Psycho (dir. Gus Van Sant)
While watching Gus Van Sant’s Psycho the question in my mind was not so much "Why?" but "What?" The question every reviewer and their brother belabored was "Why remake a classic?" but I was more interested in what was different.
That is, until I read this on the official Psycho website: "Van Sant noticed that, almost without exception, only those films that had fallen out of popularity, relegated to lonely midnight movies and late-night cable, were ever remade. Big, enduring classics were rarely tackled, except in cases where they were altered beyond recognition."
The silliness of that statement is obvious. It begs the question, "Why destroy perfection?"
No, Van Sant didn’t ruin Psycho but he didn’t make a better version of it either. The reason for the remake is still lost on me.
Perhaps Van Sant wanted to spark people’s interest in watching the original film. All I know is that the Gus Van Sant’s Psycho really made me appreciate the Hitchcock original: the subtlety, the dialogue, and the acting.
Were actors miscast, misdirected, or untalented and unable to perform their task properly? Anne Heche was completely blasé in her role of Marion Crane, putting little effort into it, as if aware of the fate of her character and, thus, unmotivated to give her all for such a small part. And her hair was nasty to boot.
Though her part was longer, Julianne Moore’s apathetic record store clerking Lila Crane was completely uninteresting. I believe Lila’s occupation was brought to the forefront to explain her use of headphones as a fashion accessory which, in turn, allowed the audience brief snippets of songs from the Psycho soundtrack album.
Viggo Mortensen’s Sam Loomis is barely memorable, making his performance comparable to John Gavin’s Loomis some thirty-eight years prior. Instead, I was much more impressed with Rance Howard as Marion’s boss, James LeGros as California Charlie the used car salesman and James Remar as the State Trooper who wakes Marion on the side of the road. Regardless of the quality of these performances, all of the acting in the original was better. Even Pat Hitchcock was terrific compared to schlub Rita Wilson whose performance was dreadful and who, in my humble opinion, wouldn’t have a career if she wasn’t Mrs. Tom Hanks.
William H. Macy takes on the role of Arbogast, the private detective hired to find Marion after she goes missing. Macy does an acceptable job but personal bias keeps me from thinking that he might ever get close to the wonderful performance of character actor Martin Balsam. In the annals of under-appreciated actors, Balsam ranks near the top for me. Just looking at his Milton Arbogast with his scant few minutes on screen but indelible presence and depth of character should be proof enough of Balsam’s talents. His knowing grin, his playful manner, and his keen instincts (which would have paid off had not Norman’s Mother been armed) made his character a true delight.
Of course, the real star of the show is Norman Bates and this time around Vince Vaughn gets to take a crack at the oedipal nightmare of a Motel manager. Reprising his role from Clay Pigeons, Vaughn does a fine job of infecting the character with a devilish sense of mirth and putting the audience on edge wondering what Bates finds so funny.
Anthony Perkins kept the portrayal of Norman’s confused sexuality low-key. Vaughn did a good job of bringing Norman farther out of the closet by giving his hips a gentle sway as he climbs the steps to his Mother’s room. Vaughn’s wardrobe also helps to feminize his character: as he watches a car bubbling to the murky bottom of the local swamp Norman is clad in a very form-fitting black turtleneck and tight blue jeans looking very swishy.
Without benefit of having watched the original shortly before I might have found Van Sant’s film to be more palatable. Despite his fine performance, Vaughn’s few shortcomings put Perkins’ performance in a new light. I found a deeper appreciation of Perkins’ skill as an actor.
Perkins’ delivery was better the majority of the time. Scenes twist and turn as Norman reveals and backtracks. I’m thinking particularly of the scene in Norman’s parlor where he discusses relocating his mother to a "madhouse" and how people "cluck their thick tongues" about putting people "someplace." Vaughn’s Bates is jittery and on edge while Perkins’ expresses a pent-up frustration of being misunderstood and self-assuredness about his smoldering anger. It could be that Heche was giving Vaughn little to work with while Perkins was interacting with Janet Leigh. Leigh’s Marion was less apologetic in her questioning of Norman and did not exhibit a superior attitude towards him.
The original film is rife with good dialogue and it remains unscathed, for the most part, by Van Sant. Some changes updated the new film to its modern setting, yet some modifications seemed unnecessary and a few painfully dated lines remained. Few alterations affected either the plot or the subtext of the film but seemed rather to take the edge off of it.
Van Sant kept a good deal of motifs that Hitchcock used but dropped others. Gone was the Motel office mirror, reflecting anyone getting a room and highlighting the film’s theme of duality. We often see protagonists and their reflections while Norman is not framed with a mirror, his "other half" being hidden from view.
The oddest thing about the new Psycho is that it employs a few cinematic devices, which could be viewed as post-modern in that they were culled from films that would have never been possible without the original Psycho. Series of images are cut into the murder scenes reminiscent of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and its mixed-media collage. However, these shots feel inappropriate and are on screen entirely too long, taking away their impact as startling, stirring blurs which could have originated in the mind of Norman Bates. The new Psycho also contains a basement aviary, tying into the theme of birds in the film (Marion Crane, Norman’s stuffed birds, Marion’s eating habits, Phoenix, AZ, etc.). Moreover, it recalls Jame Gumb/Jamie Grant’s butterfly collection in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs.
The change in the new Psycho that I most agree with is the trimming down of the convoluted end speech by the psychiatrist. Perhaps pop psychology and a passing knowledge of Freud weren’t commonplace in 1960, but after all of the films and news stories explaining the origins of criminal behavior being rooted in childhood trauma, a pedantic speech explaining Norman’s condition would have been insulting and, moreover, boring.
A complaint I have about the new Psycho that may sound odd but that troubled me nonetheless is its release date. It’s not often that December 11th falls on a Friday but in 1998, it did. So why, then, release the film on December 4th instead of using the film’s famous subtitled beginning, "Phoenix, Arizona...Friday, December The Eleventh...Two Forty-Three P.M." to capitalize on the date and to pay a bit of tribute to the original film?
I’m certain that somewhere a critic is writing up a dissertation about the overlong ending shot of Van Sant’s Psycho; a long take of a car being pulled from the swamp while the credits roll over it. What fascinated me more about this scene was the wonderful rendition of Bernard Herrmann’s theme by Wayne Horvitz and Bill Frisell. Unfortunately, I don’t think that this haunting, discordant tune is available on the more rock and Danny Elfman-centered soundtrack album. I guess it wasn’t deemed hip enough in comparison to Rob Zombie and the Pet Shop Boys.
Overall, the new Psycho felt like a failed experiment in hipness. The bland performances by Heche and Moore serve to highlight the sanitizing of a shocking classic. Instead of creating a lurid atmosphere, the use of color photography in Van Sant’s Psycho reduced the film’s artful look, increasing the likelihood of comparisons to "America’s Most Wanted"-style crime recreations.
The film is most noteworthy in the lack of a need for it.