Monday, January 28, 2013

The Playground Gets Ponderous: The Psycho Remake

(Editor’s Note: This is the my last Psycho related piece, I promise.)

This Is a Completely Needless Post.  
I decided the last stop on my detour into the twisted world of Norman Bates is Gus Van Sant’s much maligned 1998 remake of Psycho.  

I can hear the collective hold on a minute.  Let me define my somewhat confused stance on this film (if you can call it that).  No, I do not hate it.  That’s not to say I particularly like it.  The truth is that I don’t particularly mind it.  Here’s what I see: an audacious, failed, but yet strangely compelling experiment.  I even have one up on you: counting my original viewing (on VHS), I’ve seen this baby twice.  

I still can’t invoke my ire for it.  I’ll get to the reasons why that is. 

First, though, let’s have a wrestle with this 4000 pound gorilla in the living room, shall we?

Of Course It’s a Horrible Idea (or a Few Words about a Filmmaker’s Motivations)

I’m old...let’s get that out of the way first.  I remember exactly where I was when the 1998 Psycho was unleashed upon the world.  This would made me a sophomore in college.  I remember the backlash all too well.   

The most frequently shouted cry was: “Why?  Why would Gus Van Sant completely massacre Psycho?”   The reviews were devastating, the publicity almost non-existent, and the whole shebang was over quickly.  This was never going to be anything other than a footnote in the history of film.  

I’ve had almost fifteen years to ponder on that question of “Why?”  There is just one simple answer to that.  Gus Van Sant made this movie because he could.  He was well into a career as a well respected independent filmmaker.  Then he had an unexpected hit with Good Will Hunting (it’s easy to forget how popular the Matt Damon opus was at the time).  That made him into a hot commodity, and he was handed the keys to the Hollywood castle.  

He willingly chose to remake Psycho while he could still get a green light.  You know what the frightening part of all of this is?  I completely understand the temptation to do this.  Why?

I could see myself doing the same exact thing.  This is the chance to play in the Master’s (meaning Hitchcock) sandbox.  Why is the shower scene so chillingly effective?  The best way to find it would be to recreate it shot for aching shot.  What exactly makes the State Trooper staring through Marion’s window “pop”?  You can find that out by working with the original composition.  

I believe that Gus Van Sant pulled an elaborate scam when he got this project off the ground.  He got a major studio to pay for the ultimate college film appreciation class.  
From my limited experience, filmmaking is always a scam.  The only reason I ever got stuff made was because I begged, borrowed, and stole.  (The “stole” part is a bit of an exaggeration, but I digress.)  

Here’s The Problem

As I mentioned before, Gus Van Sant is on treacherous ground.  The 1998 Psycho was sold as a “shot for shot” remake.  He was begging for people to utter the phrase: “It’s not as (good, original, entrancing...pick one) as the original.”    

Here’s my question.  

Would this credibly be called a “remake?”  

I would say firmly “no.”  This is not a “remake” as much as it is a “re-creation.”  

How do I argue that?  
    • The second you recast the principal and supporting actors it becomes a different movie.  The original Janet Leigh performance has a fair amount of emotional gravitas.  She brings you over to Marion’s side and wins your empathy.  Ann Heche’s Marion is a near masterpiece of camp.  She mugs, hyperventilates, and screams through the movie’s first forty-five minutes.  Heche is directly imitating the “scream queens” in later slasher flicks that were the bastard step children of Psycho.  I would even draw a link to Shelley DuVal’s bizarrely unhinged, over acted performance in The Shining.  Vince Vaughn has a completely different take on Norman as well.  This is a comic performance, brought to you by the master of “motor boating” and “ear muffs.”  Vaughn recreates Norman as a self aware, naughty little kid (just watch his smile as the car goes into the famous swamp).  
    • There are subtle differences that no one noticed at the time.  The most shocking one is that Norman masturbates (well, dry humps the wall at least) during the moment when he looks through the peephole.  What else?  Sam (played by Viggo Mortesen) is obviously attracted to Lila (played by Julianne Moore) and is hilariously on the make.  Julianne Moore makes the odd character choice of wearing a small set of head phones which blast something which resembles the musical output of Tool.  This gives Lila an angry, mocking “punk rock” feel that is much different from Vera Miles.  
    • Remember the scene in which Lila and Sam visit the sheriff at his home?  Prepare to gasp: I prefer the version of that scene in Van Sant’s film.  That has everything to do with the performance of Philip Baker Hall.  He creates a fully fledged character, and pronounces “Arbogast” correctly.  (No “ .”)  John McIntire (the original sheriff) always had a certain hamminess that I don’t enjoy.  

What is the experience of watching this film really like? 

This Is Community Theater

I was searching for the perfect analogy for what the experience of this film is akin to.   

Now I want to preface this statement: I participated in several community theater shows.  I’ve been on the inside, and this is invoking my own experience.  

That said, this is such a ringer for a community theater production of a revered classic.  That, in a strange way, makes the 1998 remake oddly endearing for me.  These people still made a film; suffering through long days and nights in earnest while trying to pay homage to a “classic.”

I’m Still Not Saying that I Like It

I just find it a strangely compelling footnote...that’s all.


  1. Dusty,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments of Van Sant's Psycho. I also always felt this was much more "performance art" than true remake. Part is VS being able to pick whichever film in Universal's catalog to remake and he picks THAT one, the worst obvious choice but a delicious decision nevertheless - part is also stripping all obvious updating of script and camera angles to make the more subtle ones (Heche's performance, Vaughn vs. Perkins, a small handful of added shots) to make a larger point about how a films create meaning as a piece of constructed art in its own context.

    Cheers, Roger

  2. Roger, I really appreciate the great comment. And needless to say, I agree. "Performance art" nails it...this is all about post modernism. Van Sant, in the recent Story of Film documentary admits as much. He says he learned that "things just can't be copied."

  3. Well done, Dusty. An enjoyable well informed review.

  4. Really interesting - I've only seen this film once on TV and I found it bafflingly redundant, but I didn't consider it in the same way you discuss it here. Made me think, and I like where you're coming from with this.

    I wonder if a similar train of thought can be applied to Haneke's Funny Games remake - although it was the same director, he may have been attempting to see if lightning can strike twice or how language affects the filming process.

  5. Amy, thanks for dropping by. I hope it sounds well informed and scholarly.

    Liam, thanks for the comment. I don't know how much I recommend sitting through it again. It's kind of a neat intellectual exercise. I hadn't really thought about the Funny Games be honest, I haven't made time to watch it. Though it raises an interesting question: What do we get out of strict remakes? I don't know...

  6. I've always thought of this one as a pop art experiment. It IS interesting to discuss, and I think it was Roger Ebert who pointed out the movie has merit simply for demonstrating that you can't 'recreate' a classic.

  7. Well said, Emily. Gus Van Sant is (above all else) an experimental filmmaker. The more time I spend with his movies...the more I like him. He has absolutely no problem falling on his own sword as long as he gets to do exactly what he wants. This is another example of him showing some remarkable intelligence. He know it was a questionable idea going in, but still charged forth.

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