Tucson Weekly


REVIEWED: 12-14-98

WHEN PSYCHO WAS released in 1960, Alfred Hitchcock sent a letter to critics urging them not to reveal the ending of the film. Nothing could be less necessary to the new version of Psycho by Gus Van Sant, a shot-by-shot remake of the original, with a few variations, including color, a sprinkling of surrealist imagery, and a new cast of course (though it might have been more true to Hitchcock's sensibility to just disinter the old).

We all know what happens now, so the big mystery this time around is why did Van Sant make Psycho all over again?

The mystery remains. Visions of twisted homage and the death of the author and the nursery rhyme pleasure of repetition all flitted through my brain before seeing the new Psycho. But after viewing it, I can't tell you why Van Sant remade it. I'm stumped. I guess he just loves the movie. But it's kind of like buying a cheap knock off of a designer dress--even though it looks similar, somehow all the style is gone.

New Psycho mangles old Psycho. Anything that's good is new Psycho is better in old--with the exception of the title sequence, Saul Bass' intensely satisfying rendition of '50s minimalism, now breathtaking in a slightly nauseating green-and-black. From there, it's all downhill. Anne Heche is an acceptable Marion Crane, making her first appearance when the camera swoops through the window of the Westward Ho in downtown Phoenix (actually a residential hotel for the elderly). She's kittening around with her boyfriend Sam (Viggo Mortensen), and though Heche is perfectly acceptable, she can't match the perky anxiety of Janet Leigh.

And times have changed. After her tryst, Marion goes back to the office, which, according to the original script--Van Sant follows it faithfully--the boss refuses to air condition. Yeah, sure. Stranger still, the 1998 Marion favors kooky vintage dresses, and I'm here to tell you that any weird office girl who wears pink sixties get-ups to work will not be trusted to deposit $400,000 cash in the bank--if a real-estate office would even hire her in the first place.

Anyway, Marion manages to grab the cash and flee to the desert, where she encounters Norman Bates, the charming lunatic desk clerk of the Bates Motel. Van Sant has cast Vince Vaughn as Bates, and though I like Vaughn in other roles, he's wrong in this one. Vaughn is a strapping, handsome guy who dresses in tight jeans and looks like he has to duck to get through doorways. He's a hunk. Hitchcock's Bates was a small, birdlike, boyish man who constantly ate candy and bounced around the motel like a nervous kid. Vaughn isn't boyish. Vaughn is sexy.

The effect of a sexy Norman pushes the whole idea of Psycho out of whack. Norman Bates is supposed to be repressed, but it's hard to give yourself over to the idea of repression when the guy playing the part is so good looking that it's easy to picture all the girls out in the middle of nowhere constantly coming over and throwing themselves at him. ("Hey baby, let's put one of those 12 empty cabins to use.") This Norman Bates has a nice gym-conditioned ass, which Van Sant lovingly shows as he leaps up the stairs to minister to his hectoring mother. My, my, this is not the Psycho I grew up with.

Old Psycho made sex, especially the idea of Norman having sex, seem dirtier and weirder by making it off limits, but new Psycho shows more. In fact, Norman beats off as he watches Marion through the peephole. Showing more also somehow makes the film less scary. I don't know how he did it, but Van Sant has managed to make the famous shower sequence (designed not by Hitchcock, by the way, but by title designer Saul Bass) not scary. Maybe it's the insertion of a few frames of surrealist imagery (I recall no cow in the original), or maybe it's because he shows more of Heche's body, or maybe it's because he gives us a better glimpse of the bewigged slasher than Hitchcock ever did (Anthony Perkins wasn't there that day, so he used a shadowy stand-in). In any case, it doesn't work. The original shower scene has held up for years, but the new one seems silly.

Midway through Psycho, when I'd become used to the novelty of a different cast, I thought about walking out. I was bored. I'd seen it before, and it was better. But I stuck around because I was so enjoying the music by Bernard Herrmann, who created for Psycho one of the greatest movie scores of all time. Without the virtuosity of Hitchcock's images to distract me, it was easier to focus on the accompanying atmospheric, piercing violin score. Could it be that Van Sant remade Psycho as a sort of extended music-video? That, at least, would explain it.

--Stacey Richter

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To Die For

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