I was perplexed by Universal’s decision not to screen Gus Van Sant’s replication of Psycho for the press prior to its opening last Friday. When Alfred Hitchcock’s macabre thriller was released in 1960, his security and marketing gambits made sense. Critics were held at bay and stragglers denied seating after the movie started because the suspenseful narrative built to a brace of unexpected (and, for the era, uncommonly graphic) murders. But 38 years later, when nearly everyone knows what transpires in that shower and on that staircase, what reason could there be for secrecy?
Eager to learn the answer before anyone else, I scoped out Friday’s earliest screening: 11 a.m. at the new Hoyts Potomac Yard Cinema 16 in Alexandria. This gargantuan theater complex beggars descriptiona lobby larger than most skating rinks, complete with cafe and amusement arcadeand offers a series of unprecedented customer services, including weekend valet parking and curbside ticketing. I was directed to the 10th cinema, a steeply banked, obstruction-free auditorium reminiscent of the Air and Space Museum’s IMAX theater, outfitted with a mammoth screen and state-of-the-art sound equipment.
Following five unpromising trailers, Psycho began to unreel, marred by a flaw that persisted through the final credits: A recurring pattern of white diagonal scratches blemished the printwhether the consequence of shoddy lab work or defective projection equipment I couldn’t determine. Initially, the scratches were alienating, producing a Brechtian distancing effect no suspense filmmaker would countenance. Later on, for reasons that will become evident, the damaged print enriched the experience.
As you have surely read by now, Van Sant has reproduced Psycho virtually line by line and shot by shot. The result is reminiscent of an art-student prank, like those clones of Nighthawks with movie stars or pop idols standing in for Edward Hopper’s anonymous insomniacs. Van Sant’s stunt, like most conceptualist efforts, is more intriguing to contemplate than to endure. Looming at the intersection of Postmodernism and Plagiarism, it has no identity of its own, but it manages to cast some light on the strengths and shortcomings of Hitchcock’s original, a central text in American popular culture.
Color: In interviews, Van Sant has explained that one of his motives in replicating Psycho was to film it in color, thereby making it accessible to a young audience hostile to black-and-white movies. Although Hitchcock’s uncertainty about the potential commercial appeal of his gruesome project prompted him to shoot it on the cheap, in monochrome, using his efficient television show staff rather than his more exacting feature-film crew, he clearly had the clout to use color had he wished to. (His previous production, North By Northwest, was the sixth-highest-grossing film of 1959.) Van Sant’s mundane introduction of color softens the narrative’s creepiness, muting the forceful high-contrast imagery that made the original so nightmarish.
Casting: Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates is one of the landmark performances in American cinema. Spawn of a distant father and a clinging mother, tormented by his own furtive sexuality, Perkins was born to portray Norman and spent the rest of his career executing a series of variations on the same characterthe lunatic peering out from behind the Boy Scout mask. Emotionally and physically, Vince Vaughn, who plays Norman in the replica, is one of our most compelling young actors, but his trademark is projecting self-assurance. Perkins’ stammering, insecure Norman is perversely endearing, a damaged creature appalled by his own misdeeds. Vaughn omits the stammerand gobbles unidentified sweets instead of the candy corn that links Perkins with the screenplay’s bird motifbut his spasmodic grins are more menacing than pathetic. Perkins’ Norman was a hapless monster; Vaughn’s Norman is merely malevolent.
Similarly, Janet Leigh as Marion Crane (more of that bird motif) possessed an empathetic voluptuousness ideally designed to push Norman over the edge. Her sympathy and identification with his plight, along with her bosomy sexuality (emphasized by Hitchcock in the opening scene, where she’s clad in an industrial-strength bra), fueled the love/hate ambivalence about women instilled by Norman’s overprotective mother. Sinewy, rabbity Anne Heche brings a different, less apposite sensibility to the role. Trim, cool, and flippant, the hoydenish actress lacks Leigh’s fleshiness and vulnerability, making her encounter with Norman less affecting and her subsequent violation less horrifying.
(A digression: Heche earned a place in the pantheon of faux victims when, during the same week that Psycho opened nationwide, she and Ellen DeGeneres held a press conference accusing Hollywood of denying them work because they had gone public with their relationship. For the record, Heche has played leads in no less than eight theatrical features since coming out. This grossly absurd charge, from an actress virtually unknown before her private life became public knowledge, insults the thousands of gay women and men who face actual job discrimination, and who should each be allowed to administer a corrective slap to realign Heche with reality.)
If Vaughn and Heche fail to fill Perkins’ and Leigh’s shoes, Viggo Mortensen, as Marion’s lover, and Julianne Moore, as her sister, are distinct improvements over their predecessorsdepartment-store dummy John Gavin and bland Vera Miles. Mortensen’s redneck affability and Moore’s abrasiveness add texture to roles that previously existed as mere narrative conveniences.
Direction: By choosing to copy Joseph Stefano’s original screenplay and Hitchcock’s visual plan, Van Sant essentially erases himself. Perhaps this is the logical extension of a career that has declined from Mala Noche, his brilliant, rough-hewn feature debut, to the moving but deeply flawed My Own Private Idaho, to Good Will Hunting, with its glossy, hollow, feel-good commercialism. Still, Van Sant can’t resist slipping in a few minimal updating touchesMortensen’s bare butt, Moore’s Walkman, flashes of several enigmatic images edited into the murder montages, sound effects indicating that Norman masturbates while peering at Marion through a peephole and that a couple raucously screws in the adjoining hotel room throughout the first scene.
Although probably unintentional, Van Sant’s major alteration is a shift of tone. In interviews, Hitchcock invariably explained that he intended Psycho as a black comedy, a ghastly joke played on his audience. (With Norman confiding “Mother’s not herself today,” how can we consider Hitchcock’s impulse to be anything other than humorous?) But Van Sant’s poker-faced approach to the materialthe gravity of an art restorer refurbishing a masterpieceobliterates Hitch’s dark wit. Van Sant would have been wiser to treat Psycho with less reverence and devise some strategies to smooth over the screenplay’s rarely discussed flaws. The original’s sluggish last half-hour, capped by the psychiatrist’s tiresome, inane five-minute monologue explaining Norman’s psychosis, was a yawn back in 1960. (Bowing to prevalent Production Code strictures, Hitchcock cannily inserted the shrink’s climactic lecture to “legitimize” his movie’s otherwise gleeful sadism.) Knowing that the vast majority of moviegoers will arrive at his Psycho fully aware of its surprises, Van Sant might have made an effort to eliminate the original’s longueurs and streamline its structure.
During my quarter-mile stroll from the auditorium to the theater’s exit, I wondered who the film’s target audience could possibly be. Moviegoers who have never seen the Hitchcock version will surely prefer to opt for the easily accessible black-and-white classic rather than Van Sant’s watercolor reproduction. And few, if any, who have experienced the original will find the remake effective or even interesting. These viewers may end up wishing that, like me, they were shown a defective print. I managed to get through the soporific passages by focusing on the scratches rather than the movie.CP