My Defense of PSYCHO ‘98


NOTE: This post assumes you've listened to part 1 of Episode 4, located below.  If you haven't, give it a listen before you read any further. - H

So by now many of you know that Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake is the most poisonous pleasure on my shelf.  I mentioned in the show that I had written a defense of it, so I thought I would dig it up and share it with all of you.


Few remakes draw the ire of movie fans more so than Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s beloved horror masterpiece, Psycho. Van Sant was cool as a blow-torch coming off of his success with Good Will Hunting, which gave him the clout to tackle such a project, which seemed to be doomed in terms of public perception from the beginning. How could any director be so arrogant as to remake Psycho? Was Van Sant stroking his ego? Putting himself on the same pedestal as Hitchcock? Not quite. Van Sant said going in that cinema is so young that in the next few hundred years, we’ll probably see more films getting in on the remake game than we are even now, and he saw this nearly shot-for-shot remake as an experiment, taking on Psycho as though it were a play by using the original script Hitchcock used that was penned by Joseph Stefano, and directing the actors his way in the framework of the original shot set-ups. It’s a ballsy approach, but is it a failed experiment? Not really, it doesn’t improve upon Hitchcock’s original, but it does something I enjoy.

Despite what you may think of this movie, it’s impossible to argue with its noble intentions. These intentions are on full display in the opening shot, which unlike most of the set-ups in this movie, differs greatly from Hitchcock’s original opening. The original Psycho opened with a few pans and dissolves across a city skyline, panning and dissolving into Marion Crane and her lover lounging in a hotel room. Hitchcock originally wanted the camera to float from the sky into the hotel window, but the technology wasn’t quite there in 1960, so the idea was scrapped in favor of the previously mentioned technique. The opening to Van Sant’s version does exactly that, floating from the outside into a hotel room, where Marion and her lover are doing said lounging. There is no way to know whether or not this looks as Hitch intended, but it’s a fabulous tribute to his original ideas for the movie.

Hitchcock was famous for his lack of respect for actors, often referring to them as cattle, and as creatures who are to be “coddled and spanked.” His approach to acting suited his style, for Hitch, the story always came first, and the actors were in service to that, never encouraging his players to worry about intangible things pertaining to their character. Van Sant, on the other hand, often works with fussy method actors, and his approach warrants his characters to think about character aspects that may not be in the script. This, along with the use of color, is the major difference in Van Sant’s approach to Psycho. The way Anne Heche plays Marion Crane is different than Janet Leigh’s approach. Leigh plays her as a good girl who makes a big mistake, and realizes it once it’s too late. Heche plays her as somewhat sketchy, she’s a nice lady, but one who has probably made a few mistakes in her life before she makes the big one that brings it to an end at the Bates Motel. Anthony Perkins plays Norman Bates as a seemingly wholesome guy who clearly has issues beneath the surface once you have one conversation with him. Vince Vaughn plays him a seemingly nice guy who sets off your gaydar and clearly has issues beneath the surface once you have one conversation with him. The bi-curious nature of Norman’s demeanor in this movie is clearly intentional, given Van Sant’s own homosexual orientation. He seems less innocent than Perkins, and while I like the good-boy surface of Perkins’ performance, it’s cool to see a different take on the character, even if it's not as effective.

So why watch Van Sant’s remake of Psycho when you have the original? Why bother making a new version of such a beloved film? Hitchcock’s Psycho is a movie I watch fairly regularly, I know it very well and it entertains me every time, from the opening right down to the admittedly simplistic pop-psychology in the conclusion. But having an alternate version doesn’t bother me, in fact it only enriches the original. While I always put on the original to the virgin viewer, I often force Psycho veterans to sit through this one, if only because they hate this movie out of principle without having seen it, which is silly. Sometimes I put it on by myself, just because seeing Psycho new again from a different angle is always a refreshing experience, which is why I wouldn’t call Van Sant’s experiment a failure, but a success in my eyes.