In Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of PSYCHO they tried to recreate Hitchcock’s filmatism, they had Joseph Stefano only slightly re-word his old script, they re-recorded Bernard Herrman’s score and made it sound basically the same. So the success or failure of this version mostly falls to the one element Hitchcock claimed to not give two shits about: the actors.
That’s trouble though because it was easy to predict that nobody could withstand comparison to Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. It’s interesting to see someone else try to put a different spin on it, but I doubt you could find anyone who prefers Vince Vaughn or even thinks he comes a close second. I’m not sure who the miraculous casting choice who would work as Norman even though he’s not Anthony Perkins would be, but Vaughn ain’t the guy.
On one hand he’s just so different. Physically he’s so much more imposing. Maybe not as handsome, but not as meek. It’s harder to buy him as this repressed mama’s boy. He doesn’t seem as afraid. And he looks more silly munching on candy.
On the other hand his interpretation isn’t so drastically different that you can think of him as a totally different take. He’s a little doofier, his nervous laughter is nerdier, he gives more blatantly evil looks on occasion. But he’s not a complete re-invention. So it’s easy to just think he’s doing it wrong.
But it’s fun to go down the line and compare all the performances. Anne Heche is okay as Marion Crane, but not as likable as Janet Leigh. I don’t think she really gets the mentality of it across – the desperation for a better life, the fear of what will happen to her now, the realization that she must give back the money if she doesn’t want to ruin her life. Viggo Mortensen (BOILING POINT) is great though as a little more redneck version of Marion’s boyfriend Sam Loomis. He’s the most natural in the cast. Julianne Moore (ASSASSINS) is fine as Lila, but typical of ’90s Moore performances, and kind of silly because Van Sant has her always wearing headphones like a sullen teen. James LeGros (PHANTASM II) does a good car salesman, James Remar (THE WARRIORS) perfectly imitates the scary, sunglass-wearing traffic cop, Philip Baker Hall (RUSH HOUR) makes a good small town sheriff. William H. Macy (SPARTAN) is fine as Arbogast (the P.I. looking for Marion) but I don’t like their decision to make him retro. Maybe it’s more the fedora than the performance, but his character keeps you planted in movies and nostalgia. Wouldn’t it be more useful, if you’re gonna remake this in 1998, to give it a gritty realism that nobody did in 1960? Like a Soderbergh deal, hire an actual private detective to play the part? I gotta say, my favorite performance in the remake is Robert Forster as the psychiatrist who explains everything at the end. He comes off as a seen-it-all professional patiently explaining this one to the laymen. He would’ve made a good Arbogast.
This has always been a controversial movie. By that I mean that pretty much everyone hates it, but I find myself defending it alot. I mean, it doesn’t really work as a straight-up movie for me, it’s more of a novelty or a stunt, but I think Van Sant’s motives have always been misunderstood. The idea of a supposed shot-for-shot remake is infuriating to people, they don’t understand what the point is. I think the point is to see what it would be like. PSYCHO is a great choice for this because it’s so simple and iconic, and almost everybody knows it – the story, the imagery, the music. It wouldn’t work as well if it was SPELLBOUND or FAMILY PLOT or something, because those aren’t as well known. Another one that would work would be RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, so luckily some kids did their own Van Sant deal with that one. In both cases you can’t just sit there and watch the movie with no knowledge of the original, you have to know the original to enjoy the re-creation. They’re not standalone movies even though they’re as exactly the same as their makers could muster.
Of course I’m wary of this cynical age of horror movie recycling, but I think it’s off the mark when people lump this in with the Platinum Dunes ones and shit like that. It’s just not the same thing. Let me rebut some of the arguments I hear all the time:
1. Van Sant did it for the money.
That’s ridiculous. If it was a cash grab wouldn’t he do something GOOD WILL HUNTING-esque and not a project that caused even non-nerds to go into a rage at the very idea of it? Van Sant had been trying to do this for a while, but Universal didn’t bite until he had a hit with GOOD WILL HUNTING. It was a pet project. Anyway, if it was supposed to be a moneymaker it failed. IMDb says it cost about $20 million to make and made about $21 million in theaters. It did just about exactly as well as TO DIE FOR.
2. Young people will watch this instead of the original.
Yeah, you think so? How’s that workin out? It’s been more than 10 years now. Have you ever met anybody who liked this and not the original? Or who first thinks of this one when you say “PSYCHO”? You can hold that against some of the other remakes, but not this one.
3. People just called it an “experiment” to justify it after the fact because it didn’t make a ton of money.
I always say that this is more of an art project than a straight up movie, a postmodern experiment that could only be done in this unlikely circumstance that there’s a guy who actually wants to do it at the same time that all the right people are naive enough to let him. Somehow that happened, and personally I don’t mind so much that it’s a failed experiment because I still think it was interesting to try. And somehow I don’t think too many people involved were fooling themselves that a (somewhat) shot-for-shot remake of an iconic movie hinging on a plot twist everybody knows done by the director of MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO would be a smash runaway hit. Anybody familiar with Van Sant’s filmography should have trouble believing he gives a shit about box office or mainstream success. Nothing he’s made before or since, from MALA NOCHE to MILK, hints otherwise. Except maybe that one with Sean Connery.
Anyway, watch the making-of featurette on the DVD, where William H. Macey is on set talking about how half the audience will be watching 2 movies at the same time because they’ll be comparing it to the original in their mind. This is the same featurette where screenwriter Joseph Stefano is interviewed by the gay porn director Bruce La Bruce. I’m pretty sure they didn’t think they were doing MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D.
4. The nerve of these pricks to think they can do better than Hitchcock!
But isn’t that kind of the whole silly point of this thing, that they know they can’t do it better so they try to do it the same? I don’t see how you can argue this isn’t reverent of Hitchcock. Van Sant even gave himself a director cameo where he’s being chewed out by Hitchcock’s director cameo.
But that brings me to what I think is the movie’s biggest flaw, if it isn’t the casting of Vaughn. I think Van Sant is actually not dedicated enough to the shot-for-shot concept. People always say they don’t get the point of a shot-for-shot remake, but I get it. What I don’t get is a mostly shot-for-shot remake. I’m sure when they actually went through with it it got boring to copy shot after shot, but I wish they’d been disciplined enough to stick to it. I’m not talking about tweaks like Norman jerking off while looking through the peephole – there are plenty of parts where they just didn’t stick to the original recipe. On the commentary Van Sant admits that they shot all of the shower scene the same but decided to change the way it was all edited together. There’s also those little flashes of clouds and shit during the murder scenes – I don’t know what that adds.
I’m down with the concept, but it seems to me Van Sant didn’t really think through exactly what he was going for, so it ended up inconsistent. For example, he wanted it to take place in ’98, so he let Stefano change some of the dated phrases and the amount of money that was stolen. But then he let his costumer give most of them kitschy retro clothes like in his other movies. (In fact on the commentary he says he only realized from watching an interview with her that she didn’t understand that he wanted it to take place in ’98.) I guess it’s fine for Loomis to be dressed a little like Cowboy Curtis, but I don’t think it makes sense for Norman to have a hip looking shirt. And the shower curtain! I just don’t buy that the Bates Motel gets its shower curtains from Urban Outfitters.
Then there are the intentionally fake looking process shots, like the driving scenes and Arbogast’s (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) birthday party (THAT WAS A DECOY THE NEXT ONE WILL BE THE REAL SPOILER) death. Like the rest of the movie (which was shot by Wong Kar Wai’s buddy Christopher Doyle) those shots look cool, but it seems to me that throwing in kitschy tributes to 1960 defeats the purpose of restaging it in a different era. Maybe I really don’t get it. I think I’m in the club but I’m not.
Reading comments on the movie I see people complaining about it not taking “talent” to do what Van Sant did. But I don’t see how that’s relevant. The point isn’t to show off how talented or not talented he is – it’s an exercise, a test. It asks a whole bunch of film nerd questions: How much of the power of a movie can be transferred over through the same script and staging? How does modernizing a classic affect our reaction to it? Is it possible to get involved in a new movie that you’ve basically seen before? Since a play can be revived can a movie? It doesn’t matter so much that the answer to some of those questions is no. The more important thing is that somebody set out to prove the answer. But if he’d been more exact in the re-creation the results would be more scientific.
One divergence from the original that I really loved is the end credits. Of course in ’60 they didn’t have a bunch of end credits, so there was nothing to copy. Van Sant pulls the camera up from the cars being removed from the swamp and shows us a whole long scene of the police crime scene clean up. By the end of the credits the officers have left and it just becomes a beautiful landscape, and it quietly holds that shot for a good 30 seconds after the credits end. (By the way, Van Sant thanks John Woo for loaning his kitchen knife.)
Whatever its many problems, I think PSYCHO remake does achieve its number one purpose, which is to share with you the bizarre sensation of watching PSYCHO re-enacted with a different cast. It’s almost the same, but with some changes, like Spanish DRACULA. On most remakes I have to try to get the original out of my head to enjoy it. With this one the comparison is the entire point. I think it’s a good experience for me once every ten years or so.
In fact, I honestly think it would be cool if somebody else tried this again. I think it could be done again and better. I haven’t really thought of a good cast though. I tried to, but the best I could come up with is MUPPETS PSYCHO. Think how good Kermit would be as Norman! Miss Piggy would have to be Marion Crane so she could (SPOILER FOR MUPPETS PSYCHO) die early. And it makes sense that superficial bitch would take the money. Fozzy I think could be Arbogast but then he’d have the same hat thing going as William H. Macy, so how bout Fozzy plays Mother? I don’t know. I guess I’ll leave it up to the muppet people, they know their business in my opinion.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.