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TV Waffle - Bates Motel (1987)

Pilot for a cancelled 1987 TV series.

Directed by: Richard Rothstein
Starring: Bud Cort, Lori Petty, Moses Gunn, Jason Bateman, Gregg Henry, Robert Picardo



'Bates Motel' is currently a successful drama series on A&E but what most people may not appreciate is that an earlier attempt for such a series bearing the same name was made as a pilot by NBC in 1987. As it turns out, there are a number of good reasons why most people have never heard of this.  The film stars Bud Cort as Alex West, Lori Petty as Willie and Moses Gunn as Henry Watson.
This movie opens with a scene that is reminiscent of an Ed Wood film which turned out to be a great bit of foreshadowing with regards to the overall quality of this production. A black and white news report describes an epilogue to the original Hitchcock classic 'Psycho'. Norman Bates, played briefly by Kurt Paul as opposed to Anthony Perkins, is being driven to a mental institution where he will spend the rest of his days. The acting on the part of the reporter serves as a perfect example of what is meant by the term "chewing the scenery". The reporter's monologue reminded my wife of Criswell's exposition dialogue at the beginning of 'Plan Nine from Outer Space' and I think the comparison is a fair one. She did not stay for the rest of the film. 
We switch to color as the actual story begins and are introduced to Alex West as a child when he is institutionalized at the same facility as Norman after dry-cleaning his abusive father to death. And, no, I'm not making that last bit up. Norman effectively becomes a father figure to the young Alex, although my mind was screaming at me that "mother figure" would have probably been a more appropriate statement. In any case, we then jump to the present where Alex, now a young man, is on the cusp of being released from the facility. Norman dies just prior to this and leaves the Bates Motel to Alex, conveniently giving him a place to live upon his release. The set-up idea is actually kind of clever and the rest of the movie's external shots are done on the actual set from 'Psycho'. Unfortunately, these are the only two things I can describe as positive about the entire production. Once Alex relocates to the Hotel upon his release, we run into the character of Willie who is squatting on the abandoned property. Willie is an insanely out of place character. She is a displaced New Yorker trying to make it in Hollywood. Her jacket even has "Queens" written in big letters across the back, just in case anyone missed out on the over the top accent.  The one, and perhaps only, appropriate character introduced is Henry Watson who helps out young Alex upon his release and Alex returns the favor when Henry's land is about to be taken from him by the local bank. The acting is largely sub-par with the notable exception of Moses Gunn who is clearly trying to make a serious go of it. Unfortunately, his efforts are far too infrequent to keep things afloat.
One minor detail that leapt out at me right away as I was watching was when they incorrectly named Norman's mother as Gloria Bates, rather than Norma. While this may seem a bit like a nit pick, I really feel it speaks to the overall level of effort that went into the writing of the script. The story is actually in two pieces. The main story is about Alex and his attempt to rehabilitate the Bates Motel with the help of Willie and Henry. This is being derailed by the apparent reappearance of Mrs. Bates from the grave. Two-thirds of the way through, we get Norman's first guest and the story switches completely to her and a group of fifties looking teenagers who descend upon the hotel. This story turns into a staggeringly predictable ghost story. The only thing noteworthy about this piece is the appearance of Jason Bateman (yes, the 'Arrested Development' guy) as the male lead for the bit. The script then returns to the Alex storyline with a resolution that is also ridiculously transparent. The movie ends with a piece of fourth-wall-breaking monologue as Alex addresses the viewer and asks us to come to his Motel for a visit. Mercifully, the NBC executives decided not to take him up on the offer.
I'm guessing the series was trying to be a mix of comedy as well as serious drama but, much like everything else in 'Bates Motel', it doesn't really work. As should be obvious by now, this film is a tangled mix of material that runs all over the place with no real direction, which I feel is the cause of most of its problems. It's pretty clear to me that the goal of this project was a rushed attempt to cash in on the recent pair of 'Psycho' sequels rather than to actually take the time to put a good script together. As such, there was no over arching view for the direction of the story which lead to the aimless meandering nature of the film. To be honest, I'm surprised that 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' never covered this train wreck. Maybe either the Rifftrax or Cinematic Titanic crews could rectify that omission.
The movie is not available on DVD and likely never will be. However, for anyone who feels the need to jump upon this sword, 'Bates Motel' is available for viewing in ten pieces on YouTube at the time of writing.
2/10


Nick Sauer
For more from Nick, visit his site 'Fantastic Television'