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Original vs Remake: Psycho

06.17.2015by: Eric Walkuski
Last week's was a rather intriguing edition of Original Vs. Remake, with both versions of THE AMITYVILLE HORROR finding support among the horror crowd. Both films are a mixed bag in my opinion, so the fact that our competition ended in a veritable tie isn't a major surprise. But we didn't ask who rocked the beard better, James Brolin or Ryan Reynolds? Maybe sometime in the future.

This week's Original Vs. Remake is, well, the very definition of a no-brainer: PSYCHO. Alfred Hitchcock's glorious, still-effective 1960 shocker Vs. Gus Van Sant's much-maligned shot-for-shot remake. You may think, "Why do we even need to vote on this?!" But over the years I've actually unearthed a small but dedicated contingent of fans of the remake. Perhaps this is one of those movies that we hate so much upon first glance that we never bother to give it another shot? Let us all disrobe together, jump into a soothing hot shower and get cleaned up for this psycho showdown.
Story
After stealing $40,000 from her employer, a secretary hits the road with a plan to meet up with her lover. Thwarted by a storm, she's forced to spend the night at an isolated motel, run by boyish Norman Bates and his mother. This turns out to be the tragic end of her story... and the beginning of Norman's.
The exact same thing, except this time the sum of the loot is $400,000 (inflation). Sadly, the immediacy, tension (sexual and otherwise), and sense of impending dread is all but gone from this version, partially because we know what's coming, but also because there's barely any attempt to develop suspense or horror.
Acting
Anthony Perkins makes Norman Bates the most likable murderer the screen has ever seen; he's unbelievable. Janet Leigh is sexy and sympathetic as the doomed Marion Crane, and Martin Balsam is excellent as the determined private eye on Marion's trail. The rest of the cast is somewhat flat, with John Gavin's performance as Marion's concerned lover particularly wooden.
Try as he might, Vince Vaughn can't muster up an ounce of Perkins' creepy charm; he's flat-out miscast here. Anne Heche is an OK Marion, but she's no Ms. Leigh. Shockingly, Julianne Moore and Viggo Mortensen are both quite bad as Marion's sister and lover, respectively. Not sure what happened there. The one who comes out looking the best? William H. Macy as PI Arbogast.
Directing
Please. Alfred Hitchcock puts on a master class of filmmaking that has rarely - if ever - been topped in the thriller genre. The first half of PSYCHO contains some of the most moody, ominous pacing and atmosphere you'll ever see. And it's STILL so strong and persuasive; especially that fateful trip to the shower and Norman's subsequent clean-up of his "mother's" crime.
To this day, we're still wondering what Gus Van Sant was thinking with this endeavor. Most shots are exactly the same, but when Van Sant does decide to veer off course, it's with stupefying results: weird inserts of random stock footage in an attempt to dive into Norman's psyche? The weirdly inappropriate sound of Norman masturbating while peeping in on Marion? Subtlety has left the building.
Hot Dames
Hitch was in his full-on blond-loving glory here. Janet Leigh rocking a black bra in 1960 was as controversial as it was titillating, and her beautiful visage hasn't lost any of its allure today. Even in her more buttoned-up scenes with Norman, Leigh's Marion is both virtuous and sensual (too bad for her that's a mix that'll buy her a knifing). Playing Marion's more conservative sister, Vera Miles is gorgeous, but as she was on Hitch's shit-list, he intentionally gave her drab, unsexy clothes.
Anne Heche is attractive, but I can't help but say it: That pixie cut does not look good on her, and she just doesn't quite have the "good girl gone bad" charisma Leigh does. Like Vera Miles before her, Julianne Moore is not done any favors with an unflattering, dressed-down wardrobe. (She also plays Lila Crane so unlikably you'll be rooting for Van Sant to change things up and write her out early.)
Score
Bernard Herrmann's PSYCHO score is the undisputed champ of horror scores, brimming with tension, malice and paranoia. Once in a while, though, it'll calm us with a hushed melody, the better to jar us when it gets ramped up again. Its influence can be heard in dozens upon dozens of thrillers, and most modern composers would argue that it's almost impossible not to riff - at one point or another - on "The Murder," which is maybe the most famous pieces of music ever composed for cinema.
I had to give the remake something to take home. Danny Elfman's adaptation of Herrmann's score is, naturally, almost identical to its predecessor. There are a few tweaks here and there, but Elfman does a fine job bringing that shrieking string section back to life.
PSYCHO (1960)
Whoa, this is a stunner! Turns out Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO is a much, much better movie than Gus Van Sant's silly and unnecessary remake! Did not see that coming. As I mentioned earlier, there was never any contest here, and a revisit of the 1998 version doesn't alter the feeling it was nothing more than a film school experiment writ large. It may have been fun for Van Sant, but it was a chore for the rest of us. Consider this a reminder that you should go re-watch PSYCHO - the original! - if you haven't seen it in a while.

Have any suggestions for Original Vs. Remake? Send them to [email protected]! (Mike Catalano is off for a while.)

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