Van Sant’s oddly reverent Psycho redux should please crowds, but it’s no Hitchcock

To start with, I should say that not only is Alfred Hitchcock’s original Psycho a film classic and one of the greatest thrillers ever made, but it is also one of my favorite movies. Therefore, I can’t possibly provide an objective view of Gus Van Sant’s remake because there’s almost no way it could measure up to the original- and indeed it doesn’t.

Usually when a movie is remade, the filmmakers take the basic plot and character elements of the original and then adapt certain aspects to make a movie that is fresh and relevant to a modern audience. Thus, earlier this year Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder was remade under the title A Perfect Murder. The remake transported the plot and characters from 1950s London to 1990s New York and added a couple of extra plot twists. The result was something similar to the original, yet refreshingly different.

The point of a remake is to find a new vision in old material. Gus Van Sant, on the other hand, who directed such movies as My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting, has chosen to remake Psycho without formulating any such new vision. His movie is almost exactly the same as the 1960 original. The script, the camera angles, the editing — everything is copied from the Hitchcock classic. Considering that Hitchcock was a director who carefully planned out every camera move and visual element used in his films, it means that Van Sant has pretty much let Hitchcock direct this new movie from beyond the grave.

Why would a talented director like Van Sant allow nearly all his artistic decisions to be decided ahead of time? Van Sant has explained that he wanted to pay homage to the Hitchcock version. By filming in color with hip young stars, he felt that he could open up the original to a whole new audience. But if he meant to make an old movie accessible to today’s audiences, he might have actually made it different enough to be independently interesting. Instead, the new Psycho is a zombie of a movie, alive for no reason except that it could be done.

In case you’re not familiar with the original, here’s the plot in a nutshell. A secretary named Marion Crane, (Janet Leigh in the 1960 version) wants to marry her boyfriend but can’t because of money problems. When she suddenly gets access to a large sum of cash at work, Marion decides to steal it and run away. Unfortunately, before she makes it to safety, she takes a room at a little place called the Bates Motel. You can take it from there.

The cast of the new Psycho does a reasonably good job. Anne Heche and Julianne Moore are fine as Marion and her sister, Lila, although both have been much better in other movies. Likewise, William H. Macy, who is good in any role, gives a strong performance as a detective. Viggo Mortensen, who played the boyfriend in A Perfect Murder, plays the boyfriend again here and is much better than the original, stiff actor. Of course, the central role in the movie is that of Norman Bates; nobody could ever come close to Anthony Perkins’ original performance. In the Van Sant version, Vince Vaughn doesn’t really make the role his own, but at least he’s sufficiently creepy so that he doesn’t embarrass himself.

While the remake mostly copies the original verbatim, it’s the little differences that really stood out. Van Sant has modernized some elements by using computer technology in a few appropriate places, and of course there’s more explicit sex and violence. There are a few odd artistic touches scattered throughout the movie (especially silly during scenes of murder) but never anything sizable. Thankfully the original music by Bernard Herrmann was used. Only a few snippets were added to the score by wacky composer Danny Elfman.

Overall, the new Psycho feels like the greatest fan tribute ever made. Gus Van Sant loved the original so much that he made it again, including a few new bits but remaining painfully faithful. Unless there’s some clever postmodern joke going on, I’d say that Van Sant was being very self-indulgent, restricting himself and his actors too much to produce any worthwhile artistic statement. Will moviegoers who have been raised on Halloween and Scream enjoy it? Probably, but for God’s sake, why not just rent the Hitchcock original?

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *