Sometimes there are films that sit at the edge of our mind, and even though we may not have seen them, they guide us in spirit. Films that are so powerful and engrossing that they transcend the visual medium, slipping into the subconscious of society, penetrating the minds of millions whether they have seen it or not. These are films that influenced us in our thoughts, our actions, and our perceptions of that particular genre or several, such a film is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
I first saw it on channel 5 in Los Angeles when I was young. My grandparents loved Hitchcock, so if he was on, it was on our television. I was very much afraid of the house on the hill, so much so, that I thought I saw it in the hills outside our living room windows. Psycho is a perfect film, in plot, in execution, and in its visual presentation. Everyone knows what the house looks like; everyone knows Norman Bates and Mother, and everyone knows not to take a shower in room number one. More after the jump.
Psycho has the greatest setup of all time. An attractive blonde named Marion is in love with a man who has nothing to offer her but his love. He won’t marry her because he doesn’t have a cent to his name and lives in the back of a hardware store. They meet in hotels during her lunch hour for a quick bump to tide them over till the day that looks as if it may never come. But Marion is getting older and wants more than this relationship is giving her, if only they had more money. She throws down the gauntlet to her lover Sam and leaves back to work and into the arms of fate.
Marion returns to work to find opportunity waiting, and in a moment of madness, she seizes it. One of her boss’s most important clients has come in and purchased a piece of property for $40,000, a hell of a lot of money in 1960. Marion is asked to drop off the money at the bank on her way home and once the money is in her possession, all she can think of is Sam. And the next thing you know she’s on the road and heading for California in a new car. Later that evening it begins to rain hard, so hard that Marion misses her turn off and ends up on a side road leading her to the Bates Motel. She decides to get a room and stay the night since it’s raining hard and she was by this time a bit out of her way, it’s the last bad decision in a series of bad decisions she will ever make.
The motel manager is a young and seemingly kind and frail young man who gives her a room and offers her dinner. Having not eaten, and with no place in sight, she decides to take him up on his offer. Through the course of conversation she learns that this young man, Norman Bates, is a good man in a bad situation, trapped by his obligations to his mother and unable to live a fulfilling life of his own. She sees something in him that reminds her of herself, and after inadvertently insulting him and his mother, she returns to her room and makes the right decision to return home.
Marion decides to take a shower and go to bed, after all, she has a long day ahead of her, mentally, physically and emotionally. She seems to enjoy the hot water on her body, but then the world turns, and plays a cruel joke on her. A second woman enters the room, an older woman spurned by the actions of her son. Cold suddenly envelops Marion, the night air from the open door, anticipation of death, cold metal against her skin, and the shock of penetration. Marion lies dead on the cold tile floor. The woman leaves, and with that, leaves Norman to protect not only her, but him, against the consequences that are heading their way.
Alfred Hitchcock starting shooting psycho in 1959 after reading a review of the book in a newspaper. Little did he know I’m sure that after making several high profile and highly regarded masterpieces, it would be this low budget, black-and-white film that would become his calling card to this day. There is nothing in Psycho that doesn’t work and the film perfectly displays all of his talents in spades. No one had ever cast a major Hollywood star in a film only to kill them off within the first 40 minutes. Anthony Perkins had never played a villain, let alone in a film with such a twisted modus operandi. The very idea of showing the toilet or using the word transvestite in a film, any film, was unheard of.
Janet Leigh is excellent as Marion. When she steals the money, you feel she would do anything to be with the man she loves including, perhaps, killing people who would come after her. These are the conclusions that one would come to from the title and her picture on the poster, for Christ’s sake, she’s the star; she must be the one who goes psycho. She in fact is the psycho, if only for a moment.
Anthony Perkins was the ideal Norman Bates because much like the casting of Janet Leigh, it brings a certain amount of expectation that imbues the film with strengths rather than weaknesses. You never think of Norman as being anything but a good guy and that is what makes the reveal so powerful and unsettling. Psycho was the first film to show the killer not as an evil, ugly, or aggressive fiend, but as the boy next door, a thing that would play itself out in real life many times in the years to come.
Psycho changed the playing field for all time, breaking sexual and violent taboos, and not giving in to the expected happy ending. With a film that brought so much to the table why would anyone ever attempt to fill those shoes? Few people tried, but one man put his name, reputation, and professional future on the table in an attempt to do what has never been done, and that willingness to go all in is perhaps the only positive thing that we can say about Gus Van Sant and his 1998 remake. Time for a little Psycho Vs. Psycho .
There is no need to rehash the plot because it’s identical. Gus chose to use the original script and remake the film shot for shot with only minor tweaks in the images and dialogue. Should anyone watch this film? No. Why would you? The film is truly an exercise in selfishness and misjudgment. Sometimes people do the wrong things for the right reasons and that is something that I can understand. But sometimes, their good intentions should remain just that because the outcome benefits no one. Where did the film go wrong?
Let’s start with Casting.
First off, I like Vince Vaughn. He’s a smart and fun actor who knows how to be engaging on-screen. I may not agree with a lot of his comedy film choices, but that’s my problem. That being said, in what world, what alternate plane of existence does the casting of Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates seems like a good idea? At a stocky 6’5’’ with piercing eyes there is no way that he doesn’t look threatening. Combine that with the fact that every move he makes is shady, it was a no-win situation. It didn’t help that we already know he’s the killer. In Vince’s defense, it’s an impossible role to re-create no matter who you are.
Anne Heche…WTF? Van Sant supposedly studied the film and all materials relating to it meticulously. What part of “we can get a star to play the part” did he not understand? Wes Craven understood it when he made “Scream” and that came out two years before the Psycho remake, was he not paying attention? Anne Heche was a flash in the pan actress with a whole lotta uninteresting and a dash of forgettable on her resume. I’m not normally this hostile to specific actors and actresses, but if you attempt to pull something like this off, you better do your homework. You can’t make Psycho if you don’t understand the making of Psycho.
Viggo Mortensen as Sam Loomis is another piece of bad judgment on the part of Van Sant. Not because he isn’t a great actor, because he is, but because Viggo brings so many options to every scene and Van Sant chose the takes that make him seem, well, shady. The whole dilemma with Sam Loomis is that he’s a straight arrow. So much so, that he won’t marry his girlfriend because he can’t provide for her as he feels a man should. I wasn’t there so I don’t know but this seems an error on Van Sant’s part.
Julianne Moore as Lila, Marion’s sister, comes off particularly bitchy, intrusive, and more than a little retarded with her ridiculous lines about headphones and walkmans. As with Viggo, Julianne is a top-notch actress and I feel for her having to say these lines and attempt to make them seem believable.
The only bit of casting that isn’t offensive is William H. Macy as Arbagast. I know this has been stated time and again, but let’s face it, he’s that good. Funny though, he’s so good that you don’t actually buy that he would be fooled for an instant. Hey, what are ya gonna do?
The film begins on shaky ground with the casting of Anne Heche and then completely crumbles with her departure since you don’t trust Norman Bates as played by Vince Vaughn and you don’t like Lila or Sam. Not to say that Anne is engaging but she is the lead we are stuck with. The parlor scene should have us falling in love with the idea of Norman and Marion as a couple and in the original it does so beautifully. In the remake, however, there is no chemistry between the two. Their lines and looks fall flat and the scene with it. They say as a director, cast the right actors and your job is 50% done, well it follows to say they cast the wrong actors and you add 50% more to your plate, 50% that most directors can’t afford to have piled upon them. And we’re just talking about casting, we haven’t even gotten to the all the other problems.
Color vs Black & White.
Psycho having been shot in B/W was not only a mandate, but a choice as well. Hitchcock stated that he couldn’t shoot the picture in color because it would be too gory. This is true but also, it would have eaten up more of the budget and Hitchcock’s whole thing was to shoot a down and dirty horror “cheapy”. Shooting the film in color goes against a conscious choice made by Hitchcock, and at least for me, is the equivalent of colorizing a black and white film. A practice that was quickly regarded as “blasphemous” to the films and film makers they were trying to honor. An important note as well is the fact that since the film was conceived in B/W, the costumes, lighting, and even angels were chosen to compliment. Something I whole heartedly believe was not taken into consideration with the 1998 film.
To say that Hitchcock’s camera was the driving force in his films is an understatement. It was the motivator and great equalizer within the worlds he created. There is something to be said about the mind’s eye and it’s ability to transfer thought into the physical world. For example, have you ever asked a stranger to take a photo of you? Most of us have, only to find that the picture came out absolutely hideous. The person taking the picture did so as a mechanical action rather than a desire to capture the moment (or maybe that thought you were ugly). Either way, the resulting image was less than it should have been and the opportunity is lost. The same goes for film. Hitch had specific reasons for where, when, and how he moved his camera. His feelings for the scene transferred to us, and by doing that, he could manipulate his audience for the good of the overall experience. Van Sant’s only motivation was to copy the film shot for shot. There is little tension, the pace is slow, and the action falls flat. A camera move without a motivation behind it is a very hollow thing.
Psycho is about themes as much as any Hitchcock film. Secretiveness, voyeurism, duality, birds, Mother is ever-present but never seen. Obviously the themes remain but are muted and unrecognizable. This is what happens when you stunt cast for clever cameos rather than cast the actor most suited for a role that requires a delicate touch. It’s not unlike writing smart and clever dialogue and having it read by someone without a shred of nuance. Think Hayden Christensen reading Quentin Tarantino.
He changed the house, really? Again, file this under ill-advised and self-indulgent ideas. The house is as important to the story and synonymous with the film as the character of Norman Bates or Marion Crane. The house is an icon all on its own. It is a house that we all know that we don’t want to go to, a place as terrifying as the farm in Texas Chain saw Massacre. It’s a slice of psychological hell not on the surface but bubbling underneath. You surprise few and you anger and confuse many when you pull a stunt like that because again, whether you’ve seen the film or not we all know what the Bates House looks like.
Everyone moves and speaks like they’re from 1960, which would be great if the film was set in 1960, but it’s not. What makes matters worse in this instance, is that he chooses to use dialogue and styles indicative of the original yet he cuts in ridiculous dialogue that was dated by the time the film was out on home video. Help me out Gus… help me out.
The Masturbation Scene.
This is something that was implied in the original film, it was a case of showing you something and letting your mind finish the thought or not. Once you show Norman Bates peeping Marion and masturbating you turn him into a psycho. We are not surprised by anything we’re going to see from that point forward, because normal people don’t do that. There are certain lines that the average person doesn’t cross, and those who choose to usually have more than a couple of screws just a little loose. The reaction to that scene, whether right or wrong, tends to be the majority; and by adding it, shot his self in the foot yet again. Sometimes things are cut for a reason.
Last & Most Importantly…The Shower Scene.
This goes down as one of the most important scenes in film history. Its conception, its editing, its music all combined to perfection, why would you deviate from that recipe, for clouds, seriously? I don’t think that following the pattern meticulously would have made any difference, it wouldn’t have helped the 1998 scene, but adding clouds only hurt the pacing, the truth of the scene, and some would say the heart of the film. The shower scene is a linchpin of modern horror cinema; you don’t try to make it your own. Adding to the remake’s indignity, is the overhead shot of Marion slumped over the tub, her ass spread and positioned as if she’s ready to take it doggy style. This is one of those moments where I have to say “closed cheek” would have made a difference.
In the end, the film is a glorious exercise in what not to do…ever. Gus Van Sant’s biggest crime upon the community was not remaking Psycho; it was remaking Psycho into a forgotten travesty, so inconsequential, that it doesn’t even exist on the black lists of American cinema. The fact that Psycho 1998 is hardly remembered to be loathed is a true waste of celluloid.
Remakes do not hurt the original films. A lot of time the remakes are done with such care that they are decent exercises in alternate realities. Films like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2005, Dawn of the Dead 2004, and Friday the 13th 2009 (Awesome, I don’t care what anyone says). Whenever they remake a film like this, we are treated to new versions of the original, with the studios unearthing more and more long-lost and never before seen material just to fill a disc to get us to buy. Whether it’s good or bad the remake helps us celebrate the original. For every remake that does a good job there is one that completely misses the boat. The Fog, starring future EDD recipient Tom Welling, A Nightmare on Elm Street, wasting a golden opportunity, not only for Jackie Earle Haley, but for the audience as well, and the list goes on. These films aren’t actively hated, they are forgotten.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho will remain a driving force in horror, suspense, and the perfection of filmmaking for all eternity. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, though highly controversial at the time, has done nothing but fade into oblivion, putting the director’s mainstream career on ice, some would say permanently, destroying the career of an up-and-coming actress (though her little stint with the aliens didn’t help) and possibly destroying any future Psycho converts with their bait and switch bloody ad campaign. Remaking a film shot by shot had never been done before for a reason, and if it was going to be attempted, you shouldn’t do it with Hitchcock. Genius is never on the page, it lies between the frames, in the technique, and in the hearts of the people who bring it to the screen. I hope the lesson has been learned.