MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Vince Vaughn (Norman Bates), Julianne Moore (Lila Crane), Viggo Mortensen (Sam Loomis), William H. Macy (Milton Arbogast), Philip Baker Hall (Sheriff Chambers), Anne Heche (Marion Crane), Rita Wilson (Caroline), Robert Forster (Dr. Simon)
Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" is an utterly empty technical achievement. Van Sant has proved that, yes, a bunch of Hollywood heavyweights can use $25 million and color photography to mimic the camera angles of an $800,000 classic from the '60s. But, what they couldn't prove is the ability to capture the horrifying essence of the film--to recreate the same kind of jarring effect that Hitchcock's masterpiece had on its audience.
Ever since word first got out that Van Sant was making this film, the primary question has been, "Why?" Why try to improve on perfection? What could he possibly do to make "Psycho" better than Hitchcock did? Van Sant obviously knew he couldn't, so he simply copied Hitchcock's film in an almost bizarrely exacting fashion. There are a few difference here and there, and Van Sant has added a few '90s style flourishes, but for the most part, it's the exact same.
The film is updated to the year 1998, although the way everyone dresses and the manner in which the sets are decorated, one would think the film was stuck in 1978. The Bates Motel is orange and yellow, the cars are pea green, and I won't even try to describe the colors in the motel rooms. At least they kept the bathroom glistening white, but I suppose that was mainly so it would better contrast with the bright red blood that flows in much larger quantities.
Marion Crane, played by Janet Leigh in the original and played here by Anne Heche, trades in her simple black and white lingerie for bright orange and lime green. With orange fingernails and a wardrobe so gaudy in its Technicolor that John Waters would probably gag, Heche goes through the same motions as her predecessor: upset that she cannot marry her lover, Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen trying to be an urban polyester cowboy), she steals $400,000 (inflated from the 1960 amount of $40,000) from her boss, hoping in vain that this will somehow make it right. On a stormy night, she stops off at the Bates Motel and runs into her fate in the wiry form of Norman Bates, forever associated with the late great Anthony Perkins. Vince Vaughn plays the role here, and to his credit, he does a good job of evoking the same king of pained shyness and odd manner of Perkins.
But, that's just the problem with this "Psycho." Even if you wanted to praise something about it--the camera work, the pacing, the music, the storyline, the dialogue, even Saul Bass' design for the opening credits--you would be better off praising the original. This is not a revision, a reinterpretation, or a rewriting. For anyone who is familiar with the original, it will feel something like opening your family album and seeing all your pictures looking the same, but with slightly different people in them. Granted, Vaughn resembles Perkins and Heche is very similar to Janet Leigh, but they're not them. And, in real terms, no one will ever be Norman Bates except for Tony Perkins.
As mentioned earlier, there are a few additional flourishes here and there, but they are mostly to the detriment of the film (the most egregious is having Norman visibly masturbating while watching Marion Crane through the hole in the wall) . Van Sant does a terrible job of refilming the infamous shower sequence; he changes the timing on Marion Crane's scream, and it throws the whole scene off. Plus, for inexplicable reasons, he copies the camera angels and editing from the original sequence, but he speeds up the film and, in MTV fashion, inserts a few brief flashes of a stormy sky and an extreme close-up of Heche's iris opening. He also alters Bernard Herrman's shrieking violins so they are almost unnoticeable. We also get to see blood flowing from visible stab wounds , but it doesn't make the scene any scarier or more shocking. If anything, it shows how masterful Hitchcock was for being to do more with less.
Interestingly enough, Van Sant was quoted in an article in "Newsweek" about how he hates remakes. In fact, irony of all ironies, he calls his "Psycho" an "anti-remake film." "Why do people take films that are really well done and change the dialogue and change the shots and call it the same movie?" he asks. To be honest, I don't know the answer to that question and, in theory, I agree with him. However, I don't think the answer is to take a "really well done" film and simply mimic it and call it an "anti-remake film." A real anti-remake film is something original, and Van Sant is far too talented a director not to be making original films. This "Psycho" is a waste.
©1998 James Kendrick