I’ll admit it up front. I’ve never considered the original Psycho to be one of Hitchcock’s best films. Although a good film, it should be celebrated more for its groundbreaking elements than for its quality. That leads us to what has to be 1998’s most unusual filmmaking attempt: director Gus Van Sant’s effort to create an exact shot-for-shot remake of the original Psycho, but in color, and using an all new cast.
For those cave-dwelling hermits who are somehow unfamiliar with the original film, here’s a brief rundown. Marion Crane (Anne Heche) is a secretary at a small Phoenix real estate office. One day, she’s presented with an opportunity too great to pass up. She steals $400,000 in cash, and begins a desperate drive to meet her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen), who works outside of San Francisco.
However, she makes a wrong turn off the highway, and ends up at the Bates Motel, run by the insecure Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn), and his domineering invalid mother.
Meanwhile, the search is on for the missing Marion. Her sister (Julianne Moore) wants to make sure she’s all right, and a private investigator (William H. Macy) is out to recover the stolen money. How will it all end? Well, if you don’t already know, I’m not going to spoil it here.
This remake is not an exact shot-for-shot remake of the original. A few of the shots (such as the opening pan) have been made seamless, using technology that wasn’t around in 1960. An additional shot which Hitchcock originally wanted for the shower scene (but was forced to abandon due to the censors) has been included. Most of the other additions are semi-subliminal. There are occasional flashes of unrelated imagery, as well as echoes and other “subliminal” sounds placed on the soundtrack. Unfortunately, the additions don’t work. For the most part, they’re distracting…and certainly not an improvement.
But, on the whole, the film remains extremely similar to the original. The sexuality and violence in the film has been peripherally heightened (something which neither adds nor detracts from the film), and a few lines of dialogue have been updated. However, the film still seems to be mired in the past. Little things, like speech patterns or one particular use of a telephone, which seemed appropriate in the original now seem wildly dated.
But the good stuff has translated as well. Many of the shocks and surprises of the original are still shocking and surprising, provided that you haven’t been let in on the secrets. And that is perhaps the film’s biggest problem. Knowing the secrets tremendously diminishes the impact of the original Psycho, and the same certainly holds true here.
The quality of acting varies widely in the remake. Some of the actors (such as Rance Howard and Anne Heche) seem confined by the film’s rigid structure. Others (such as Vince Vaughn and Julianne Moore) manage to deliver different interpretations of the familiar characters, even without additional dialogue or scenes.
On the whole, the remake is just about, but not quite as good as the original Psycho. However, with the original still out there, it is very difficult to recommend seeing the remake instead. In fact, it is difficult to recommend the remake to anyone but perhaps a film student or a devoted fan of all things Psycho.