, especially with the house. It very much looks like the original house from the Psycho film, even if it’s been transplanted in time.
There isn’t much in the way of effects, so that’s hard to judge. There’s some blood and it didn’t look bad.
So yeah. It was… okay. It’s probably worth it to me to stick through a couple more episodes, at least. I am curious to see where it goes, and there’s enough done right that I want to see how it progresses. But I won’t say that I’m amazingly impressed or that I’d be heartbroken to miss an episode and catch it later. I do hope some of the issues improve when they have a little more room to devote to development rather than just establishment.


  1. As sort of a rabid 'Psycho' fan, I'm really unhappy that they've chosen to set it in modern times. It doesn't make sense that way. I dunno, maybe I'll like it more as it progresses, but it just seemed so "off" to me. Anthony Perkins may or may not be rolling in his grave, lol.

    1. Yeah, I'm trying to judge the rest of the show on its own merits (or lackthereof), but I am pretty disappointed in the modern setting. It just feels LAZY that they went that route. I'm interested in seeing more (and the season will be 10 episodes, so if the rest sucks it won't be a huge time sink) but... yeah. Not really wow'd.

  2. I was really looking forward to this show because I love Freddie Highmore. He's an extremely talented actor, and I think that his performance of Norman is spot on. He's got a look that can be harkened back to Anthony Perkins, and I think he's definitely got the controlled-by-mama thing down.

    I was actually thrilled to see that the two main women in Norman's life (his mother and his English teacher) were going to be controlling harpies who would tell him what he should do with his life (his mother, obvious -- the teacher insisting that he should go out for sports even though he expressed a disinterest in them) and both be inappropriately tactile and close to him. It was always implied in the original Psycho that Norman's mother was that sort of inappropriate person in his life who controlled him and potentially controlled him through denial of a social life and probably through molestation and rape. His teacher, also a woman, also appeared to be far too handsy toward him, and I thought to myself YES! IT'S ABOUT TIME! LET'S SHOW WOMEN AS BULLIES AND SEXUAL PREDATORS TOWARD MALES because I'm so damned tired of men always being presented as the sexual predators (as if they're the only ones and women could never be sexual predators).

    And then. *sighs* Norma was raped, and I was pissed. Was I pissed because she got raped? No. Honestly. Not because "she deserved it," but they felt the need to include rape -- poor Norma...now we have no choice but to have sympathy for this controlling, inappropriate woman because she's now a rape victim. Because NOW we have to want Norman to stay with her instead of going out and being allowed FINALLY to have a real life with real friends with *gasps* nice girls who want to be his friends. Now if we call Norma Bates a bitch for controlling her son and not allowing him to live, for inappropriately clinging to him in a near-sexual way, we won't be allowed to call her a bitch, we won't be allowed to call her evil or a criminal because we've been language cockblocked because every rape victim apologist will scream, "BUT SHE WAS RAPED! WE CAN'T SEE HER AS A MONSTER! SHE'S A VICTIM AND HER SON DOESN'T LOVE HER ENOUGH!"

    This frankly makes me sick. It bothers the hell out of me that we can't simply have a female monster (or monsters) in a movie/TV show because there's always a reason. She was raped. She was abused. She was molested by her father. However, if you watch the original Psycho, even though we KNOW that Norman had mommy issues because of his monster mother, he is NEVER sympathized with. He's never forgiven. No one ever really says, "Oh but poor Norman..." To go off topic a little, the same is true in Red Dragon. Francis Dolarhyde was abused, tortured by his religious monster grandmother, becomes a serial killer, and when it comes to light what happened to him, no one says, "Oh poor Tooth Fairy. He was tortured by his grandmother (a WOMAN). We should really by sympathetic!" No. Like with Norman Bates, the Red Dragon is killed. Males are never given the sympathy in movies or TV shows for being raped, molested, sexually abused, tortured, that women are. For female characters, it's an immediate Pass Go, Collect $200 because we have to feel sympathy for them, regardless of what kind of monsters they are.

    So. I'm extremely turned off by this "rape" excuse for Norman's mother. Like you, I hate that it has been used as a plot device in order to give yet another female monster the excuse to be a monster so that the audience will feel compassion for her. And now, Norman's mother will forever use this rape as a reason to deny her son a social life, to put an even more iron grip around her poor son (who, one he kills people himself, will never be given the same kind of sympathy or compassion because he's male).

    1. A lot of this I disagree with, but you probably know that. It's kinda icky to me, to be honest, that you think rape is bad, not because rape is bad, but because you think people won't hate the victim enough.

      I do agree that it's a super shitty way to try and add depth to Norma's character, because rape is NOT something that should be used that way. It's a lazy way to try and force her character to seem complex, instead of actually showing us some kind of meaningful development that could give layers to her character. I'd quite honestly LIKE to see her as a character that we can have mixed feelings toward, because most people are like that. She can be an awful, creepy, fucked up parent without being 100% awful all the time. Because people aren't generally 100% awesome or 100% horrible. I LIKE characters that I can feel conflicted about. I LIKE characters that I can hate, but aren't just cartoonishly evil. And honestly, Norman in the original movie was that way for me; he was royally fucked up, and was a murderer. But he was also interesting, and not just a caricature of evil.

      And actually, I've seen a lot of the opposite of what you describe: these male killers did awful things, but it turns out it was just because of their mother! It's HER fault, not his! (Which to an extent is true, because she messed him up royally and obviously did some awful things to him. But I see people shifting blame SOLELY to his mother, as if he had absolutely nothing to do with the murder/s, which is NOT true.) I found him to be sympathetic, but that doesn't make murdering random women a-okay. There's a difference between "this is a sympathetic character, who did something terrible, but we know that s/he was hurt, too, and is more than just completely evil" and "this character was hurt THEREFORE SHOULDN'T BE ACCOUNTABLE FOR HIS/HER ACTIONS." I haven't seen Red Dragon, so I can't speak to that one, though.
      And this happens in real life too... the shooter at Sandy Hook, who also killed his mother... there were a shitton of people who blamed his mother for the shooting (and her own death), because OBVIOUSLY it was her fault that he grew up to be a murderer.

    2. No. I don't think rape is bad because not enough people will hate the victim. I think rape is bad because rape is bad, dehumanizing, and horrible. I've never said it wasn't. I've said that in movies/TV shows, it seems like a lazy way to make people feel sorry for a character -- particularly a character who is supposed to be the monster of a story. That's what I was trying to say but apparently wasn't clear enough. Or rather, just like every other time I try to get my point across about this topic, I just...shouldn't. It's a tricky subject and not one I should ever talk about because my feelings about it never seem to come off the right way and it just pisses off people rather than comes across the way I intend it to.

    3. I'm sorry, it did apparently come across incorrectly to me. It's a subject I've been pretty... invested in the last few days following the Steubenville case and the failure that is coverage of it, so I might be a bit oversensitive to the topic right now.

      I AM in agreement with you that it's a completely lazy plot device, either to add sympathy or "depth" to a character. (See every "tragic backstory" that badly-constructed OCs get. It's probably second only to "my parents died in front of me as a child" as far as crappy backstories go.) It's also awful to use as a plot device because it often trivializes the real-world horror that it is.

      I don't mind sympathetic villains, as I said. I LIKE characters that I hate, yet can understand to a degree. I would be fine with it if they tried to make Norma a character that we can both hate (because she's creepy and controlling and one of the most accurately portrayed manipulators that I've seen lately in fiction) and sympathize with (for some reason that they fleshed out in a reasonable way.) "She was raped, now she's complex!" is not that reason.

      It is a tricky subject... I don't think it's one you shouldn't talk about. Sorry I took what you said in a way you didn't intend.

  3. I will probably attempt to watch at least a few more episodes to see if it improves, but sadly, especially for Freddie Highmore, I hold out no hopes that we'll ever get beyond this disgusting rape-excuse for now being bullied into sympathizing with the monster.