Film Torments: Psycho (1998)
SPEAKING as someone who has never been especially enamoured with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – a contemporary trailblazer dulled by the passage of time and reference yet buoyed by Anthony Perkins’ wonderful performance as Norman Bates – it still remains a classic of the genre by reputation alone. The rigid composition of Hitchcock’s shots; the insistent dagger-point soundtrack and several iconic scenes have entered into the cinematic lexicon of unimpeachable genius, giving rise to many coat-tail-riders and imitators.
It’s hard to imagine that Hitchcock could ever have imagined a director – a Palme d’Or winner, no less – literally mimicking his 60s vision. But here we are in 1998 with Gus Van Sant, hot off the back of Good Will Hunting, slavishly re-creating, shot-for-shot, Sir Alf’s original. Outed by the director himself as rampant experimentation – an art-house conceit with a Hollywood budget – Van Sant’s remake is one in the literal sense of the word, taking Hitchcock’s film and substituting none of his own.
The result is a curiously inert picture that constantly calls its source material into comparison, like an irritating toddler demanding attention from its parent. A mystery where everyone knows the outcome, with scenes that everyone recognises, with horror that has since been surpassed in the three decades between versions, 1998’s Psycho is an exercise in redundancy that, if nothing else, bravely explores the distinction between homage and blatant plagiarism. It seems suspended in a fine mist of nostalgia, where even the walls of the Bates Motel, despite its modern setting, seem bathed in a varnished 60s glow.The plot you’ll already know. Marion Crane (Anne Heche) steals $400,000 (upgraded from the original’s $40,000) from her employer to help bail her lover Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen) out of alimony debt so they can get married. Tailed by a police officer and stranded in the middle of a storm, she pulls over at the Bates Motel, run by the unhinged Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn).
Re-Psycho actually reduces the effectiveness of the original by contrast, making it seem thoroughly staid and plodding. It’s repetition, pure and simple; a regurgitation that fails even in total replication, adding in unnecessary changes that mostly cannibalise the source and make it look better (and aged) by association. The script is the same, the shots are, excruciatingly, the same, and even the acting performances are largely the same.
Vaughn tries hard to convey Perkins’ deranged twitchiness but comes across as simply awkward, robbing Bates of his tragic depth. Heche’s Marion is a blinking, vapid facsimile of Janet Leigh’s smoulder. Julianne Moore is wasted as Marion’s Walkman-toting sister Lila, while Mortensen is able to add Southern bluster to his Loomis but little else. William H. Macy’s brief turn as the irrepressible PI Argobast is one of the few substantial instances of an actor deviating from the original, and he proves to be the finest.Beyond the addition of colour, there are some scant, unrewarding alterations. The opening shot, an unbroken camera movement from the city skyline to the interior of a hotel room where Marion and Loomis meet, is an impressive salvo that Hitchcock was unable to achieve due to technical limitations. The shower scene receives the joy of post-production blood splatter. When Norman plays peeping Tom with Marion, he explicitly (opposing the implicit original) masturbates, complete with juvenile fap sounds and head reactions.
That’s what this remake ultimately is: Masturbation, performed by a cineaste auteur looking to either deface or eulogise a heralded masterpiece. It’s pop-art reclamation that has no identity of its own, basking in reflected glory. Even Danny Elfman’s arrangement of Bernard Herrmann’s timeless score is a pale imitation, milking the legendary “stab strings” to within an inch of their life. The film might have had merit as experimentation if Van Sant had made no changes whatsoever; as it stands, his Psycho can’t even claim to be a perfect copy.Had Van Sant approached Psycho in the manner of, say, the cover for David Bowie’s The Next Day – an act of wanton self-defacement, slapping a great white square on the cover for “Heroes”, one of his most iconic images – then we might have had something interesting on our hands. All that Re-Psycho proves is that you can’t recreate magic by rotely doing it again. We’re never quite sure if Van Sant is applying cynicism or reverence, whether he is wilfully sabotaging Hitchcock or worshipping him.
In any case, the engines of creativity need to be oiled with more than simple repetition. This is all surface, no feeling.