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
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