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In the first six minutes of A&E’s new Psycho-inspired thriller Bates Motel, you’ll feel the tiniest bit disturbed, but the big scares are yet to come.
Although there’s an undeniable sense of creeping dread, the series has more in common with Mad Men than with The Walking Dead: Despite claims by showrunner Carlton Cuse (Lost) that Bates Motel isn’t a period piece, classic cars and black-and-white movies are scattered throughout the first episode, paying homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic. The show opens much like of the director’s films, setting the stage for horror without revealing how or why the killings will begin.
Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) discovers his father lying dead in the garage, and naturally runs to get his mother Norma. Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) moves snakelike out of her shower to comfort a crying Norman, although she seems unfazed by the tragedy. Later, the pair drives along an unnamed coast to a new home, the Seafarer Motel. We learn that Norma is a little controlling, having forced her son to come along to start this new life. She has turned on the charm in the wake of her husband’s death, skipping around the motel like a schoolgirl, showing Norman that their bedrooms will be side by side. Farmiga and Highmore are excellent: Their relationship is just a touch too close for mother and son, leaving a lot of room to become far more inappropriate as the series unfolds. Farmiga in particular has the ability to project cold and calculating beneath a veneer of bubbly enthusiasm. It’s as though Leslie Knope were possessed by the Antichrist.
Based on a novel by Robert Bloch, Hitchcock’s Psycho was made for just $1 million (a low-budget picture even at that time), the legendary director pushed the boundaries of horror with his tale of an embezzling secretary who winds up in the clutches of Norman Bates. One critic at the time called the film a “miserable peep show,” while another claimed it “shrewdly blended the real and unreal in fascinating proportions.” The gore and creeptastic mother-son relationship of Psycho are mild when compared to modern-day thrillers. That could be why Bates Motel will succeed with audiences.
Retro-scares are experiencing a comeback with the release of Hitchcock and The Girl, both of which depicted the making of classic Hitchcock films. Next month NBC will premiere Hannibal, a present-day prequel to The Silence of the Lambs. Original series that aren’t tied to classic films are also looking backward for inspiration. FX’s successful American Horror Story set its second season in 1964. And while not a horror series, The Americans, set in 1981, delivers Cold War thrills.
There’s something appealing about scary stories before the advent of cell phones and the Internet. I mean, really, who goes to a hotel these days that doesn’t have any reviews on TripAdvisor? Hitchcock’s films always created a world of limited information — for both the audience and for the characters in peril. In an era when we use more information than ever to avoid danger (checking restaurant reviews to avoid food poisoning, Googling Internet dates to avoid psychopaths), the idea of a world with unknowables is even more frightening than it was in 1960. We don’t know what the Bates family might do next, and since no one is talking, we’ll just have to keep watching as the story unfolds.
Bates Motel premieres Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on A&E. You can watch the first six minutes below.