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Bates Motel: 101 “First You Dream, Then You Die” Review


Reviewed by Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull.

What makes a killer kill?

The psychology of a killer is something that, in reality, has been puzzling psychiatrists for millennia. Often it can be put down to abuse and mistreatment, specifically in the killer’s childhood. This is where Bates Motel comes into. When cinemagoers watched, horrified, Alfred Hitchcock’s then most recent masterpiece some fifty years ago they were, for want of a better term, intrigued by the eponymous hotelier Norman Bates’ psyche. How did he become so emotionally invested in his mother? Why did he dress up in her attire? Some of these questions were answered in the closing scenes of Psycho when a psychiatrist explained Bates’ split personality but we still didn’t have a direct insight into his life before the film. This is something creators Kerry Ehrin, Anthony Cipriano and Carlton Cuse wanted to explore in their new series Bates Motel. They wanted to get under the skin of Norman Bates and, essentially, Norma Bates, the former’s mother. It’s a fascinating premise and one that could lead the series in an interesting direction.

Freddie Highmore is an excellent choice to play Norman, successfully capturing Anthony Perkins’ boyish good looks and slightly awkward demeanour. I have no qualms over the casting of Highmore, he’s thoroughly convincing as Bates, Jr. It’s the other lead, Vera Farmiga who isn’t quite as believable as her co-star. Farmiga is a capable actress, I know that from her role in Up in the Air but here she doesn’t quite fit the role of Norma Bates. You can’t accuse me of drawing comparisons between Bates in Psycho and Bates Motel because her role in the former was meagre; the only ‘physical’ appearance of her was the corpse reveal. Farmiga is good, I’m not denying that, it’s just she doesn’t slip into the role as easily as Highmore and it’s rather jarring at times. The supporting cast is largely comprised of Norman Bates’ schoolfellows, all girls who show a rather improbable interest in the loner teen shortly after the credits roll. Nicola Peltz (who shall soon star in the upcoming Transformers sequel) portrays Bradley, a popular girl that shows a deeper desire to befriend Norman and their relationship is unneeded, in my view. The show is about Norman Bates and his mother so of course it was going to explore his social life but within the first few minutes it seems a tad hasty.

Something else that feels rather odd is the contemporary setting, which completely goes against Psycho – but I suppose it helps define both of them. The idea of Bates Motel being a prequel to Psycho is hard to get your head around because if you think of the time frame then Janet Leigh’s legendary death in the shower (an event that happened long after Norma had died and Norman had taken over the motel) occurred in 2033 or so.  That last point is, I’ll admit, nitpicking but I’ll uphold the inconsistent tone. Bates Motel feels like it should be set in the past, the producers just didn’t have the budget to mock up a completely different period. That’s not to say that there isn’t a homage or two to bygone times. When Norma goes into town at one point, there are an awful lot of vintage cars in the background as well as retro signage for stores. Hopefully as the series continues we’ll get more of these callbacks and possibly a few barefaced salutes to Psycho itself.

Psycho was notable for breaking the chain in horror movies, setting the bar for future scream-fests all the way into this century. There was a surprising amount of blood for audiences back then and Hitchcock didn’t spare any of the gory details, separating Psycho from other films of its kind. But how does Bates Motel keep up with the level of violence Psycho delivered? Superbly is the answer. Bates Motel has a mild amount of bloodshed, not so much that the series could be defined as being very grisly but not too little as to be insignificant.

Verdict: 7/10

The opener, First You Dream, Then You Die starts the show off promisingly but there’s certainly a lot to improve on, particularly with Farmiga in the role of Norma. With a second series already on its way, it appears the only way is up.

First You Dream, Then You Die airs on the 12th of September on the Universal Channel at 9pm.

  • Mark M

    A nice solid review. I was going to give this one a miss, but I think now ill give the first few episode a try at least.

    • PK-S.

      Thank you very much.

      Glad to see my review has swayed your opinion.

  • GoodYear92

    Great review, Pat, as ever (I particularly enjoyed the bit about the series’ contemporary setting). Well done!

    Has this aired in the US already? I seem to recall Gabriel referring to it in one of his Hannibal reviews as though it had.

    • PK-S.

      Thanks, James – coming from you that means the world.

      It has aired in the US, I believe – that’s how I got an advance look.

      • GoodYear92

        Ah, I see. Well, I might catch it on its UK airing. Your review’s piqued my interest. Although, I am ashamed to admit, I’ve yet to see Psycho in full. Perhaps I should see that before this.

        P.S. I’ve sent you a somewhat urgent message on SN.

  • EternalDoctor

    Brilliant review, Pat. Whenever I see your name on an article or review I know I can expect a great read. Keep up the fine work!

    I’m definitely going to catch this at some point as it looks decent, but its execution doesn’t sound as though it lives up to its intriguing concept. I’m especially dismayed with the fact that it’s set in contemporary times so I can understand your criticism there.


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