Why Van Sant’s ‘Psycho’ Remake Matters (Really)

The news that Gus Van Sant planned a “shot-by-shot remake” of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” was, for most film buffs, akin to finding out a dear friend had popped up in the obituary section.

What Van Sant was proposing didn’t simply seem like a bad idea but an outright violation. How could the maverick independent filmmaker, who burst onto the scene with “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho” (both fearless and profound), commit such an outright act of vandalism against one of the pillars of cinema history?

At least, that’s exactly how I felt when I read the USA Today announcement of Van Sant’s “Psycho.” The day it opened, I dragged my college roommate and fellow film buff, Tyler, to the first showing of the day; I was disgusted by Van Sant’s inferior version and Tyler found it pretty lackluster.

Psycho Official Trailer #1 - William H. Macy Movie (1998) HD

On the ride home, Tyler admitted that he had never seen the Hitchcock original. That evening, we watched Hitchcock’s 1960 classic and, to his amazement, Tyler not only loved it but explained that the original film was better paced and felt much more suspenseful, if not altogether better executed.

His opinion all but solidified my rancor at Van Sant’s film; all my life, I’d never gone to any movie wanting to hate it (seriously, why knowingly waste your time?) but having bullet points of ammo against Van Sant’s approach and choices felt like total vindication. So did the ensuing bad reviews and pitiful box office, as Van Sant’s one-week curiosity item vanished quickly.

Take that, Van Sant!

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A decade later, when I was teaching film classes in Colorado Springs and inevitably including “Psycho” and Stephen Rebello’s definitive book on the film’s making in my syllabi, I’d quickly mention the Van Sant film as a footnote. It’s like how music buffs snidely mention that Stuart Sutcliffe was once a member of The Beatles.

For years, I didn’t want to revisit the Van Sant film. In addition to disliking it so intensely, its existence bothered me. Had the film become some surprise blockbuster, would young horror buffs only refer to Vince Vaughn as their Norman Bates?

Would a new “Psycho” be crammed with the late ’90s horror renaissance that mostly catered to self consciously satirical throwbacks like “Scream” and “Halloween H20”? This never happened and I was relieved that a milestone of film history (even before reading all the scholarly writing, “Psycho” was my favorite movie just for its face-value achievements) would remain unchallenged.

A few years back, I gave Van Sant’s “Psycho” (which I’ll refer to from this point on as “Psycho ’98”) another shot.

FAST FACT: Ted Knight, who went on to comic fame with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Caddyshack,” played a police officer in the final scenes of 1960’s “Psycho.”

The story remains the same, though there are interesting updates and slight modernized alterations. Bank teller Marion Crane (Anne Heche) is in love with Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen), an unhappy shop keeper who is married and broke.

This inspires Marion to steal $400,000.00 (one zero up from the amount in Hitchcock’s original) from her boss. Marion’s rain-drenched, paranoia-infused night drive to rendezvous with Sam is interrupted by a stay at the Bates Motel.

The oddball manager, Norman Bates (Vaughn) finds Marion attractive and sympathetic, though Norman’s Mother is rage prone and murderous. When Marion disappears, Sam and Marion’s sister (Julianne Moore) hire Detective Arbogast (William H. Macy) to track her down. What Arbogast finds out about Norman Bates is what Martin Balsam found out about Anthony Perkins in the 1960 original, only in color…with a Rob Zombie song playing in the background of one sequence.

Psycho (10/12) Movie CLIP - Arbogast Meets Mother (1960) HD

Its uncanny how most of Van Sant’s version has been filmed, scored and acted in ways to mirror the 1960 “Psycho.” Yet, for all the reports that Van Sant was making his version “shot-by-shot,” the scenes where he adds his own flourishes are by far the most interesting.

For all the fidelity to what Hitchcock did, the new additions truly fascinate (like the inclusion of an originally cut one-liner in the early bank office sequence).

The infamous masturbation sequence (sort-of implied by Hitchcock, totally evoked here by Van Sant) plays like self commentary. This movie is getting its kicks from how closely we’re watching it and how Van Sant is recreating a prior work of art for seemingly his own personal pleasure.

The addition to the final encounter with Mother in the basement is arresting and I enjoyed the somewhat clumsy fight sequence that ensues.

Yet, the new shower scene fails.

The Shower - Psycho (5/12) Movie CLIP (1960) HD

It oddly waits a beat before the Bernard Hermann score (faithfully duplicated by Danny Elfman) kicks in and graphically depicts Marion’s bloody wounds. Everything about this portion gives in to the naysayers.

Indeed, Hitchcock did it better.

The color choices for the costumes are loud and quirky, even for 1998. Although well cast, the contemporary performances often clash with the 1960 dialogue (intact from Joseph Stefano’s original screenplay, based on Robert Bloch’s novel).

Here’s a key example:

When Mortensen tells Heche, “…when you do, you’ll swing.” Remember, the screenplay is 1960 but the film takes place in 1998! Rita Wilson goes the period route and, in her one scene, gives a mannered turn that could have only worked in 1960.

Heche is sexy and compelling as Crane, even as she can’t hold the screen like Janet Leigh could in the same role. She lacks tension. The same goes for Vaughn, whose twitchy, one-note take on Bates lacks the mystery and layers Perkins brought to his legendary performance.

Yet, it can be said that Vaughn makes the role his own.

Psycho (1998) - Clip 1: She Needs Me (HD)

Vaughn loses Bates’ stutter but adds an odd giggle in its place. Moore and Macy (who makes the ’60s patter sound like Mamet dialog) are mostly repeating what their predecessors did, while Mortensen mumbles his way through his role (in one of his few unsuccessful performances). James Le Gros is terrible as the salesman who encounters Marion on the run.

I care very much that young horror fans are more familiar with Fede Alvarez’s terrific “Evil Dead” but most haven’t seen Sam Raimi’s essential 1983 “The Evil Dead.” Both are excellent and, while I was skeptical of the remake at first, I’m glad both exist. I feel the same way about Van Sant’s “Psycho ’98.”

In 1998, I felt threatened that Van Sant’s new work would overtake Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Today, Van Sant’s flop is justly respected as a fascinating, one of a kind experiment. It reflects our current nostalgia craze and our obsession with film lore (note the recent, exhaustive documentary “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene,” and “Room 237,” the conspiracy theory-fueled take on “The Shining’).

78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) - Clip 3: The Musical Score Of Psycho

Granted, there are those unwanted remakes that have tarnished the visibility of classics that ought to be sought out. Namely, the early 21st century versions of “Black Christmas,” “The Fog,” “The Hitcher, ” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (to name just a few) are terrible.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010) - You're in My World Now Scene (9/9) | Movieclips

Even worse, the young audience those one-week wonders catered to have likely never seen (nor had any desire to see) the masterful, passionately made and inventive works of horror cinema that inspired them.

The end credits of “Psycho ’98” are a Van Sant trademark: a long-held single shot that concludes once the credits fade out. This final touch, in which we get one last gaze at that car being drawn from the swamp, is less Hitchcock, very Van Sant and, come to think of it, makes the unspoken declaration that this is Andy Warhol’s “Psycho.” Specifically, a distinctly post-modernist work with a value far more intellectual than surface level.

Whereas Hitchcock’s “Psycho” is one of the crucial game changers in world cinema, Van Sant’s “Psycho ’98” is akin to that famous shot-by-shot “Raiders of the Lost Ark” remake or Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now Redux,” both post-“Psycho ’98” riffs on the post modern ways we view old movies in a new perspective.

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Van Sant has come clean that he made “Psycho ’98” because he was trying something no one had ever attempted before. It’s unlikely anyone will ever copy his approach, as it inevitably creates dialog of how the first filmmaker had the benefit of doing it first and better. That said, “Psycho” and every other household name cinema classic isn’t above being remade.

Rather than maintaining that sense of an original being threatened, I’ve adjusted my views in the midst of good company. The recent “Bates Motel” TV series on A&E re-told the events of Hitchcock’s original and Stefano’s own “Psycho IV: The Beginning” over five seasons. In terms of its production, performances and writing, “Bates Motel” is a vast accomplishment.

It won’t be the last time this quintessentially American gothic horror tale is remade. The story of Norman Bates will likely be remade many more instances throughout my lifetime. However, it’s unlikely it will be re-shaped in as intriguing in manner as Van Sant once dared.

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