Reviewer’s note: I doubt there is any way I can talk in the amount of detail I want to concerning the two versions of Psycho without giving away lots of things, but even considering the fame of the original film, I’ll try to step lightly…
Almost 40 years ago, the noted and stylish director Alfred Hitchcock made a horror-thriller very quickly and cheaply — and lightning struck. Psycho gave the world a big shock, but that shock gave way to a large stock of horror film clichés.
We’ve had four decades of people remembering and imitating parts of Psycho: many many slasher films, some bad sequels (even a played-more-for-laughs TV movie in the late ’80s called Bates Motel), and the re-use of composer Bernard Herrmann’s slashing strings from the film’s shower murder. Most of these re-uses have been cheap and thoughtless, as happens with most clichés.
But Gus Van Sant, the thoughtful director of Good Will Hunting, set out this year to recreate the entire movie — in part, so he can remind people of the genuine article. He not only used the screenplay written in 1960 by Joseph Stefano, but studied Hitchcock’s camera angles and story additions (like hearing Marion Crane’s thoughts, which weren’t in the original script). It’s the most extensive such recreation ever done on film, similar to re-staging a play.
But plays have existed for thousands of years (some of the ancient Greek ones are still produced), while films came about in the 1890s and have evolved very fast ever since. Films in the 1990s are so different now from films in the 1960s that this “replica” (as Van Sant termed it) struggles between two different types of filmmaking from two different eras. The result, too often, just feels awkward.
In the story, a young woman named Marion Crane (Janet Leigh in 1960/Anne Heche in 1998) impulsively steals a huge cash payment from her employer so she and her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin/Viggo Mortensen) can fund their life together. Realizing she’s gotten in over her head, Marion flees, drives into a rainstorm and makes one last mistake: staying the night at the Bates Motel, run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins/Vince Vaughn) and his invalid “mother.” Death happens at the hands of a mysterious woman with wild gray hair.
Knowing only that Marion has disappeared, her older sister Lila Crane (Vera Miles/Julianne Moore) gets Sam to help with the search. A private eye named Arbogast (Martin Balsam/William H. Macy) also looks, but falls victim to the same killer as Marion. Lila and Sam learn the truth behind the murders and the murderer, in one of the most famous reveal shots ever, and live to tell about it.
There’s more to like in this “replica” than you might expect — Gus Van Sant’s work always has an offbeat appeal. His is a more democratic version of the story. The original’s first scene with Marion and Sam has been analyzed for how he towers indifferently over her, and how they don’t exactly look like they’ve enjoyed themselves. In 1998, they’re both in bed and they both look content. (And in the sum total of the film, you see as much of Mortensen naked as you do Heche.)
Also, there’s a theory that Gavin was cast as Sam due to a slight physical resemblance to Anthony Perkins, and viewed in that context Hitchcock might have intended something threatening in Sam — but Mortensen plays the character with an almost “ah shucks” quality.
For my money, the person who comes off best in comparison with the original is the promising Anne Heche as Marion. While Janet Leigh played the part as nervous and guilt-ridden, Heche adds a curious slyness that comes and goes along with the guilt and nervousness. (Heche told Entertainment Weekly that she emphasized what she saw as the “flightiness” of the character.)
Overall, attitudes that motivated the original film have changed, too. Notice how over-assured, how certain, many of the male characters were in the original. The homebuyer whose money Marion steals acts like he’s figured everything out and that the summation of his understanding is buying his daughter that home. Arbogast the private eye acts like he’s already figured out the plot before the first scene (“Let’s all talk about Marion, shall we?”). The psychiatrist who ties up the story at the end explains Norman Bates in a way that he seems to think is almost elegant.
This is different in 1998. Even when doing almost exactly the same things and speaking almost exactly the same lines, the men are no longer so assured. The homebuyer almost seems to be saying, “Oh, well” when he flirts with Marion and tells her he’s “buying off unhappiness” for his daughter. The psychiatrist (Robert Forster) explains Norman Bates in the same five minutes the 1960 psychiatrist took in the original, but Forster sounds like he wishes he had never learned the secret to Norman Bates and “Mother.”
The only male character who really keeps that swagger is William H. Macy as Arbogast. And now Arbogast doesn’t seem to be in the same film as every other character.
Vince Vaughn replaces the stillness of Anthony Perkins with several types of nervous twitches and titters, and they make sense as a portrayal…but I couldn’t get Perkins out of my head as I watched. Vaughn’s best scene is his last — the narration we hear from “Mother” has an undercurrent of his own voice, an intriguing way to show the struggle going on in Norman’s mind.
At times Marion’s older sister Lila Crane — reconceived by Julianne Moore as a “vinyl-head” with a Walkman — succeeds as a character through sheer force of presence. At other times she seems like a prop-and-wardrobe choice looking for a role.
This version almost seems to magnify the plot holes in the original film, without filling in much more in the way of motivation (aside from what Heche does). Would the cop keep following her in such an obvious way? someone might ask. And people really don’t speak like they do in the script anymore — if they ever did. (“I declare”?)
Too often, this Psycho just doesn’t seem to flow with a rhythm that makes sense. The steady and almost dream-like pace of the original becomes — in this remake of almost exactly the same length — a strange ebb-and-flow, like a just slightly warped tape that speeds up and slows down at random.
This is most noticeable when Norman invites Marion into the parlor — the one full of stuffed birds — for an increasingly uncomfortable dinner. This time, the discomfort seems to be unconscious; it seems to be coming from the actors, not from the characters. This and other scenes feel both rushed and stretched-out, and the actors seem to stumble over some of the more stylized dialogue (“They cluck their fat tongues and suggest oh so delicately,” Norman says to Marion in the parlor). I heard a fair amount of restless movement in the theater.
But technically, as a piece of cinema, the remake is impeccable. The best example is the opening shot: a helicopter-mounted camera focuses on an old hotel, and pulls in farther and farther in a single unbroken camera move until we are actually in the room with Heche and Mortensen. It feels like what Hitchcock would have done, had he had the technology to pull it off. It’s a great opening, establishing both the slower pace of a 1960 story and the capability of 1998 technology.
Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek created a stereo re-recording of Bernard Herrmann’s original music that’s faithful literally note for note. Herrmann’s Psycho score is one of the most successfully conceived film scores ever — an all-string orchestra doing things like the slashing that had never been heard before in film scoring — and Elfman and Bartek (both huge Herrmann fans, as am I) knew that simply reproducing it faithfully would be effective. There’s so much more to the music than the slashing “murder strings,” such as a driving and desperate melody that represents Marion’s plight and three simple notes that become a theme for Norman’s psychosis.
I won’t give away Van Sant’s final image, which he added because something was needed for the end credits (which the original didn’t have), but it extends the last shot of Hitchcock’s version in probably the only way that makes sense. It’s a variation on how Van Sant has ended other films of his.
By the way: in the new version of the shower murder scene, you still don’t see the knife enter flesh. And it’s still an R-rated moment.