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movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Psycho

Starring: Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn
Director: Gus Van Sant
Rated: R
RunTime: 109 Minutes
Release Date: December 1998
Genres: Suspense, Thriller

Review by Greg King
2 stars out of 4

Of all the talk leading up to the release of Gus Van Sant's update of Alfred Hitchcock's _Psycho_, none was quite so intriguing as a rumor that began circulating a few months ago. This bit of gossip stated that instead of being a complete shot-by-shot "recreation" as announced, the new film would only be a duplicate until an hour in, at which point it would veer into a completely original direction. At about the one-hour point, there arose a split-second moment where it looked like the rumor could be true: motel keeper Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn) nearly opens a folded-up newspaper. (Anyone who has seen the original would know the significance.) Alas, he only _nearly_ opens it, and this _Psycho_ is exactly what Van Sant promised (threatened?), a virtually shot-by-shot, line-for-line copy of the seminal 1960 chiller. And, as everyone knows, copies never come out nearly as sharp as the original.

Ironically enough, the copy-then-diverge strategy probably would have been more in line with Hitchcock's original sensibility; after all, his film was a big bait-and-switch (or, rather, "Bates-and-switch"). What begins as a yarn about a larcenous lady on the lam (Marion Crane, here played by Anne Heche) suddenly switches gears midway through, shifting its focus to the mysterious Bates, a hermit whose entire life centers around his invalid mother. When Marion and the money she stole from her employer disappears without a trace, her lover Sam Loomis (here played by Viggo Mortensen) and sister Lila's (here played by Julianne Moore) search leads them to the nearly-deserted Bates Motel.

Everything in the new film plays exactly as it did in the film from nearly 40 years ago, with a few contemporary wrinkles thrown in by Van Sant and Joseph Stephano, scripter of the original. The $40,000 that Janet Leigh's Marion stole has been upped to $400,000. Vera Miles's prissy Lila has become Moore's Walkman-wearing, ball-busting tough chick. John Gavin's pompously stuffy Sam has become Mortensen's roughneck cowboy. Norman now masturbates while spying on Marion in the bathroom. And in a truly bizarre move, Van Sant delves into Oliver Stone's bag of tricks, arbitrarily slipping in subliminal shots of storm clouds and deer (among other things) during the murder scenes. (Also worth mentioning is a brief shot of a bus stop Marion drives by--featuring a poster for _Six_Days,_Seven_Nights_, Heche's romantic comedy from this past summer. Given Van Sant's otherwise obsessive determination in re-creating the feel of the original, hopefully that distracting in-joke was unintentional.)

With the original updated yet completely intact, from the story to the music (Bernard Herrmann's famously chilling score has been adapted by Danny Elfman) to the opening titles (adapted by Pablo Ferro from the legendary Saul Bass's original design), it's easy to see how Universal and Van Sant thought this experiment could work. But a crucial fact about the original film is lost on them: while rightfully regarded as a classic, when seen in this day and age, _Psycho_ works best only when its original historical context is in mind--that is, as a film emerging from the year 1960. There are more than a few things in the original that comes off as dated when seen through contemporary eyes: the deliberate pacing, the low body count, and, most infamously, the horrible "this is why it all happened" closing expository speech delivered by a psychiatrist (here played by Robert Forster). Having all of this distinctly '60s material played out by '90s performers in living color makes for a film that feels jarringly anachronistic; those modern wrinkles just accentuate the time era conflicts.

What isn't so confused, however, is the troupe of actors--for the most part, that is. Heche and William H. Macy (as private investigator Arbogast) are especially effective. (However, it must be noted that perhaps Heche's most memorable contribution to the role, as good as she is actingwise, is wearing a truly hideous straight-from-the-thrift-shop wardrobe that the original's Janet Leigh wouldn't be caught dead in.) The big shortcoming is the cast, though, is Vaughn. He is a terrific actor, and, technically speaking, he delivers a decent performance. But there is something inherently wrong about his casting as Norman; a lot of his appeal and effectiveness on-screen comes from the natural, almost subconscious self-confidence he exudes, which does not fit the awkward, socially inept Norman at all. Granted, this is Vaughn's most muted performance to date, but the creepy ambiguity of Anthony Perkins is nowhere in sight; consequently, there is no suspense leading to, nor any surprise coming with, the climactic twist, even if one has not seen the original.

All comparisons to any other films aside, the measure of a thriller is its suspense and scariness factor, and, on its own terms, Van Sant's _Psycho_ is a suspiciously average undertaking--watchable, competent on technical terms, yet strangely safe. _Psycho_ '98 doesn't ruin anyone's memory of the original; in fact, it only makes one appreciate that film more--which, ironically, appears to have been the point that Van Sant has been accused of not having.

Copyright 1998 Greg King

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