Last week on Halloween, my daughter and I were trying to figure out what to watch. Having run through favorites like Monster House, Coraline, and the Paranormal Activity series, we needed to find something new, not overly gory and not campy, but definitely something scary. After browsing Netflix I decided to watch a classic film I’d never seen before, Psycho. That’s right I’ve never seen Psycho.
Just moments into the movie I realized that this was not the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock classic, but rather the 1998 Gus Van Sant “remake”. I was about to turn it off when something struck me; I was in the minority of people who will have seen the Psycho “remake” before the original. I knew nothing about the film aside from the iconic shower scene, which made this the perfect opportunity to see how the “remake” matched up devoid of context.
Here’s what you need to know about the 1998 “remake”. I put the word remake in quotes because as opposed to traditional remakes this is a copy. The script by Joseph Stefano is identical to that used for Hitchcock’s with just a few semantical tweaks, i.e. the stolen dollar amount changes from $40,000 to $400,000. The score is conducted by Danny Elfman and identical to the original written by Bernard Herrmann. The sets are virtually the same, and even the shots are almost identical. In fact so much of this film is exactly the same as the original that it’s almost easier to talk about what’s different. For the most part it’s what’s different that really ruins the film.
Let me remind you that I’d never seen the original, and that everything I disliked about the film was genuine as I had nothing to compare it to.
The first major difference is color. In 1960 Psycho could have been color, at least practically, but it was instead shot in black and white. It makes the whole film darker, grittier, and effectively scary. Poorly lit areas of the set become black mysteries that could produce almost anything and your imagination runs wild as you worry about what is hidden. Van Sant instead chose color, but not just color, obnoxiously vibrant colors. This was the first thing I noticed about the movie, and I’m saying these colors were bright, it was as if the set and costume designers thought they were working on Dr. Doolittle, or My Fair Lady.
The next major difference was the actors. I think it’s safe to say that if Van Sant were to film Psycho today he would have chosen a mostly different cast. The original starred
Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Janet Leigh, and John Gavin. The cast was spectacular and never tipped their hand, and in a film with this kind of reveal, that’s important. The remake starred Vince Vaughn, Julianne Moore, Anne Heche, and Viggo Mortensen. Vaughn was crazy right off the bat and I basically knew we was the real killer immediately. Moore is fine as is Viggo, it’s Heche who literally destroys this film, she’s just that bad. From the moment she sees the money I knew exactly what was going to happen, even though she technically doesn’t make the decision to take the money until later. Likewise she was so unlikable that I wasn’t terribly upset when she’s killed.
There are some other differences, such as the time period of the film, which is updated to 1998, more nudity when Marion dies, and slight shooting differences at the end of the film with the corpse reveal, and the Doctor’s monologue. There there were more major changes, for instance Hitchcock intended the opening shot to be continuous all the way into the hotel room, but it was unachievable, Van Sant corrected this. Another notable difference is when Norman Bates spies on Marion through a hole in the wall, in the original he merely watches her undress then leaves, Van Sant has Bates masturbate to climax.
Though there are few differences they ask the big question as to why with all the similarities he bothered to change anything at all? The script was written for a different time period and I can’t express to you how weird it feels to have modern actors speaking outdated lines.
If you’ve seen the movie you know how robotic the knife stabs to Marion are, given how the scene needed to be shot in 1960 its wonky nature is forgiven. Van Sant chose to use the same wonky knife stabs. Why? Why if he chose to fix the opening shot why didn’t he fix this shot? Or what about the death of Milton Arbogast, the P.I. who comes to the Bates house to investigate Marion’s death? He’s cut at the top of the staircase and falls down the stairs and dies. Hitchcock chose to shoot this with a unique shot that worked in 1960, but could have been made more realistic in 1998, but Van Sant opted to go with Hitchcocks shot. Why?
Then there is something that’s a little more subtle, but extremely important. Every shot in Van Sant’s Psycho seems to give away the plot, with the sol exception being the dead mother reveal. It’s hard to explain this, but if you look closely you can tell that Van Sant’s foreknowledge of the Psycho plot altered every scene just enough to give away the entire story.
As it turns out the best part of Van Sant’s remake was the only element used exactly as the original, the score. Bernard Herrmann’s score sets the tone for the entire movie, it’s what lets you know that when Marion steals the money the story is actually about something more sinister. Had this single element been missing the 1998 Psycho would have been totally unwatchable.
I could not figure out why this movie was ever made. Hitchcock’s Psyco is iconic, an American movie classic, and you don’t remake icons of cinema. Assuming that this film had to be remade, it just doesn’t make sense to essentially copy the original, the film would have been endlessly better with an updated script, and original cinematography all around. It’s no surprise that this film was received very poorly, anyone in their right mind saw exactly what I saw. Gus Van Sant has since said that this was an experiment, which feels like a cop-out, because I doubt that the studio spent $20-60 million on a mere experiment.
It was perhaps Roger Ebert who said it best “demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.” I couldn’t have said it better. What Sant proved with his Psycho remake is that the true talent and creativity is ever present in every cell of the work, you may not be able to point to it or reach out and touch it, but you can feel it and you know it’s there.
Last week it was announced that Lucasfilm had been sold to Disney for a kings ransom of $4 billion. It immediately set off a fire storm of Star Wars fans worried about the future of the franchise in the hands of Mickey Mouse, understandably so. Though their first order of business was to announce episodes VII, VIII, and IX, it also brought back the rumors of possible remakes of the original trilogy. Though personally I don’t believe they’ll ever happen, we probably have to make peace with the fact that every great movie will eventually be remade.
We need only to look to Gus Van Sant’s Psycho to realize that there is more to art than what lies on the surface. More than just film, tape, canvas, or page, it sits deeper than that, it’s emotional. It’s emotion that the audience feels, and emotion that the artist exudes in every stroke of their work.