Synopsis: Criminal on the run, Marion Crane take refuge at the motel operated by Norman Bates – a troubled man who’s victims encounter a grisly fate at the hands of his “mother.” Marion soon becomes the next victim and her disappearance prompts inquiries from her sister and a private investigator. They both soon discover the morbid bond linking Norman to his mysterious “mother” at the Bates Motel. Relive the terror in acclaimed director Gus Van Sant’s all new version of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece of suspense. . .PSYCHO
Psycho (1998) 7.5
eyelights: the boldness of the production.
eyesores: Vince Vaughan’s take on Norman Bates. some of the performances. the dated style.
“We all go a little mad sometimes.”
I must be the only supporter of Gus van Sant’s 1998 remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic. When it came out I, like many others, frowned sceptically at the notion of modernizing a picture that is widely hailed as a landmark, and with which the Master of Suspense is greatly associated. It would take a visionary to even come close to making something of similar caliber.
To say that such an undertaking is a perilous affair for any director is an understatement: botching the result could easily kill a career, seeing as a picture of ‘Psycho’s stature is nearly impossible to ignore on one’s resume. The last thing one would want is to be remembered as is the person who managed to blemish an iconic and influential masterpiece.
Directors all have their own takes on the material, and are sometimes influenced by external forces, whether it be the studio, the producers or the fans. When Rob Zombie dared to tackle ‘Halloween‘, he made it his own, giving it a grittier, more earthy spin. When John Sturges remade ‘Shichinin no Samurai’ as ‘The Magnificent Seven’, he transposed it to the Far West and made it leaner.
But what did Van Sant do? He made the exact same film, with pretty much the same script (they made just a few miniscule changes to reflect modern expressions), almost all of the same shots, and the same iconic score. The key differences: the cast, naturally, a current setting, and it was shot in colour instead of in black and white. It’s virtually a carbon copy of the original.
Personally, I think that it’s a fascinating experiment. I believe it was Anne Heche, one of the stars of the picture, who said at the time that this was as valid as the many iterations of Shakespeare’s plays: that they’re always the same story (although they can be adapted), but done with different directors, casts and productions. This is considered perfectly acceptable.
So why not a film like ‘Psycho’?
Now, before I carry on endlessly as I do, let me be the first to say that Gus Van Sant’s version of ‘Psycho’ doesn’t work as well as the original. It’s a question of context: some of the techniques used in the original film, such as Marion’s voice-overs, just don’t work anymore, and some details, such as the police officer finding Marion in a bigger town by chance, don’t jive.
There’s also the matter of technique. Whereas Hitch was limited by the technology and social mores of the time, Van Sant wasn’t, so it seemed weird to see rear projections instead of location filming from time to time, or see no blood on the killer’s knife in the infamous shower scene. He even used stylistic Saul Bass-inspired opening credits, severely dating the picture.
The weirdly anachronistic vibe of the picture extends even to some of the performances, which were sometimes modeled after the originals. Let’s remember, Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ was released in 1960, at a time when acting styles were decidedly not as naturalistic as they can be now. In many ways, this ‘Psycho’ feels like a throwback picture, for good or bad.
But the performances aren’t necessarily horrible: they’re just different. And that’s part of this experiment’s charm: even though the dialogues are the same and the shots are the same, the way the lines are delivered or the way that a character behaves can completely alter the meaning of what they’re saying, thereby transforming them into entirely different people.
And, to me, that’s fascinating to see.
The biggest change is with Norman Bates, as interpreted by Vince Vaughn. His Norman is too weird and creepy, and he has a cringe-inducing laugh. He’s more menacing, which dispels the notion that Norman is actually just a victim of his mother. The fact that Vaughn is a massive man contributes to this as well, because you’d be hard-pressed to feel secure around him.
Although Anthony Perkins had an unusual delivery as Norman, Vaughn is far less subtle. A perfect example of this is in the final shot, which closes in on Norman as he sits isolated in the police interrogation room. Whereas Perkins remained eerily still lost in another world, Vaughn twitches and looks at the audience, going even for a psychotic glare with his eyes rolled up.
Anne Heche delivered a far more nuanced performance as Marion. While she is also the same jaded, world-weary character, she feels much more sarcastic and self-aware than in Janet Leigh’s version. And when she decides to go back home, you get the sense that she’s far more disturbed by Norman than she is compassionate; she’s seen darkness, and this compels her far more than regret.
The other notable performance comes from Julianne Moore as Lila, Marion’s sister. It’s a small part, but she bulldozes right through: one gets the impression that Lila is a $#!t-kicker, the type who wears Army boots or Doc Martens even at work. While she’s not entirely naturalistic, I rather enjoyed her screen presence. One always needs a solid modern woman around.
Even the house is different. And that changes everything. I can’t say that I dislike the new one, but the original had a character that you simply can’t replicate with a different design. The most off-putting part of that house is the large lighted window at the entrance; it felt too modern, a bit discrepant. And the new Bates Motel sign was too cheap; it lacked class.
But then, some of Van Sant’s vision for ‘Psycho’ lacked the class that Hitch had imbued it with – the perfect example of which is when Norman peeps at Marion and masturbates (off-screen, but the sounds are unmistakable) while watching her undress. The original made Norman seem inappropriate, but this made him seem filthy – which was completely unnecessary, if in keeping with Vaughn’s take.
What’s interesting is that Van Sant was actually truer to Hitchcock’s vision in some ways than even Hitchcock was. For instance, while Hitchcock couldn’t do a complete traveling shot over the city before getting to Marion’s hotel room at the beginning, Van Sant could and did. He also included dialogue that was in the original script, but had to be cut out due to the censors.
He also had fun inserting himself into the picture, just as Hitchcock did. In fact, he placed himself in the same scene, and had himself get berated by a large man who looks suspiciously like the Master of Suspense. I had a good laugh at that because it’s clear that Van Sant knew how controversial and transgressive making this film was. So he chastised himself.
I”m still surprised by the venomous reactions this film got. Yes, it’s not the original. Yes, it’s slightly different. But it’s done so subtly that one can hardly call it a bastardization. If anything, it’s a reflection of Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, a doppelgänger of sorts, and it doesn’t take anything away from the original oeuvre. One could even say it gives perspective on the original.
I really hope that someday Van Sant’s “Psycho’ will be reconsidered and studied. My thought is that it was likely loathed as much as it was more because of its timing, being one of the first in a now-lengthy streak of remakes coming from Hollywood. Had it been made 10 years later, the reaction might have been perhaps cynical, but slightly more receptive. It’s really nothing to get mad about.
Even if we do all go a little mad sometimes.
Date of viewing: October 24, 2014