A Second Take
Psycho



on principle, I endorse remakes. When rumors of Casablanca starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez began, I happily reached for my wallet. Despite my addiction to camp, I do not whole-heartedly recommend Psycho simply because Vince Vaughn plays Norman Bates in a really tight sweater. An enormously engaging film in its own right, Psycho resembles Far from Heaven and Down with Love in its dual vantage points of cinematic history. A reinvented phenomenon gazing bemusedly at its post-modern baggage, Psycho functions as a lively amalgam of disparate styles and cultures.

Gritty yet photogenic portrayals of the dregs of society, films like Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy proved an auspicious start to Gus Van Sant’s career. After charming the festival circuit, the director unexpectedly courted mainstream audiences with Good Will Hunting—a bland story recounting the struggles of being a genius with Matt Damon’s chiseled chin. Alienating the indie elite, Van Sant moved from the Independent Spirit Awards to the Oscars. On the wings of this commercial success and with a decent budget on his hands, the director proceeded to remake the most infamous thriller in cinematic history: Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Audiences and critics alike nobly leapt to protect Hitch’s fragile legacy. Sanctimonious whining ensued from those who feel immensely cultured enjoying a black-and-white movie with a glass of red wine (bonus points to the buffs that can name five Hitchcock films). The remake of Psycho follows the 1960 film nearly shot-by-shot, and re-uses much of the original dialogue. The critics’ job was therefore easy: Denounce Hollywood’s lack of innovation and declare Hitchcock’s rendition superior.

Rather than merely adding the flourish of splattering gore to an established masterpiece, Gus Van Sant creates a bizarre universe with one foot in 1960 and the other in 1998. The opening credits precisely replicate those from the original film, but the opening shot reveals a skyscraper and some decidedly modern camera-work. The first scene repeats dated dialogue, but Viggo Mortenson prominently displays his ass. The freakish beauty of Anne Heche replaces the simple attractiveness of Janet Leigh; a close-up of a buzzing fly feels disturbingly out-of-context. Although echoing Hitchcock’s film, Psycho interrupts our déjà vu with alarming splashes of orange and purple. In borrowing the basic elements of the original Psycho and, at the same time, adding his own brand of odd incongruity, Van Sant proceeds to fundamentally alter the dynamics of an archetypal horror story.

The chauvinistic implications of Hitchcock’s Psycho reach a crescendo in Anne Heche’s interpretation of Marion Crane. Sporting outrageously colorful outfits and an aggressively short hairstyle, Marion navigates her sexist world with a sardonic smile. The borderline sexual harassment commonplace in the workplace of the 60’s translates to 1998, where Marion’s co-workers treat her like an objectified housewife. Marion wryly acknowledges crude humor and promptly pulls out a parasol in pure anachronistic glory. Seemingly an empty vessel, Heche’s deer-in-the-headlights expression reveals nothing until, when Marion drives through the pouring rain with a client’s money, she imagines him replacing the cash with her �fine soft flesh’. Suddenly, Heche’s blank face transforms into the leering personification of Lilith. Intently ambiguous and more than a little disturbing, modern Marion is a powerful cipher—far more canny than the likable damsel stabbed to death decades ago.

Norman Bates, in turn, is far easier to relate to under the comedic influence of Vince Vaughn. Departing from Anthony Perkins’ genius performance, the actor personifies Norman with affable charm, sexual confidence, and a high-pitched giggle. To counter Vaughn’s charisma, Psycho paints Norman as far more obviously insane. Markedly different from the effeminately repressed Perkins, Vaughn, a voracious lothario, represents the modern brand of serial killer. Of course, the repression and sexual ambiguity still exists (Bates jovially but uninterestedly returns the wink of lizard-like Julianne Moore before giving the blatant once-over to Viggo Mortenson), but this incarnation of Norman Bates explicitly jacks off before killing his prey. Taking a long moment to point out the shower to Marion, Bates embodies the virtues of Psycho: darkly ironic humor and self-referential perversity.

In Hitchcock’s Psycho, the murder scenes arrive with unexpected viciousness. Audiences know what’s coming in the 1998 version, however, and Gus Van Sant wisely chooses to forego suspense. The infamous shower scene, although reproducing the original cinematography up to the moment of attack, does not challenge Hitchcock’s vision of random death, but instead focuses on the pre-determined nature of the cinematic murder. Rather than the immediate panic of Janet Leigh, Anne Heche displays a few moments of confusion before reacting to the brandished knife. In a moment of cruel realization, the camera gorgeously zooms into her scream and the much-gorier murder proceeds. Gus Van Sant works in terms of symbolism, not adrenaline; the jabbing knife accordingly remains a stainless steel throughout the kill. Christopher Doyle’s superlative cinematography graces the screen as the body slumps in an undignified nude sprawl and the camera spirals outward from a dead eye. Eerily still but for the dripping water and the challenging perspective, the shot abandons horror standards for the voyeuristic appreciation of brutality.

Remember the first Psycho, when Marion Crane inexplicably hears the voice of a cranky old woman from the creepy house on the hill? More than any other, that moment emphasized Hitchcock’s willingness to fuck with his audience and to create a universe that conspires against sanity. By transplanting familiar scenarios to a modern context, neither of which compliments the other, the 1998 Psycho maintains this veneer of manipulated reality. Rather than trying to provide a horror sensation for the 90’s, Gus Van Sant relies upon his audience’s love for Hitchcock’s original work. Although the audiences may recognize bits and pieces of the 1960 film (or maybe the entire lifted score), Psycho hilariously (and horrifyingly) subverts any given context at a moment’s notice.


By: Learned Foote
Published on: 2006-05-15
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