Fifteen years ago, on Dec. 4, 1998, an unusual movie was released—and roundly rejected: director Gus Van Sant's off-puttingly faithful remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Fresh off the critical and commercial success of Good Will Hunting, Van Sant could've tried for another feel-good hit or a high-profile for-hire gig. Instead, he cashed in all his mainstream chips not only to put his hands all over an untouchable classic, but also to do it in the strangest way: He used the original script with only minor modifications, he rerecorded the same score and, in many scenes, even mimicked Hitchcock's compositions and camera moves, causing his Psycho to be labeled a "shot-for-shot remake," though that's an exaggeration.
Psycho '98 opened to poor reviews, though not as harsh as those of Van Sant's five-years-earlier Tom Robbins adaptation, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. While that fiasco has been largely forgotten, the Psycho remake's infamy continues to grow. I know from conversations with friends and movie fans on the Internet that the topic brings forth a violent bitterness normally reserved for discussion of Star Wars prequels. As recently as this year, Entertainment Weekly readers named it the No. 1 worst movie remake.
But they're wrong. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Van Sant's Psycho works, but it absolutely is misunderstood. People look at it as a normal commercial movie with normal commercial motives. This is not Michael Bay's production company, Platinum Dunes, buying up Friday the 13th and The Amityville Horror as brand names to repackage for today's youth. This is an independent, outsider director, based in Portland, finding unexpected Hollywood success and using that window of opportunity to perform an experiment that 1) nobody else would be likely to do and 2) could only really be done with studio resources.
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WHAT IT ISN'T
In the 15 years before Van Sant's Psycho, I count around eight remakes of beloved horror movies, including David Cronenberg's The Fly, Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead and Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers. But in the 15 years since, they've practically become a genre to themselves, with upward of 35 remakes of horror classics (depending on how you define "classics"), including new versions of Black Christmas, Carrie, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, The Evil Dead, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to name a few. Some of these are fun; most are stylish but dull, seemingly made by people with no clue what made their predecessors so powerful. All of them try to "reimagine" their stories to appeal to a new generation, making the monsters bigger or faster, giving the killers backstories of childhood heartbreak, putting cell phones in the victims' hands, sometimes adding contemporary music or removing thoughtful subtext.
Van Sant spends less time reinventing than re-creating, and he recruited an all-star team to do it. Original screenwriter Joseph Stefano was hired for the "rewrite" (things such as changing the stolen $40,000 to $400,000 and the $10 hotel bill to $36.50). Pablo Ferro, famed title designer going back to Dr. Strangelove, "adapted" Saul Bass's original credits sequence, changing the names and tinting the bars green. Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek re-orchestrated Bernard Herrmann's unforgettable score. Avant-garde composer Wayne Horvitz provided "additional sound design" and an end-credits duet with guitarist Bill Frisell that riffs on Herrmann's themes. American Werewolf In London makeup genius Rick Baker is one of three names credited with designing the new Mother dummy. Even the kitchen knife, according to the credits, has a pedigree: It was provided by Hard Boiled director John Woo. The remaker given the most leeway must have been Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer revered for his work with director Wong Kar-wai. He had to copy some of the existing compositions, but at least he got to shoot them in garish color.
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WHAT IT IS
Going to such great lengths to duplicate a work of art that already exists may seem befuddling in the context of big-opening-weekend-equals-profit horror remakes. But Psycho '98 has more in common with an obscure projected called Flooding With Love for the Kid, in which actor Zachary Oberzan adapts the entire novel First Blood by David Morrell in his apartment with his camcorder and only himself to play every part, from John Rambo to the pack of bloodhounds that track him. Or maybe it's more similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, the backyard Spielberg remake by 12-year-olds. Or YouTube clips where enthusiastic fans remake their favorite movies with Legos or video game characters.
Of course, these homegrown projects have an underdog quality and amateurish charm that a $60 million Universal Studios production can't. Otherwise, though, they work in similar ways. They aren't trying to best or replace the source material or make it palatable to young audiences. They instead work in relation to the original. Without having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you couldn't appreciate the ingenuity of those kids replacing a Nazi-sympathizing monkey with somebody's wiener dog. And without a familiarity with the real Psycho, there's no point in seeing the counterfeit. These are companion pieces, part cover song, part new production of a play, part stunt, part tribute.
It's hard to enjoy most remakes unless you can put the original out of your head to avoid comparisons. Here, comparisons are the whole point. If those kids had been obsessed with Clint Eastwood's Firefox instead of Raiders, would you really be able to sit through the whole thing? Similarly, Van Sant had to choose a film as well known as Psycho to give us the surreal experience of watching a film we've already seen, but different.
Hitchcock built Psycho on surprises (spoiler: Marion Crane dies, and Norman Bates did it), but the remake knows you know what's going on. Think of the scene in which Marion (originally Janet Leigh, now Anne Heche) goes into her motel room, and Norman (formerly Anthony Perkins, now Vince Vaughn) spies on her through a peephole. In one of Van Sant's most notorious modifications, we can hear Norman whacking it below camera while he spies on her. That may seem to violate the rules of suspense that Hitchcock followed—doesn't that seem like tipping the cards too much if Van Sant doesn't want us to know that Norman is a creep?
No, because of course we know who Norman Bates is. The movie is designed to not let you forget about Hitchcock. (He even cameos, chewing out Van Sant outside the window of the office in which Marion works.) And don't worry; the remake didn't catch on in the popular consciousness. A decade and a half later, I think we can safely put away the fear of talking to some young person about Psycho and realizing they're picturing Vince Vaughn.
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WHY IT DOESN'T QUITE WORK
Maybe that's because Vaughn wasn't up to the task. It's an odd casting, but not as out-of-left-field at the time as it may seem now. Like Julianne Moore, who plays Lila Crane, Vaughn had done some TV shows, some acclaimed indies and a Jurassic Park sequel. There was little sign he would become the king of the pre-Hangover bro comedy with Old School and Wedding Crashers. I like his moronic smile as he watches Marion and her car sink into the swamp. Sometimes I like his nervous, nerdy giggle, but other times it seems forced, just like his heavy reliance on Perkins's gimmick of nibbling on little pieces of candy during conversations. He's taking a shot at it, but he's not hitting the target.
Maybe it all comes down to that performance; a more distinctive and interesting Norman might have warmed more people to the idea of the remake.
Heche fares better as Marion, always looking for ways to play the same material differently. Instead of staring nervously at the pile of money on her bed, she smiles at it mischievously, thinks about it, stares at it, hesitates, bugs her eyes out in surprise at herself once she's tossed it into her purse. Later, she's playful as she searches for a place to hide it in her motel room. She looks excited instead of pained.
When Norman tells her about his taxidermy hobby, she laughs a little at its weirdness. When he tells her "a boy's best friend is his mother," she winces and practically rolls her eyes. Her reactions acknowledge his social awkwardness but make clear that she doesn't understand its significance. On the other hand, all this makes it less believable that Marion's conversation with Norman would inspire her to go back home and accept responsibility for her crime. Just changing a little piece of a movie can knock another piece out of place.
My favorite recasting is pre-Lord of the Rings Viggo Mortensen, replacing John Gavin as Marion's boyfriend, Sam Loomis. He seems like a good guy, content in his low-wage life at the hardware store but standup enough to take action when his girlfriend is in trouble. Mortensen is also manly enough to intimidate Norman, whom he suspects stole Marion's money, essential given Vaughn's larger stature (and the impossibility of matching Perkins' nervous chewing and tapping in that scene).
Other fine casting includes Philip Baker Hall as the sheriff and Robert Forster as the psychiatrist, really selling the explanatory monologue at the end with a more naturalistic delivery than Simon Oakland in the original. Maybe the difficulty of recasting is celebrity, not talent. Seeing solid character actors of today replace their counterparts from yesterday feels more natural than seeing stars filling in for stars.
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WHY IT'S STILL WORTH YOUR TIME
Once you have your new cast playing the same characters, saying mostly the same lines, with the same music playing, sometimes with the same camera angles and edits, you still don't necessarily have the same movie. Van Sant's experiment raises some fascinating questions: Can the magic of great cinema survive a piece-by-piece rebuild? I guess not. Is the undeniable strength of the individual elements (the story, the storytelling, the characters, the score) enough to survive a reshuffling? Not really. Can a director be disciplined enough to re-create every single shot of somebody else's movie? In Van Sant's case, the answer is no. Even in the iconic shower scene, he follows the Hitchcock template to a point, then can't resist throwing in cutaways to storm clouds and a close-up of Marion's pupil dilating, putting an extra spin on the pull out from her eye, taking out a cut to the shower head so we move from the dead body to the money to the window in one continuous shot.
Most conspicuously missing is the shot of the shower curtain rings popping off one by one, replaced with an overhead view of Marion falling to the floor as the curtain rips. But this is Van Sant's smartest change to the scene, as Marion lands with her ass up, spread in an ugly, vulnerable position that, like a toilet in 1960, is not an image we're used to seeing in movies. (A smear of blood on the wall and two bleeding wounds on her back also bring the scene up to modern violence standards.)
One of the original's other most iconic scenes, Arbogast's stabbing and tumbling down the stairs, gets similar treatment. Here, the camera movement is imitated and visible face-slashing is added, as are inexplicable flashes of a naked blindfolded woman and a cow in a road on a rainy day. I don't know what that's about.
I like some of these flourishes (and love that the end credits roll over a new scene of the authorities dredging the swamp), but each step away from Hitchcock's template is a step away from the bold idea behind the remake. If Van Sant was going to go this far in duplicating the original, it's a shame he didn't try to go all the way.
Grace Wong of CNN wrote, "This film breaks a fundamental rule of do-overs: If you don't have anything to add, don't do it at all." But if you believe in the auteur theory, you know it's impossible to not add something. That's another big question: How much of a director's style and voice can come through within the limitations of this type of remake?
Quite a bit, it turns out. Much of that credit belongs to costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, who'd been working with Van Sant since Drugstore Cowboy in 1989. She gives the leads a kitschy, thrift-store sort of style. Marion's pattern dresses, her big earrings and purse, her bumbershoot—all this suggests a kind of a quirky space cadet, but when you see Arbogast (William H. Macey) still wearing a fedora and Sam's Cowboy Curtis-esque version of redneck style, you realize these are just the types of clothes people wear in this world. Even Norman at one point sports a flashy collared shirt that seems a little too going-out-dancing for a sheltered mama's boy in a dingy old motel (though you could say the same about the kaleidoscopic shower curtain).
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Van Sant says on the DVD commentary track that he later found out Pasztor thought they were doing a period piece rather than a movie set in '98. But the retro clothes fit the theme of people hanging on to and fetishizing pieces of the past. Norman, of course, has his taxidermy animals, a mummified mother and his preserved boyhood bedroom. Van Sant adds military memorabilia and a vintage porno mag to the room and replaces a Beethoven LP with a 45 of "The World Needs a Melody" by George Jones and Tammy Wynette. In another scene, Slim Whitman's 1952 cover of "Indian Love Call" drifts eerily from the house. Records were a dead medium in 1998, long since replaced by CDs and not yet revived as the specialty market we have today. Yet Stefano and Van Sant change Lila's original workplace, Music Makers Music Store, to Hardcore Vinyl Record Store. As Marion says about taxidermy, "That is a strange hobby."
Interestingly, while Stefano was brought in to adjust the screenplay for inflation, the update has already aged enough to be a bit of a time capsule. Lila is often wearing headphones, her line "All right, let me get my coat" changed to "Let me get my Walkman." The phone Arbogast uses is upgraded from rotary to push button, but it's still a pay phone, and when he doesn't return when promised, Sam and Lila have no way of contacting him. Van Sant just missed the "this story wouldn't happen in a world with cell phones" dilemma of modern horror remaking.
But this isn't a modern horror remake. The conception and value of Van Sant's movie is as an art project. If you're looking to be scared by Psycho, or if you want to just sit back and be swept up in it, you're probably out of luck. It's more of a "What if?" than a traditional movie. "What if somebody tried to restage an old movie the way you would a play?" Actually, somebody did that. It was really weird. And what's wrong with that?
I'm glad Van Sant's Psycho isn't a horror favorite of kids who grew up in the '90s. It shouldn't be. But I'm also glad it exists for me to pull out and marvel at every once in a while. Experiments don't always have to work to be worth doing.