Written by: Joseph Stefano (screenplay), Robert Bloch (novel)
Directed by: Gus Van Sant
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, and Julianne Moore
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
When I first set out to review Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, it crossed my mind that I should just take Wes’s review of the original, copy it, then paste it in an attempt to make some clever, ironic statement. But that would be too obvious and too easy; besides, the internet is full of reviews that can adequately sum up why the film is redundant and unnecessary. So instead, I’m going to give you a not-so-impassioned pseudo-defense of the remake. You’re no doubt familiar with the film by now--though the latest horror remake craze is over a decade old, Van Sant’s Psycho stands as one of the earliest and most infamous products of the trend. A virtual shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s original, his film is a curious, cinematic oddity that is noteworthy for what it can possibly say about artistry itself.
Marion Crane (Anne Heche) is in charge of transporting the finances for her boss; when she comes into the possession of $400,000, she decides to skip town so that she can help her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen), alleviate his debt. Almost immediately, she becomes paranoid, even to the point of trading in her car for another; when she has been on the road for too long, she decides to hide out at the Bates Motel. It’s owned and operated by Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn), who also lives in his nearby mansion with his invalid mother.
Van Sant’s film is in fact nearly identical to Hitchcock’s original; he borrows the framing of each shot and mimics the original editing as well. Only a few small flourishes (such as Norman masturbating and a series of surreal imagery intercut with the murder sequences) keep it from being a complete photocopy, at least from a visual and audial perspective (Bernard Herrmann’s classic score is faithfully rearranged by Danny Elfman as well). All of this just seems to beg the simple question of “why?” What’s the point of it all? We usually demand that art answer this question for itself; this is not to say that artistic intent is irrelevant, but it should not be necessary to prop up the art itself. Van Sant’s Psycho stands as an exception, as it actually becomes a much more interesting and complete piece when one considers it as more of an experiment that pokes and prods (and perhaps confirms) our impressions of film.
Whenever Psycho is discussed, it seems like people forget that Van Sant was an accomplished director who wouldn’t just set out to recreate a cinematic juggernaut like this on a whim. I think it’s pretty obvious he had more on his mind, namely just what it would mean if a film were recreated 38 years later by an entirely different cast and crew. It’s sort of the same thing that Spanish author Jorge Luis Borges had on his mind when he wrote “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”; in that short story, Borges imagines that the titular Menard to be a 20th century French writer who decides to literally rewrite Cervantes’s original Spanish text word for word. Borges argues that, though the texts are identical, Menard’s Quixote to be not only different, but also much richer because it’s set in an entirely different context, having born the weight of the centuries since Cervantes’s time.
One might argue that Van Sant’s film functions the same way--though it is nearly the same, it is not Hitchcock’s film--it is Van Sant’s, and it’s a wholly different experience for a number of reasons, including its historical context. So, just what does Van Sant’s 90s Psycho mean? Well, let’s look at its obvious place in horror--it arrived just as the likes of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Scream were deconstructing the genre; though it isn’t nearly as loquacious or obvious in doing so, Psycho operates in a similar, post-modern fashion simply by existing. It stands as a simulacrum that doesn’t comment, yet does comment all at the same time because of the questions is obviously raises. It seems to exist simply so it can ask those questions and so we can have the discussion at hand. It’s a strangely anachronistic piece as well; though it’s obviously set in the 90s, many of the fashions and the dialogue from a 60s screenplay date it elsewhere.
We’re left with an odd film that also serves to reflect back on that original and perhaps reconfirm it. I don’t think Van Sant randomly picked Psycho out of a remake hat; this was a calculated choice of targets because Hitchcock’s film was such a shocking landmark for several reasons, including its graphic violence. Taken simply for what it is, Van Sant’s version simply cannot have the same impact because the 38 years between his film and Hitchcock’s exploded cinematic violence. This leaves his film tame by comparison, despite the addition of color, which certainly adds a vibrant, blood-red dimension to the proceedings. But it goes without saying that we simply can’t hail Van Sant for being a pioneer like we do Hitchcock; thus, this perhaps proves the importance of timing when it comes to artistic legacy because this Psycho seems destined to be a curious footnote at best. It's an experiment that also confirms that all of the work behind the camera is only part of the film-making equation. Van Sant’s work there was indeed arduous and precise, as he even replicated Hitchcock’s original 37 day shooting schedule.
However, if we look at the film’s performances in front of the camera, we can sort of see where the film falls flat. It certainly lacks the powerhouse performance that Anthony Perkins delivered in the original; in fact, we might find it difficult to imagine anyone else in the role of Norman Bates. It’s probably even harder to see Vince Vaughn in the role now that we’ve lived with him playing an overgrown frat boy for a decade (which perhaps also proves that cinematic reception is fluid--after all, no one could really say Vaughn was cast against type back when he didn’t have a “type”). His Norman speaks the same lines as Perkins, but there’s something altogether different about him--he’s still sort of charming and disarming, but he’s obviously a different character. The same can be said for Heche’s Marion Crane, who lacks the charisma and sympathy generated by Janet Leigh’s character. The rest of the film is well-acted, most notably Julianne Moore as much more aggressive and assertive Lila Crane. William H. Macy, on the other hand, looks and sounds like he’s still acting in the 60s as a private detective, which just adds to the already odd tone.
Ultimately, this version of Psycho seems to affirm the intangibles involved with film-making--stuff like chemistry and timing--that can’t be duplicated even when you have one of the cinema’s great blueprints. You can follow it to the letter, but you’ll ultimately be left with something oddly familiar, but wholly different. And, yes, perhaps it is redundant as a film, but even that is somewhat questionable. This is where the choice of Psycho is again key--not only is it infamous for its early stark examples of violence, but also for its plots numerous twists and turns that Hitchcock was adamant about keeping a secret. Well, decades later, the cat was certainly out of the bag, and even those who haven’t seen Psycho are likely familiar with its mid-film murder and ultimate reveal. If we see it through Van Sant’s lens a second time, is it any more diluted than it is when we re-watch through Hitchcock’s? What if someone dared to watch Van Sant’s before ever seeing Hitchcock’s? Would it be the latter that is suddenly redundant to that personal experience?
I’m not about to answer that question, but the fact that it can even be asked speaks to what this redux does manage to bring to the table. No, it will never replace the original, and I think even Van Sant would have told you that was impossible before he ever shot a single frame. It’s confirmation that art is often just about catching lightning in a bottle, and it’s an effect that can’t be replicated. But it is worth seeing, not only if you’re a Psycho fan, but a fan of cinema in general. To do so, check out Universal’s DVD, which was released over a decade ago; it does have an anamorphic transfer that still holds up well along with a solid 5.1 surround sound track. Special features include production notes, a theatrical trailer, a making-of-documentary, and a commentary with Van Sant, Heche, and Vaughn. Think of this return to Bates Motel as more of a fascinating experiment that’s concerned with how art operates rather than creating actual thrills or shocks. After all, when you know what’s coming, it’s hard to be surprised; but you probably are left asking yourself why you’re bothering anyway, which is what I think the film wants you to do. It sounds like madness, but “we all go a little mad sometimes.” Rent it!
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