So who in the hell does Gus Van Sant think he is? With Psycho, his scene-for-scene redo of the Alfred Hitchcock terror classic, he's playing havoc with our entire cinematic belief system.
From birth, we critics are drilled in one precept of moviemaking above all others: The director is the author of the film, the "auteur." He or she is the genius who creates the entire film from out of thin air, who single-handedly forges the work of art we see at the theater. It is their vision we are sharing, their creation. Sure, there are other people involved in moviemaking (the actors, for instance), but it is the director who marshals those forces and makes them conform to his or her conceptualization. Common sense, right?
So here comes this Van Sant fellowwhom we critics have been billing as an auteur himself since the days of Drugstore Cowboy or To Die Forand he doesn't just remake Psycho (this we can understand), he duplicates it. He uses the exact same script, the exact same shots, the exact same timingeverything's the same onscreen except the color and the actors (and a few bizarre images inserted during the murder scenes). So what do you call a director who isn't just inspired by another director's vision, but actually appropriates that vision? Can he still be considered an auteur when all the creative decisions were made almost 40 years ago by somebody else? What kind of artistic statement can he possibly make that wasn't already made in the original?
Well, if the title of auteur can go to directors with the most audaciousness, then Van Sant certainly qualifies. For those who've enjoyed the original, seeing this new Psycho is an oddly compelling experience, at first. It's the sort of same-yet-different feeling you get from a recurring dreameverything happens just as it did the last time, but you still find yourself surprised by what you see. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on what kind of Hitchcock fan you arethe worshipful will be offended, the irreverent will find it entertaining.
The most surprising aspect about this doppelganger Psycho is that everything still worksnothing seems terribly dated about the script or its characters. What Hitchcock was shooting for back in 1960 was a low-budget shockerbut, of course, he managed to throw in a lot more sophistication than the typical B-grade bloodfests of the day. Based on the novel by Robert Bloch, the original Psycho was actually a very graphic foray into the still-fresh genre of the "psychological drama," when people's mental underpinnings were brand-new territory for horror. After nearly 40 years of advances in psychology, you might expect the film's references and dramatic assumptions to be outdated, or quaint at best. But the story of Norman Bates, deranged mama's boy, still clicks. It's a testament to Joseph Stefano's script and Hitchcock's sense of pacing and suspense (as well as Bernard Herrmann's landmark score) that the familiar tale can still captivate. So kudos to the original filmmakers; but what about the new talents involved?
Anne Heche stars as the "mcguffin," that is to say the duplicitous secretary who sets the story in motion by stealing $400,000 of her boss' money then hitting the road. Her motivation is never really clearthe act seems to be a spur of the moment crimebut it's Heche's job to make us care about her enough to be concerned when she meets her fate at the hands of Norman Bates. The problem is, Heche lacks any sort of star charisma or magnetism of the sort we usually require of stars. Bland, pale, and mousy, Heche plays her secretary as just a very stupid girl whose bad decisions put her in a deep hole. Original star Janet Leigh, on the other hand, played the role with a bitterness that made you wonder why she seemed so angrywhat was she lashing back at? Ah, intrigue!
Thankfully, Vince Vaughn does a much better job with the role that forever typecast Anthony Perkinsthe jittery, sensitive, deadly innkeeper of the Bates Motel. Ever since his breakout turn in Swingers, Vaughn has been trying to find his feet, from blockbusters (The Lost World) to low-budget losers (Clay Pigeons), none of which fully utilized his talent. But with Norman, he finds room to stretch, overcoming his inherent good looks to deliver just the right combination of creepiness and intelligence. (Plus, he has a physical presence that's a lot more formidable than Mr. Perkins could muster.) Without Vaughn's steady performance, this Psycho could've been a laughingstock.
Still, the biggest question Hitchcockians will be demanding is whywhy the hell did Van Sant bother to do it? His artistic statement, as it were, may be the idea that movies aren't the immutable icons we assume them to be. Or perhaps he wanted to create the ultimate "retro" movie in this age of nostalgia. Or maybe he did it just because he could. Whichever, his Psycho isn't the slur against cinema many fans expectedbut neither is it much of a fresh moviegoing experience.