Psycho (1998) – Gus Van Sant

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As a Van Sant fangirl and a lover of Hitchcock, I’d been meaning to see this film for a long time.  I had also heard some truly terrible things about it, which intrigued me.  This is essentially a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, with some minor changes.  In the film, Marion Crane (Anne Heche) blows out of town after having stolen $400,000 from her boss.  She stops to spend the night in a motel, where she meets the lonely and mysterious young owner, Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn).  Meanwhile, a search party composed of her sister Lila (Julianne Moore), Marion’s boyfriend Sam (Viggo Mortensen), and a private investigator Inspector Arbogast (William H. Macy) looks into Marion’s disappearance.

For me (and probably for many viewers), the question that first comes to mind is “Why?”  Hitchcock’s film is a classic that has stood the test of time, and a remake doesn’t seem necessary.  After watching the film, the answer is still not clear to me.

Sadly, I think this project does no favors for either filmmaker.  What I find to be one of the most compelling things about Van Sant’s films is his very present camerawork, and by remaking Hitchcock’s film shot for shot, none of the camerawork is his own.  Hitchcock’s camerawork is fabulous, of course, but if I wanted to enjoy that, I would have watched the original film.  On the other hand, the remake is set in 1998 Phoenix, AZ, and many aspects Hitchcock’s classic story do not translate to present-day.  It is harder to suspend our disbelief.  In present-day, the film seems melodramatic, tacky, and just plain not-that-scary.

This is quite the cast, and Van Sant makes some really strange casting choices.  I don’t love Ann Heche as Marion.  Janet Leigh’s Marion is mysterious and impenetrable, and that is an essential part of what makes the first half of the film suspenseful.  Heche, on the other hand, is almost goofy throughout the film.  She paces around her bedroom, almost laughing to herself as she looks at the envelope of money on her bed, trying to decide whether to steal it.  It’s as if she is trying to make up her mind on whether to go on a date with the guy she knows is bad news.

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Vince Vaughn as Norman, on the other hand, I actually surprisingly like.  He is not the Norman Bates we are used to, certainly.  In the original film, Anthony Perkins is slender, effeminate, and childlike, and thus pretty unthreatening.  We get the sense that Marion feels sorry for him.  Vaughn, on the other hand, is tall and muscular—standing taller than any of the other characters, male or female—so his dynamic with Heche’s Marion is completely different.  He has a much more physical presence than Perkins’ Norman.

Van Sant plays on this physical presence.  When Norman watches Marion undressing through the peephole in her wall, Van Sant makes the decision to have Bates unzip his pants and start masturbating.  Later, when Lila Crane goes into Norman’s bedroom (a scene which was not included in the original film), she finds pornographic magazines.  Van Sant turns Norman into a pervert—a choice which I wasn’t sure I liked, but it certainly heightens the tension between Norman and his mother, and adds extra weight to his line, “A son is a poor substitute for a lover.”

The other significant changes Van Sant makes to Hitchcock’s original are in the stabbing scenes.  The famous shower scene is replicated almost exactly, except for the addition of two short shots of rolling black thunderheads.  In the scene where Arbogast is stabbed, Van Sant inserts a shot of a naked woman wearing a mask, and a deer in the middle of a road.  How we are meant to interpret these images, I have no idea.  The last delirious thoughts of a dying person?  It is a very Van Sant thing to do (ie. My Own Private Idaho), but it is jarring to have his own avant-garde style inserted without explanation into the classical style of Hitchcock.

      

Overall, I did not find this film to be the terrible travesty that it was built up to be.  I did not, however, think that it added anything significant to the original film, and rather suffered by comparison.  I think the word “disorienting” would best describe it.

But in the end what I like so much about Van Sant is his willingness to experiment.  And sure, sometimes those experiments fall flat.  Just get back on that horse, buddy.

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