Psycho (1998)

People say remakes and sequels are never as good as the originals. Some people even elevate that opinion to the level of a rule. Not me. I find many sequels and remakes have merit, if not as good as the originals, at least worthy and good films--The Godfather, Parts II and III, Rocky II, Batman Returns, The Two Jakes, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Scorsese's The Color of Money and Cape Fear, Scream 2, Desperado, and a lot of Shakespeare on film, notably the Loncraine-McKellen Richard III and Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.

Gus Van Sant's Psycho works as a film, and is interesting to watch as a rare attempt at a shot-by-shot remake as well, but it doesn't live up to the original by any stretch, nor does it live up to the potential of the material.

According to promotional materials, "Van Sant was intrigued by the notion of taking an intact, undeniable classic and seeing what would happen if it were made again--with a nearly identical shooting script--but with contemporary filmmaking techniques." I didn't find much evidence of this approach. Van Sant doesn't do anything new, at least nothing Hitchcock couldn't have done.

I would like to diagnose the problem as two common disorders: heavy-handed symbolism and poor casting.

First, the symbolism. You can't exactly say that Hitchcock was riding under the surface with his mirrors, bird imagery, desolate desert landscapes, Bernard Herrmann's jangling score, and the hilarious fly at the end, but Van Sant apparently thinks he didn't pound them hard enough in the original.

So we get huger mirror shots, Anne Heche as a colorful waif complete with bird-like head movements, and an end shot which, oddly, echoes the pictures on the wall in the real estate office in the original rather than the ones in the remake, music which seems laughable in the high-gloss color world of 1998, and an insert shot of a fly on Marion Crane's sandwich at the beginning to parallel (for some reason--I don't know what) the fly at the end of the original.

In pounding away at this symbolism, Van Sant surely shows he knows Psycho, but he also misses the dramatic point. It's like a long, thorough English-class essay. It's mostly right, but turn it in for English class. In highlighting the resonances, Van Sant ruins the rhythm--I don't want to see a fly till the end. What does it add? A harbinger of death? If so, it is misplaced, too early.

In a way, by linking the two halves of the film in symbolic ways, Van Sant destroys their dichotomy and their interlocking nature. Two distinct yet complementary character arcs bring Crane and Bates together for one violent, frenzied episode. To play up their linkage to common symbols upsets a certain necessary balance.

This balance is also upset by the poor casting. Vince Vaughn would have been fine with, say, Jamie Lee Curtis or Lolita Davidovich as Marion Crane. Anne Heche would have been fine (with a shot of adrenaline and a wardrobe change) with, say, Henry Thomas (Bates in Psycho IV) or "ER"'s Noah Wyle as Norman Bates. (Roger Ebert suggested Jeremy Davies, who looks too much like an evil elf for me. David Elliott of the San Diego Union-Tribune proposed Steve Buscemi, which is damned interesting.) Together, Vaughn and Heche have no chemistry, which is odd, because they had plenty in Return to Paradise. I suppose I should say they don't have Bates-Crane chemistry, that play of sexual danger versus sexual fear, sexual aggression versus a warped, violence-tinged sense of sexuality.

In fact, Julianne Moore is really the only actor in the film who brings anything like the necessary sensibility for a modern take on the Psycho myth. Her Lila Crane is a hard-charging powerhouse. William H. Macy as Arbogast and Viggo Mortensen as Sam Loomis are poor substitutes and seem to have had little direction. Philip Baker Hall and Robert Forster make appealing cameos.

There's more nudity and sexuality on screen than in the original; the less said about this, the better.

In the end, it's not hard to figure out why Van Sant wanted to remake Psycho: it's hard to figure out why he didn't try very hard.


Links for Psycho

Remade from Psycho (1960)

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review

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