Psycho (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

[Click here to read my review of the original 1960 film.]

There's no secret why this new version of Psycho exists. Redundant and unnecessary as it is, it will likely make money for Universal Pictures (a studio in dire need of a box office success). As far as I can tell, there are two audiences for this film: those who have seen Hitchcock's classic thriller and are curious about the remake, and those who haven't previously seen Psycho but are willing to give this new edition a shot because it features actors they "know" and is in color.

Remakes come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. A rare few manage to eclipse their inspirations, but most are, to one degree or another, inferior. Successful remakes take older material and do something new, interesting, and intelligent with it. Examples include Sommersby, which re-worked the French classic, The Return of Martin Guerre; The Magnificent Seven, a Western version of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai; and High Society, which turned The Philadelphia Story into a musical. One could even argue a case for Dino DeLaurentiis' 1976 King Kong, which, while lacking the creativity of the original, performed an update by injecting an element of campy comedy. However, for every good remake, there are probably ten bad ones. Two particularly horrible, recent examples leap to mind: the American versions of The Vanishing and Diabolique. Both committed the same sin - they changed a brilliantly dark ending in favor of something upbeat.

The Psycho ramake is like none of these. In fact, it is like no remake ever committed to film. Not only does Gus Van Sant's version use Joseph Stefano's screenplay, Bernard Herrmann's score, and Saul Bass' title design, but Van Sant has elected to copy Hitchcock's style scene-for-scene. I can't verify whether this is actually a shot-by-shot remake, but many of Psycho's key moments have been meticulously re-created, including the famous shower scene, Arbogast's tumble down the stairs, and the revelation of who Mother is (complete with swinging overhead light). This Psycho is so like the original that it's eerie to watch. The sense of deja vu is powerful, as is the sense that something isn't quite right.

As "accurate" as the 1998 Psycho may be, it's not especially frightening. This is a lifeless, workmanlike project; all tension has been leeched away. Also, it's in color. Hitchcock chose black-and-white because he rightfully felt that the starkness of monochrome would enhance the movie's power to shock. Color, on the other hand, makes Psycho seem ordinary. Then there are the performances. Only Julianne Moore and William Macy, portraying characters once essayed by Vera Miles and Martin Balsam, hold their own. As Marion Crane, Anne Heche pales in comparison with Janet Leigh. Viggo Mortensen, replacing John Gavin, is a weak Sam Loomis. And, most disappointing of all, Vince Vaughn is unable to present a compelling Norman Bates, despite his attempts to mimic some of Anthony Perkins' mannerisms. Of course, it's entirely possible that Psycho virgins may become engrossed in the experience - it is, after all, the same story. However, anyone familiar with the plot will be concentrating on technical details and scene deconstruction, an approach that automatically distances the viewer from the characters. Not that these individuals have anything close to the presence of their 1960 counterparts.

The film opens in Phoenix, on December 11, 1998. A woman, Marion Crane (Anne Heche), desperate to find a way to be with her lover, Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen), embezzles money from her boss, then goes on the lam. She's not an apt criminal, however, and she leaves a wide trail. A used car salesman assesses her nervous mood and uses it to bilk her out of some extra cash. A somewhat-ominous policeman shadows her, almost to the point of stalking. If anyone could ever be said to look and act guilty, it's Marion. Eventually, she ends up at the out-of-the-way Bates Motel, where the shy-but-kind manager, Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn), offers her a room, a meal, and a sympathetic ear. During her conversation with Norman, when he speaks about the traps that life places everyone in, Marion resolves to return on the following morning to give back the money. Events of the night, which involve violence and the jealous rage of Norman's twisted mother, put an end to Marion's plans. Soon after, others arrive at the Bates Motel looking for her, including Loomis, a private investigator named Arbogast (William H. Macy), and Marion's sister, Lila (Julianne Moore). They all make horrifying discoveries.

It's not hard to understand why an accomplished director like Gus Van Sant (whose most recent success, Good Will Hunting, gave him mainstream clout) would be interested in making this film. The lure of an exact remake presents a tremendous challenge. Unfortunately, it was undoubtedly a lot more stimulating for Van Sant and his crew to make Psycho than it is for an audience to watch it. As I indicated above, curiosity is going to be one of the primary reasons why people pay money to see this movie; boredom will be the predominant result.

Aside from the obvious changes, there are a few minor differences. The amount of money embezzled by Marion has been inflated to $400,000. Van Sant shows a little more skin than Hitchcock, restricted by the censors, was able to. There's a butt shot of Viggo Mortensen and a fully rear nude view of Anne Heche. The shower scene is more bloody (although we still don't see the knife penetrate skin - Van Sant has stuck to Hitchcock's approach, even using the drain-to-eye dissolve at the end). When Norman is peeping on Marion, this version leaves no doubt that he's masturbating. And the character of Lila has been given a little more backbone. Unfortunately, by sticking so rigorously to the original text, Van Sant has also kept Psycho's one significant flaw - the psychiatrist's unnecessary, detailed explanation of Norman's deficiency.

As far as the future is concerned, the 1998 Psycho will make its mark at the box office, and again when it is first released on video, but, other than that, it will be little more than a footnote in cinematic history. Ten years from now, those seeking to see (or re-watch) Psycho will gravitate to the classic version, opting to leave Van Sant's on the shelves. It's a gimmick, and will be treated as such. In fact, even today, with this new Psycho in theaters, Hitchcock's (on video) still offers a far better experience. As with all imitations, Van Sant's interpretation shows a significant degradation in quality from the original.

Psycho (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 1998-12-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1