Psycho (1998)

*. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was almost universally vilified when it came out and, on balance, I think properly. But I liked parts of it and I accept Van Sant’s rationale for doing it. It was an interesting experiment, in theory. The results, however, are even more disappointing than I think many critics of the project would have imagined.
*. It’s important to get one thing out of the way at the start. This is usually described as a “shot-by-shot” remake of Hitchcock’s film. It is not. That’s obvious right from the close-up of the fly sitting on Marion’s sandwich in the hotel room. Van Sant takes some striking liberties with the original throughout. This is fine, but for the fact that it takes the nature of the experiment and basically tosses it out the window. What we have here is just another remake, albeit one more faithful than most, and has to be judged as such.
*. The question to then ask is if the changes Van Sant makes are improvements on the original, or what they might tell us about what he was up to. I’ll divide the changes into two categories: general and specific.

*. Among the general changes I’ll start with the fact that this movie is in colour. (I’ll note in passing that Steven Soderbergh did a mash-up of the two versions, called Psychos, where he presented the 1998 elements in black-and-white. But that’s another experiment I won’t say anything more about here.)
*. Hitchcock filmed Psycho in black-and-white in part because it was cheap but also because it looked cheap and he was going for a low-budget, exploitation aesthetic. It seems to me that by analogy the colour in this version should look trashy, and it does. It also, however, looks disturbingly unreal. Along with the bizarre fashions (the simple black and white lingerie Janet Leigh wore turning into the tropical neons of Heche’s underwear) it also seems alien to 1998. Quentin Tarantino has said that he actually prefers this version to the original because it’s more realistic. I think this tells us a lot about what Tarantino sees as being reality.
*. Along with this over-the-top and alienating use of colour I’ll throw in the lighting in the bathroom as well. In the original the bathroom was brightly lit, but here’s it’s absolutely blinding. Look at the scene where Sam and Lila inspect it. They’re dissolving in light. This isn’t realistic but surrealistic. Or perhaps meant as parody.

*. The other general change has to do with the cast and how they interpreted their roles. The question here was what approach to take: performance or impersonation? Was Vince Vaughn going to play Norman Bates (Joseph Stefano’s Norman, Hollywood still wasn’t going anywhere near Robert Bloch’s original), or was he going to play Anthony Perkins?
*. Vaughn mainly decided to go his own way, which I think he had to given that it’s a role that Perkins basically defined and that he could never compete with. But again, the question is whether he improved in any way on that performance. I don’t think so. The stutter is replaced by a giggle, and I don’t buy the giggle. I also thought it came up at the wrong time, like when Norman is watching Marion’s car sink into the swamp. Why grin at that? This is a scene that’s supposed to build sympathy for Norman.

*. Sexuality is another matter. In the “making of” documentary included with the DVD Bruce LaBruce asks Van Sant: “So is Vince playing it fruity?” Van Sant replies: “No.” Though Vaughn does try to act a little fruity with Arbogast. But Perkins didn’t act fruity, he just was. And who else but Perkins could have brought off that scene in the parlour? Vaughn, a big guy, is just too threatening, and not the androgynous nice boy Perkins was.
*. Anne Heche is good, but again the comparison all goes one way. Heche always looks a bit nervous and the thing about Leigh’s Marion is that she isn’t a nervous woman but a woman made nervous because of the situation she’s in.
*. Poor Julianne Moore with those headphones. I had a pair like that. They already seem so dated now. According to Heche, Moore was playing a lesbian. I just thought she was kind of sexy. Even with the headphones and the keys. But I still like Vera Miles better.
*. Ths supporting cast are all excellent, but again don’t measure up the originals. William H. Macy is too nerdy as Arbogast. Viggo Mortensen too much of a himbo.

*. Let’s turn now to look at some specific changes. These involve more creative changes directed by Van Sant (the casting and the decision to shoot in colour were more givens) so I think we can be stricter in our accounting. Here’s a list.
*. (1) When Norman looks through the spyhole at Marion getting undressed he is shown masturbating. Is this realistic? Some would say it is at least making explicit what was only implicit in the original, but I think even that is going too far. I don’t think Norman was masturbating in Hitchcock’s movie (or in Bloch’s novel). Just as I’m not entirely sure that the book Lila finds in his room was pornography (David Thomson: “As if Mother would have ever let that in the house”).
*. (2) The house is no longer the Addams Family mansion, or something borrowed from a Hopper painting. Not “California Gothic,” in other words, but something more generic. But still huge and unconvincing. Seen close up I found it unbelievable, with a façade that didn’t correspond to anything I was familiar with. I don’t know what the idea was. Or with that gigantic neon sign above the Motel. Gack.
*. (3) Marion’s trip to the used-car dealership is truncated in several remarkable ways. There is only one very quick cutaway to the cop watching from across the road, which pretty much negates most of the scene’s suspense. It also ends with the excellent shot of the three men in echelon almost totally elided. If you were doing a shot-for-shot remake, why wouldn’t you want to keep the best shots?
*. (4) We can see Norman’s eyes clearly in the shower scene. Why? Doesn’t Van Sant realize less is more? Hitchcock’s shower scene was a test case in establishing that.
*. (5) During the shower scene there’s also a bizarre cutaway to some storm clouds. I don’t think these are meant to be real clouds over the Bates Motel, because it’s the middle of the night. Instead they represent . . . the storm of Norman’s psychopathic rage breaking loose? Did we need that big a nudge breaking up such a scene?

*. (6) Not content to only wreck that scene with such an interjection, Van Sant doubles down with two strange images stuck into Arbogast’s murder: a woman wearing an eye mask and a calf standing in the middle of a road. I have no idea what this was supposed to mean. Maybe the calf was Arbogast getting run over by Norman? Are these images running through Norman’s brain, or just things Van Sant is throwing in for the hell of it? There’s no mention of them on the DVD commentary track with Van Sant so I have nothing.
*. (7) The ending is such a giant train wreck you just have to gape at it. The musty, damp basement has turned into Norman’s taxidermy studio and is filled with bird cages. The corpse of Norma Bates has a spider crawling over its face. I guess because Van Sant wanted to make it look spookier and that’s the best he could come up with. But the worst change is the way the climax plays out. In the original it’s a model of economy: just shock, scream, turn and scream again, then Sam wrestling Norman to the ground. Here it’s a whole knock down fight between Sam and Norman, with Lila coming in to deliver a coup de grâce kick. Which is just as stupid and clichéd as the spider.
*. (8) The final shot is also dragged out. Instead of going from Norman’s face, morphing through the skull to the car being pulled from the much, the credits now play over a whole extended crane shot of the police dredging the swamp. Why stretch things out like this? Hitch knew when his movie was over.

*. I could go on but the pattern is clear. All of these changes were deliberate decisions and none is an improvement. I also think that in most cases they tend to be distracting, clichéd, and/or simpleminded. Take that fly on the sandwich I mentioned. Is it meant to prepare us for the fly Norma/Norman refrains from killing at the end? That’s the impression I get, but if so it’s kind of crude, in a way that Hitchcock didn’t have to be.
*. Roger Ebert: “The movie is an invaluable experiment in the theory of cinema, because it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.” I don’t really agree with this because as I began by saying this isn’t a shot-by-shot remake. It takes plenty of liberties. But I think Ebert is right in his conclusion that Van Sant is only parroting the words here without the music. Which brings us back to the question of what the point of this experiment was.

*. I honestly don’t know. It has the feel of a film school exercise about it, and I think that if you look at it from that angle it is not without interest. It is, however, an exercise in failure. Or a successful demonstration that what was being attempted was impossible. What’s more, I think all of the blame has to be laid at Van Sant’s feet. Despite some miscasting, I think the actors perform well. Bernard Herrmann’s score, re-recorded by Danny Elfman, still works. The production design and costuming isn’t to my taste, but at least has its own surreal flare and integrity. And yet despite all this, it’s a bad movie.
*. Put another way: if there were no original Psycho, and this movie were to be judged solely on its own merits, would anyone think it any good? I don’t think so. I think it would probably just be seen as a weird mess. But that’s not the way we see it, nor the way it was meant to be seen. It’s not so much a remake (shot-by-shot or otherwise) as a kind of academic commentary on what Hitchcock did and why it can’t be done again.

2 thoughts on “Psycho (1998)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Interesting but failed experiment; as you say, it’s not shot-by-shot, but neiether is it a full re-imagining. I dodn’t mind a remake, but either riff or don’t riff; a great director hits the rocks with this one, neither one thing nor another.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah, I’ve seen this one several times now and it hasn’t grown on me at all. Van Sant kept calling it an experiment, but I’m still not sure what the experiment was trying to prove or achieve. He does change some things but doesn’t improve on anything. I think I may be done with it.


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