Forewarning if you haven’t scrolled down yet: this sucker is pretty long.
The infamous Psycho remake (1998, Gus Van Sant) sat on my DV-R for about six months, and each time she would scroll past it, my wife seeing only the title and assuming it was the original would ask why a film I owned on DVD and Blu-Ray is taking up room in our DV-R while I constantly beg her to go through and delete the deluge of Masterpiece Theatre episodes accumulated (I can be a fascist with our recorder). After publishing my review of Psycho IV here back on February 1st, I only had the remake to watch and review before completing my look back at the series. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to actually watch it, until finally this week, like one pulling off a bandage in a single swift motion, I decided: it’s time. Here’s the thing, I think for people interested in film studies and theory there is a value in revisiting films that you had a highly charged negative reaction to, especially if the film in question is made by a person of some artistic integrity and/or you came into the film with some preconceived notions or opinions. This is something I was definitely guilty of in regards to this film.
Van Sant’s Psycho lead to my first attempt at starting a website, because what the internet needed in the winter of 1998 was another hot and bothered twenty year old’s bitching diatribe about that film. Ultimately, a combination of bad dial-up connection and boredom slash laziness with Geocities programming led to that becoming a non-starter. As stated in my first post in the series, starting at the age of ten, I have claimed Alfred Hitchcock’s original Psycho to be my favorite film of all-time. Something that probably is not actually true anymore, though I still very much admire and get a cinematic charge from it, while also not blind to its faults. Either way, it still and forever remains a very important film in my cinematic education for reasons I will just gloss over (you can read that appreciation for further details): first black and white film I connected with (discounting opening of Wizard of Oz and various Three Stooges shorts), first time I was cognizant of the role of the director, and a personal history between my father and I. Twelve and a half years ago, Van Sant’s film seemed like a personal insult, but in 2011, it’s a little easier to swallow; the original’s legacy has not been tarnished by the remake and when you refer to Psycho I doubt anyone has to add the qualifier, “I mean the black and white one”.
In fact so much time has passed I think that some history of Van Sant’s project needs to be addressed. Flashback to winter 1997/98, half the country has Titanic-itis, while the other half caught Good Will Hunting fever (personally, I had contracted the rarer Jackie Brown whooping cough, which for most people was a short lived ailment that they couldn’t help but compare to earlier, more financially successfully diseases, but for people infected with it, is ultimately a more interesting and rewarding experience). So struck by the success of this scrappy Boston indie drama and their “how’d ya like those apples” precociousness, Hollywood offered screenwriters and stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck the keys to the city. “Hey Ben and Matt welcome to success, please take the leads of any projects of your choice, and feel free to fuck whichever starlets your heart desire, I hear Winona Ryder and Gwyneth Paltrow are willing and able. Wink wink, nudge nudge” Caught in this contagious spell, and completely ignoring the disastrous result of Van Sant’s first attempt at a studio film, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues from only three years prior, Universal offered the director his pick to make or remake any film in its vault. Want to make a new version of Duck Soup with Chris Kattan, Jim Bruer, David Spade and Rob Schneider? Go for it! An inter-species romance between E.T. and the Bride of Frankenstein? We love it! Strolling past the famous Bates house, Van Sant smirked “I’ve got a crazy idea, a shot for shot remake of Psycho, in color!” And history, and infamy, was born.
I am on the fourth paragraph here and have yet to discuss the film itself. So, mild mannered administrator Marion Crane (Anne Heche) is having an affair with unhappily married Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortenson who went for the Hitchcock 1998 remake gold by also appearing in that summer’s Dial M for Murder “reimagining”, A Perfect Murder) who needs money to get a divorce and allow an open relationship between the lovers. She steals some cash and hides away at a motel operated by a lonely man named Norman (Vince Vaughn)…okay, just kidding, I won’t condescend you with a plot synopsis. I am assuming if you’re reading this, you know the fucking plot of Psycho. So let’s get straight to the filmmaking choices Van Sant makes. First of all for the claims of just taking the original film and making a shot for shot remake? That pretty much goes out the window with the first goddamn shot of the film which is a long zooming shot presumably filmed on a helicopter. To Van Sant’s credit this was actually Hitchcock’s preferred opening shot but he was limited my money or technology. However, to Van Sant’s discredit the lame subliminal insert shots of clouds and other odd cutaways during the two murder scenes reek of either cliché bad film school or music video techniques that are more apropos of a hacky in your face Rob Zombie film (apparently a song by him is actually on the soundtrack, but I guess I missed it) than Hitchcock.
I am not sure if it was an intentional commentary on Van Sant’s part about alleged sinking intelligence of then modern audiences or just a preference for being blunt, but everything in the remake is obnoxiously hit your over the head obvious. For example, in the opening hotel rendezvous between Marion and Sam, the seedy location is made evident in the original through dialogue and subtle visual clues, however, in the remake not only does the dialogue remain (it’s the same exact script after all), but the color and the gaudy décor in the place are turned up to satirical levels, and on top of everything else, the sound design is full of moaning sexual encounters leaking through the walls. More notoriously Van Sant unnecessarily added the sound of Norman masturbating during the shower sequence which is an insulting miscalculation. Van Sant is assuming something like 75% of the audience will have already seen the original or be aware of the film’s final twist, and he’s operating as such, however, it completely changes the character of Norman Bates who in the original has been so repressed sexually that his “mother” would never allow such an openly gratuitous act.
Thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle (most famously known for his collaborations with Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai in the 90’s) the remake at least looks great, with an emphasis on bright color. I prefer the more muted template that Richard Franklin established when Psycho II first introduced us to a color universe for the Bates motel, but the change from the stark black and white John Russell shot original to the gaudy almost Technicolor palette of Van Sant’s film is one of the more successful differences here. There’s definitely a kitsch vibe to the color, production design and costuming that makes everything (purposefully) exist in more of a movie universe than real world—the stolen money is off color and resembles the type of funny money you buy at a magic shop more than actual cash—I do wonder why they bothered to set this film firmly in 1998 instead of having it be some weird Wes Anderson-ish amalgamation where people listen to iPods but still use typewriters. The kitsch factor leads one to not really take the whole enterprise all that seriously, which was probably intentional. Since Van Sant is a gay man, one will notice some queer subtext, for example at one point Viggo Mortenson noticeably cradles a Judy Garland album, but as someone who has watched Hitchcock’s Psycho at the Castro theatre in San Francisco, I can attest there’s already gay subtext up the wazoo in the original and the gay community is fully aware of it.
The cast is comprised of stalwarts from the independent film world circa the mid-1990s including Julianne Moore, Phillip Baker Hall, James LeGross, William H. Macy and Robert Forrester, how the hell Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Eric Stoltz didn’t end up in this is a mystery that still confounds. Out of every cast member, only one actually improves on his 1960 counterpart, Viggo Mortenson. His Sam Loomis is more sexy and smoldering (and I am a straight guy) and sports a devil may care attitude and Southern drawl, a vastly superior take on the role than John Gavin’s everyman good guy. Anne Heche, who was at the height of her fame during shooting as the world’s second most famous lesbian (FYI, for those of who aren’t aware, Heather Graham’s conniving sleep-her-way-to-the-top character in Bowfinger is a veiled version of Ms. Heche), is downright awful here. The original Joseph Stefano script and dialogue is reused here, and most of the actors struggle with bringing the lines to life. What may sound natural in the 60’s doesn't naturally read thirty-eight years later, and Heche struggles most of all in this department. But just as damaging is her smaller, skinnier frame, quirky clothing and haircut that make her come across as a pixyish co-ed, not anything like the fully formed woman that Janet Leigh brought to the role.
In 2011 it’s hard to remember, but post Swingers, a svelte Vince Vaughn actually was trying his hands at some serious roles, not just playing the same smooth talking man-child with a frat boy sensibility in numerous comedies. He worked with Steven Spielberg, and played darker characters like the serial killer in Clay Pigeons. So while it’s hard to imagine today anyone remaking Psycho casting him as Norman Bates, it was where his career was headed at the time. Vaughn looks taller and is more masculine and menacing than Anthony Perkins, but instead of attributing the physical change to a different take, he pretty much replicates Perkins’ line delivery, ticks and gesticulations. As they say, you can’t improve on the Mona Lisa, and there’s no way that anyone can embody the character of Norman Bates like Perkins did. If you’re going to try, then bring something new to the table, besides a very calculating and unnatural nervous laugh at least. The parlor scene between Norman and Marion is for me the highlight of the original film. It’s the only scene featuring any extended interaction between Leigh and Perkins, and reveals so much about each character's past and possible futures, all while ominously framed between the watchful dead eyes of the stuff birds, victims of Norman’s taxidermy hobby. Here the scene is a resounding dud, it feels like a high school play production, and Heche and Vaughn seemingly admit to not being up to the challenge and speed through this scene (it’d be interesting to time each of these respected scenes to see if there’s truth to the rushed nature or not).
Twelve and a half years and 1,900 plus words later, I still find myself asking the same question I asked when I saw the film at the now defunct Tanforan Discount Theatre in January 1999 where it was on a double bill with I Still Know What You Did Last Summer as part of their unintentional “boy, mainstream American horror sucked in the late 90’s” programming, and that question is why? Why did Van Sant decide he was going to cash in all his chips on remaking a beloved film (pretty much) shot for shot? Was his intention to show that yesterday’s radical cinema is today’s kitsch? I know I spent much of this review comparing Van Sant and Hitchcock interpretations of the same material, but how could you not? Ultimately I’ve come to the conclusion that this was all just an experiment on Van Sant’s part, maybe not even knowing what the end result would be himself. Sure, the film is pretty much a failure on most levels save for the contributions of Mortenson and Doyle, but as the film concludes with a sincere thank you to Alfred Hitchcock, I thought to myself, you know what, Hitch himself would probably dig the balls Van Sant displayed helming this project. Remember the legendary director was prone to make certain films solely for technical peculiarities himself such as shooting in 3-D (Dial M for Murder) or continuous invisibly edited shots (Rope) and even remade one of his own films (The Man Who Knew Too Much). After all the dust has settled and time has passed, I guess I can respect it on that level, even if I still don’t actually enjoy it. At least it saved us from a Platinum Dunes’ version.