As the barrage of remakes, reboots, and legacy sequels keep reminding us, never underestimate the power of a brand name. A franchise’s most recognisable and distinctive elements can be repurposed and reshaped to fit any mould. Even if the elements are the least bit tangentially related, it could be the inception of something fascinating, if equipped with enough ingenuity. In 1987, equipped with only the notorious house, a T.V. Pilot tried to reform the terrors of Psycho, into a comedy about motel ownership (with some supernatural elements to boot) in Bates Motel.
We learn of Alex West, a young boy who is admitted to an asylum after growing up with (and killing) an abusive stepfather and left with only a dead bird for company. An enterprising doctor realises that another patient has skills in taxidermy and sees a bonding opportunity, that patient being the infamous Norman Bates, and the doctor’s plan works well. Now that Norman has passed on, and a grown-up Alex is released. He soon inherits Norman’s old motel, and with few options, tries to make a go of it. As Alex faces a modern world, his guests may also discover themselves and a lot more after their time in the revamped Bates Motel.
Yes, there was another attempt before 2013 to bring Psycho to the small screen. The gentle piano score that greets you does a lot to warn audiences that this is not the Psycho universe that we are all aware of. The tone is peculiar with the legacy of lasting horror looming, Bates Motel pivots dramatically to be a comedy, mostly dealing with the institutionalised Alex dealing with the modern world. Even taking a simple bus provides, but I think it’s the earnestness of Alex that makes him a good protagonist. Alex is not alone (Soon to be Tank Girl) Lori Petty, plays Willie, a quick-talking teenage runaway soon who joins him on the quest to revive Bates’s estate, and Moses Gunn as carpenter Watson is here for the good measure.
Most of this wrapping for the first guest of the revamped motel: A girl who splinters off from a group of 50s revivalists, to help a divorcee in need, although on the grounds of the Bates Motel, not everything is as it seems. It’s a charming story with equal amounts of heart and intrigue, complete with a young Jason Bateman, One that sets the stage for other fantastical tales, like a lot of the leading anthologies at the time. There’s also a big Scooby-Doo-esque curse, supposing Mother or at least her spirit still haunts the grounds, and the pressure to pay back the bank’s generous loan. All foreshadowing the future structure of the potential Bates Motel episode.
While the combination of elements may seem a tad bizarre from the outset, it is hard to say that the idea didn’t have promise. Hotels have been known to have histories and stories to tell. It certainly wouldn’t be difficult to imagine the supernatural anthology that could present itself. The overarching comedy of these unlikely hospitality workers, trying to make a go of the infamous motel, does also have possibilities, at least for a season or two. Unfortunately, that never came to be, but we’re left with this fascinating artefact as a result. Whatever the reason you wish to stay, Bates Motel provides a visual brochure of possibilities.
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