Psycho (1998, Gus Van Sant)
Yes, the year and director are correct. This isn’t Psycho; this is Psycho. The almost shot-for-shot, almost line-for-line remake, to which, on initial release, the fairly predictable reaction was: “This is sacrilege!” Back then, I naively predicted that time would be kind to such a bold studio offering. 20 years later, it’s clear I was somewhat wide of the mark. Critics still have zero time for this flick.
You can understand the anxiety at the time. What the arse was Van Sant up to? He wasn’t just doing a remake; he was taking on a hallowed cinematic text. Some say Hitchcock’s best, certainly his most infamous. A new version could never surpass (or even match) the impact of the original, so why bother? Was this an elaborate wind-up? A piss-take? Jay Bauman on the YouTube channel Red Letter Media suggests that Van Sant may have been making a statement about pointless remakes – you can’t do the same shots and script and get the same results.
I agree that this was probably Van Sant’s point, but does that make it pointless? This is a film the like of which we have never had before or since – it has a particular perverse charm. There are many homemade fan versions of classic films, but a big budget ‘fan version’ – with name actors and a highly rated director – is unique. We get to see exact recreations of scenes we know intimately, yet they feel completely different, almost like entering some alternate universe. The effect is more than a little unnerving and leads us to ask why and how great films work the way they do. Psycho-1998 enhances our appreciation of Psycho-1960.
I accept that as a stand-alone piece of entertainment this film fails. It is mostly miscast (Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates?!) and many of the lines and situations feel out of place in a late 1990s setting. Enjoyment of this version is entirely dependent on knowledge of the original. As such, it’s more a piece of modern art than a conventional Hollywood movie. If it were projected on a wall in a gallery, it would get a fairer hearing. Indeed, the closest comparison would not be another cinematic offering, but the artwork ‘24 Hour Psycho’ by Douglas Gordon (1993). This is Hitchcock’s film slowed down so that it lasts for a full day. It’s a fascinating idea, although I doubt even the artist has watched the whole thing. Van Sant’s Psycho would probably work better like this, maybe as part of an exhibition on The Master – it’s playing on a loop, you drop in for 5 minutes (“Hmmm, interesting” etc.) and you move on to the next thing.
My main issue with the Van Sant version is that it isn’t rigorous enough when it comes to reproducing the original camera set-ups and script. There are a few alternate angles and some bizarre dream-style imagery that add nothing. Van Sant should have been stricter with himself and followed through fully on the conception; the introduction of colour and the new cast are the only changes required.
On a side note: what are we to make of the original Psycho? As a piece of technical filmmaking and visual storytelling it’s outrageously good; it functions as a two-hour film school in choreographing and camera placement (what is known as ‘blocking’). But it also effectively invented that dead-end genre, the slasher film, and is key in the development of our unsavoury modern obsession with serial killers. This is a movie – an entertainment – in which the key scene (arguably the most famous scene in all the movies) is a naked woman in the shower being stabbed to death. That is what Hitchcock served up for our delectation: titillation and terror on a plate.
78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017, Alexandre O. Philippe)
‘The Moment of Psycho’ by David Thomson (2009, Basic Books)