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Film / Bates Motel (1987)

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You were expecting, maybe, uh, Freddie Highmore?

The first attempt to make a TV spin-off revolving around the Bates Motel, the location of Psycho, didn't come with the 2013 series Bates Motel, but rather the 1987 TV movie Bates Motel. And it was a very different beast to its namesake.

The lead character of this film is Alex West (Bud Cort), who was sent to a mental institution as a boy in 1960 for killing his abusive stepfather with an industrial drying machine. While there, he befriended Norman Bates, coming to see him as a father figure, and being allowed to inherit the now-abandoned Bates Motel upon Norman's death in the present day. Alex finds the motel, which he rebuilds with help from loudmouthed waitress Willie (Lori Petty) and local carpenter Henry (Moses Gunn), but soon finds himself in financial trouble after agreeing to an infeasibly large loan in order to renovate the hotel. On top of that, their first night after motel re-opens sees them playing host to a suicidal divorcee, and a party of teenagers with a shared, Dark Secret...

Despite being set at the same setting as the three Psycho films that had been made up until that point, Bates Motel goes for something very different, instead being a Pilot Movie for an anthology series of supernatural stories set at the titular motel, more along the lines of Fantasy Island. In the end, however, the series was never picked up, leaving this as an oddity in the larger Psycho universe.

Tropes include:

  • Artistic License – Physics: A bulldozer accidentally slices through an electric cable, electrifying the bulldozer and nearly killing its driver. Except that electricity always follows the shortest path to earth, which seeing how the cable is underground, wouldn't be through a bulldozer.
  • Canon Discontinuity: The film tries to shut Psycho II and Psycho III out of the continuity by establishing that Norman was sent to a mental institution in 1960, and spent the rest of his life there. This, ironically, made it easy for Psycho IV: The Beginning to ignore this film a few years later.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: A man who spent 27 years in a mental institution (and can't have been much older than 10 or so when he was first sent there) doesn't know how to run a motel and gets easily scammed? Yeah, it's not really surprising.
  • Dead All Along: The gang of teenagers who show up on the motel's re-opening night are in fact the spirits of teenagers who all committed suicide years before the film's events, and have come to talk Barbara out of doing the same.
  • Dick Dastardly Stops to Cheat: Rather than rely on the likelihood that a man who's spent three-quarters of his life in a mental institution, a former waitress, and a hard-up carpenter probably aren't going to make a particularly good job of running a motel, Fuller decides to gaslight Alex and try and persuade him that Mrs. Bates has somehow come back to life and is stalking him. This ends up causing his plan to completely fail, as instead of just foreclosing on Alex — which he'd have been able to do the very next day — he gets caught, and is then intimidated into confessing by Willie, who uses the taped confession to blackmail him into agreeing to a more reasonable repayment schedule.
  • Driven to Suicide: Barbara's despair at having been married three times and had no kids is enough to drive her to attempt suicide. As it turns out, every one of the teenagers who shows up to party at the motel is in fact the spirit of someone who killed themselves, and they show up to advise Barbara that it's a thoroughly terrible idea, with the implication that they've been condemned to purgatory for doing so.
  • Genre Shift: None of the three prior films had any even remotely supernatural elements to them, and yet this film was specifically designed to lead into a supernatural anthology series.
  • High Hopes, Zero Talent: Despite genuinely wanting to re-open the Bates Motel and honor Norman's wishes, it's pretty clear that Alex has absolutely no idea how to actually do it, and has to rely on Willie and Henry for actual business advice.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Had Fuller just let Alex try and fail at running the motel, he could have foreclosed on them in an entirely legal way. note  Instead, he ends up getting a confession of his scam caught on tape by Willie.
  • Info Dump: As Norman is being driven to the mental hospital after his trial, one of the reporters commenting on the trial gives a lengthy description of the buildings that the car goes past, such as the house where he lived as a boy, and a downtown hotel where he first learned the business of hotel/motel management. None of this ever proves relevant to anything in this film, though it may have done had the idea ever gone to a series.
  • May–December Romance: Subverted; Barbara has a few romantic moments with Tony, who looks to be less than half her age. However, it's then revealed that Tony was actually born in 1943, meaning that had he not committed suicide he'd probably be the same age as, if not slightly older than Barbara.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: Initially averted by Tom Fuller, who genuinely tries to give Alex sound business advice on what to do with the Bates Motel. When Alex refuses his suggestions to tear the motel down, however, he quickly sets to thinking about how to scam Alex out of the property, setting a punishing repayment schedule for his loan, and then just to really Kick the Dog he tries to drive Alex crazy by dressing up as Mrs. Bates.
  • Motor Mouth: Willie tends to blab so much that Alex finds it difficult to get a word in edgewise. That being said, it comes in handy for dealing with contractors who try to scam Alex.
  • No Social Skills: Alex and Willie, for different reasons; Alex is naturally very awkward, given that his only company for 27 years was Norman, the doctors and possibly one or two other inmates, while Willie has no internal censor and can't help but blab out whatever's on her mind.
  • Painting the Fourth Wall: While Alex doesn't outright address the viewer during his closing monologue, he takes it about as far as he can without actually Breaking the Fourth Wall.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Specifically, they're capable of being seen by and physically interacting with anybody, along with eating and drinking large quantities of food and fruit punch, while also being able to magically unlock and teleport through doors.
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: What Fuller tries to pull on Alex, by dressing as Mrs. Bates. In a further twist, Willie also dresses as Mrs. Bates, in order to intimidate Fuller into making a confession.
  • Sequel Hook: Or rather, Series Hook; after Barbara departs, Alex addresses the audience and invites them to drop by again, saying that you never know what you'll find at the Bates Motel. As it turned out, you wouldn't find much of anything, seeing how the tepid ratings and dismal critical response meant that the proposed TV series was never picked up.
  • Series Continuity Error: Even leaving aside the deliberate retconning of the second and third films out of the continuity, the film makes a shocking error by not only getting the name of Norman's mother wrong (calling her Gloria instead of Norma, which was what she was called in all three previous films), but saying that Norman buried her on the grounds of the hotel, even though there's no way he could possibly have buried her corpse in the climax of the first film.