Defending Gus Van Sant's Psycho

Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho left more than a few critics stone-faced -- unfairly, in my opinion.

It's pretty much an even bet that, when I introduce myself to someone as an Alfred Hitchcock Geek, the first thing he or she will say is, “What do you think of Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho? My answer is always the same: I love it. I love the fact that he tried to recreate a great film, shot for shot, and I think he broke new ground in how we experience classic films. His 1998 recreation has been unfairly chastised, and I feel the need to defend it when few others will.

Classic movies are often regarded as sacred cows, off limits to the supposedly dexterous, yet maladroit mitts of (insert scornful tone) film school graduates – and it isn't limited to Hitchcock. (I'm reminded of how similar contempt was once heaped upon Julliard or Berklee-bred jazz musicians who performed songs written by older musicians who'd paid their dues the old-fashioned way.)

Classic films will be enjoyed long after you and I are gone, and from that perspective, Hitchcock's movies – along with those of William Wyler, Orson Welles, etc. – are still very young. Perhaps they (or their late makers) are too freshly ensconced in the can to be exhumed and reanimated. But, really? Is there a statute of limitations on remaking films, that they can't be remade until a certain, respectful time period has elapsed? Maybe there is. It's unseemly to speak ill of the freshly deceased; but at a certain point their memory becomes fair game and we can relax the rules of respect for the dead. I don't know where that line is drawn, but while the recent remake of Hitch's early classics The Lodger (1926) and Easy Virtue (1928) irked only the staunchest Hitchcock geeks, even the most casual moviegoers have deemed Psycho to be forbidden territory – and the controversy surrounding the potential remake of The Birds has ruffled more feathers than those possessed by the film's principle actors.

Van Sant's remake pissed a lot of people off. And I don't think that can only be chalked up to its iconic status. I think it had something to do with the fact that his version was too faithful, too uncomfortably close to the original, in the way that a prosthetic hand ought not imitate too closely the original it's replacing. People see it and don't know what to think, so they reject it.

I say that Van Sant's shot-for-shot remake was a real tribute, the way a remake ought to be done. As the independent director once told an audience at BFI Southbank, “I was sort of angry at Hollywood trying to remake movies, because it seemed like they would rob the screenplay and … actually change the script. So I said, 'Why don't you just shoot it exactly the way it is, because it's a great movie?'” His intent was to honor the film, not desecrate it by changing the movie with arbitrary updates. He was genuinely surprised when it failed to be the blockbuster hit he'd hoped it would be. (In a note of poetic symmetry, Hitch was flummoxed when Psycho turned out to be such a worldwide phenomenon.)

When a chamber ensemble redoes Mozart, it's usually expected to faithfully recreate the original note for note. From this perspective, Van Sant's faithful-to-the-original approach would place him squarely in a conservatory camp, preserving the original “score.”

That said, there's plenty in the film to make you scratch your head. The casting was all wrong. Macho, fast-talking Vince Vaughan is about as far away from the birdlike adolescent Norman Bates as you can imagine, and Norman's lines – halting and stuttered in the original – come off flat in Vaughan's verbal waterfalls. Likewise, girlish Ann Heche, with her pixie hairdo, is no voluptuous, maternal Marion Crane. (Personally, I think the two actors should have switched roles, performing in drag. Imagine this: Heche playing Norman, with a wink to the Peter Pan tradition.) Van Sant himself admits that there are problems with the movie and has contemplated remaking it again. Now that's sure to get the old school critics talking!

Still, he corrected a few matters with regard to Hitch's original, while adding touches that enhance it. Regarding the murder in the shower, sharp observers have noted that Marion's pupils contracted as her life went out of her. In reality, her pupils would have dilated – a detail that Van Sant fixed with a cutaway shot (though they do return to their contracted state, a consequence of the studio lighting.) Hitchcock also envisioned the scene as a veritable slashing at the film and the screen itself – Van Sant enhances that impression, interjecting a few frames of the gleaming-white knife as it consumes half the frame; the effect is that the film appears to have torn inside the projector.

Screenwriter Joseph Stefano had written into the screenplay that there would be an overhead shot of Marion, her buttocks and legs exposed, her beautiful body laid waste. Hitch cut that shot on the grounds that censors would disapprove, a decision that Stefano always resented; Van Sant returned Stefano's shot to the sequence.

Then there's the final scene. In the original, we see a close-up of the rear of Marion's car as it is being pulled out of the swamp. In the remake, the camera pulls back to reveal a swarm of news crews and police investigators taking over the scene of the crime. The impression is that, though the movie has ended, the story has just begun. In a sense, that is true, for in retrospect, Psycho, the movie, took on a life unlike that of just about any other movie, period. I tip my hat to the director for not giving in to the cliché impulse by pulling back to reveal a movie set and camera crew.

The main point is, however, that it got people talking. Prior to 1998, when average moviegoers asked me about Hitchcock, it was as a subject of middlebrow Hollywood fare. Since 1998, even if people know little else about the maestro, they often know about Van Sant's version of Psycho; such knowledge invariably launches questions about the ideas behind Hitchcock's films. And that puts our conversation off to an infinitely more interesting start.


Jennythenipper said…
Anne Heche as Norman Bates. I love it. Yeah, I love Vince Vaughn, but he was all wrong, if what you were going for was faithfulness to the original.

What do you think of the Pyscho Sequels? I only saw the first one and it was pretty scary, but in a conventional horror movie way. I guess since Pyscho invented the convention, it's alright, then?
Joel Gunz said…
Yeah, there's no way the sequels could measure up, without Hitch at the wheel. They were fun exercises, and Anthony Perkins' involvement made the whole enterprise legitimate. Perkins owned the role of Norman and nobody, IMHO, can play the role after him, so his part in the movies struck me as very real, even if at times the dialogue he was fed was a bit weak.
Bill Cameron said…
My issue with Van Sant's Psycho remake was that I saw no point. To the extent filmmakers feel compelled to remake movies, at the very least I'd hope they were attempting to bring something new to the table. A faithful, shot-by-shot remake of Psycho—as close to perfect a film as you're likely to find—might be an interesting 3rd year film school project, but otherwise, why bother?

Van Sant already knew how to make movies, and damn fine ones. So what was he doing, exactly? Performing an experiment for his own edification? Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it was an expensive conceit. Furthermore, it dulled his luster, since in the end what did he create? A sub-standard copy—like a Xerox of the Mona Lisa—poorly cast and poorly performed and which offered virtually nothing fresh to the audience. As far as it goes, the only actual risk he took (aside from the financial one, perhaps) was in choosing to cast two actors who weren't up to the roles. Egg on his face!

All that said, this was never something I got too lathered about. I've never been one to worship sacred cows. To the extent I ever objected to Van Sant's Psycho, it was only to wonder what else he might have done with the time he spent making this indifferent and unnecessary film.
Joel Gunz said…
Hi Bill - Thanks for your thoughts. You know, I'm glad to see another film lover who doesn't go in for worshiping "sacred cows"!

My AHG Facebook poll tomorrow is going to be: What's so wrong about remaking classic movies? I hope you'll weigh in!
Bill Cameron said…
I will keep my eye out!
Robert J said…
Remaking classic films will always be problematic because of the obvious comparisons. Remakes of lesser known films (or foreign films) seem to work better (I am thinking of 'The Ring' and 'The Departed').

I will give Van Sant credit for doing a shot-by-shot remake instead of a 're-imagining' cinematic pastiche.

Did Van Sant do the directors cameo as well?
Sarah Mann said…
I'm so glad someone else liked the Psycho remake! I was always afraid to admit it though; your "sacred cow" comparison was totally perfect. I also liked that the shower scene, while still staying somewhat the same, was still different. I think the stab wounds (in the remake) made it a little more realistic and enhanced the scariness for newer audiences.

I still don't like Vince Vaughn though. He's always been a litle meh for me
Joel Gunz said…
Hi Sarah - Yeah, it just goes to show how casting is so integral to the making of a movie. I can see a new book: "Cattle Call: Casting Agents and the Hollywood Dream" or some such thing.
Joel Gunz said…
Hi Robert - Yep, his cameo appeared in the same place as Hitch's in the original - As the man in talking to the man in the cowboy hat, outside the real estate office.
Joel Gunz said…
That is, in the original, Hitch WAS the man in the cowboy hat; in the remake, Van Sant is being scolded by Hitch's double. Tells you a lot about Gus's humor going into the project.
Jennythenipper said…
I'm thinking more about the casting. I mean maybe there was reason for it. If the actor were too much like Tony Perkins, there would be no surprise for the audience. The thing that so shocked people in the 60s was that Tony Perkins was the kind of actor that Vaughn was at the time he did the remake: affable, handsome, non-threatening. Perkins never did anything remotely like Psycho before. People thought of Vaughn as the guy from Swingers or those Rom coms.

And of course there's a huge risk, isn't there. If you play Norman Bates too well, you wind up locking yourself out of romantic leads, etc. forever, like Perkins. Even his past work was tainted by Psycho.

Heche isn't a girlish blonde. I think she's a flinty blonde. She is tough, lean, angular. Yeah, she's not like Janet Leigh who was more voluptuous but she's the modern equivalent of Hitch's cool blonde.

i love Gus Van Sant. I'm thinking of doing a rewatch of My Own Private idaho which I haven't seen in years. I've been on sort of a Shakespeare kick lately...
Joel Gunz said…
Hey Jenny - Interesting thoughts re casting. I think the audience wouldn't have been surprised, no matter what GVS did - unless he totally reworked the storyline. You're absolutely right about Heche. Flinty. For squirts and giggles, you should rent the movie, just to hear what she says on the commentary track. Priceless.
idawson said…
I am glad found this post on an internet search this afternoon.

I like that you took what some may consider a non-traditional stance to the general opinion that is held of the remake.

I for one, have not seen the remake to be quite honest. So I cannot comment on the film per se. My only frame of reference is Hitchcock piece.

Upon first seeing the trailer and promotion for Psycho '98, what gave me pause was the casting of Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. I just do not physically see him as a retreating, cowering individual they way I saw Anthony Perkins.

Also the B&W cinematographic aesthetic of the original just appeals to me more for some reason. Seeing it is color I felt like threw things off. That is one of the reasons I had to walk away from Psycho 2 (among others).

In general I have no problems with remakes, especially if they add elements to the story which make it stronger. The problem here is that this film is iconic on so many levels and its connection to the "Master of Suspense" makes it untouchable to many. It does appear that GVS's efforts were sincere so I cannot criticize him on that account.

All this being said, I think that when I come across the Psycho '98, I may give it a looksee.
Joel Gunz said…
Hello "Idawson" and thanks for your comment. I apologize for the delay in getting it up here. Somehow it fell through the cracks, but I'm glad to have found it and your thoughtful response to a thorny question.