The UnPopular Opinion: Psycho (1998)
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Douglas Gordon created an art installation in 1993 called 24 HOUR PSYCHO which slows the frame rate of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece to 2 frames per second, making the movie last 1440 minutes instead of the original 109. Aside from the slowed projection, Gordon has not altered the film in any way. It is the 1960 classic, just really slow. Gordon claims this is meant to convey "recognition and repetition, time and memory, complicity and duplicity, authorship and authenticity, darkness and light." To the average viewer, 24 HOUR PSYCHO sounds like a waste of f*cking time.
When Gus Van Sant set out to remake PSYCHO in 1998, he was not planning a bold reimagining of the Hitchcock film. There were no aspirations to reboot it like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, SPIDER-MAN, FRIDAY THE 13TH, or the countless other studio sponsored remakes of films both old and recent. No, Van Sant wanted to try an experiment and see if a shot for shot recreation of a movie could be done while maintaining the integrity of the source film. For many, PSYCHO is a failure on all fronts. But, like Gordon's art installation, I think Gus Van Sant's PSYCHO is an artistic triumph.
So close and yet so far.
How many of you have actually watched the 1998 version of PSYCHO? I would be willing to bet there are more people who assume the movie is awful based on impressions from critics or others who have seen the movie. Like a rumor, word of mouth can spread and doom a film without actually benefiting from being viewed. The two versions of PSYCHO are simultaneously different and the same despite almost 40 years between them. This is what makes the movie so damn intriguing.
Van Sant's PSYCHO takes a shot for shot approach to the cinematography, which is a challenge in it's own right. Costume and set design are integral to achieving this and making the two movies look and move the same way. The remake wants to contemporize the story and setting while maintaining the integrity of the original shots and composition. Even Danny Elfman's score is similar to the classic Bernard Hermann. But, similar is not identical.
That stuffed duck was actually alive during filming of the original movie.
Alfred Hitchcock was a fan of the MacGuffin, a plot device used to advance the story. In many of his films, the MacGuffin is never explained or identified. Think of the Rabbit's Foot in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III. That is the modern example of a MacGuffin. In PSYCHO, the MacGuffin is everyone around Norman Bates. Gus Van Sant has said that the only fully realized character in the Hitchcock version was Norman Bates himself while everyone else just existed to advance the story. Van Sant decided to allow his cast to delve into their roles and change them as they saw fit. This meant changing voice, attitude, and physical demeanor. William H. Macy kept his role as detective Milton Arbogast almost exactly the same as Martin Balsam in the 1960 film. Viggo Mortensen's portrayal as Sam Loomis was close to John Gavin's take on the part but Viggo brought his trademark cool delivery of the dialogue which makes Loomis seem more imposing and less of a caricature. Even Anne Heche's interpetation of Janet Leigh's iconic Marion Crane is spot on. Heche and cinematographer Christopher Doyle had never seen the original PSYCHO when they made this movie so Van Sant continually referenced a copy of the Hitchcock film so they could make sure everything was perfect, even keeping errors that Hitchcock may have missed.
But, that is where the similarities end. Vera Miles character of Lila Crane always felt like a sister determined to find Marion and the money she stole, a relatable character. Julianne Moore turns Lila into a bitch which aids in feeling sympathetic for Norman. While Anthony Perkins played Norman Bates as a nice young man who shockingly becomes the villain, Vince Vaughn did not have that element of surprise. Instead, Vaughn relies on playing Norman as an the creepy and odd killer with a veil of normalcy barely masking his insanity. Vaughn is so adept at playing variations of himself in comedies that his Norman Bates still feels like Vince Vaughn playing Norman Bates instead of being a wholly unique character.
Do not want!
A big deal was made regarding the change that has masturbation sound effects added to the scene of Norman watching Marion through a peephole in that it was unnecessary or vulgar. Yes, changes like this and changing the word aspic to Jell-O, the amount Marion stole from $40,000 to $400,000, and more are minor, but Van Sant also was able to achieve the long opening tracking shot that was not possible in Hitchcock's time. Hitchcock's daughter even commented at the release of the film that making a shot for shot remake of a film would have been something her father would have done as an experiment.
All experiments are valid. When I consider 24 HOUR PSYCHO, I think that it doesn't do anything unique or special aside from slowing down a movie. I respect the experiment even if I don't personally like it. Gus Van Sant's PSYCHO is a glorious failure critically but also a vital page in the history of film. It shows us that just because you can, it doesn't mean you should. That is a rule that all filmmakers considering a remake or reboot should consider. But, just because we didn't need a remake of PSYCHO, is that a reason to doom an entire film? I don't think so. If anything, it gives us an opportunity to revisit Hitchcock and try to figure out what made his interpretation so much more powerful than the remake.