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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 Mark OHara
No Rating Supplied

Why remake "Psycho," the grand-daddy of thrillers? Alfred Hitchcock did it so well 38 and a half years ago. The script by Joseph Stefano (from Robert Bloch's novel) was a classic, the music and even the credits were works of art, and the direction was artistic.

The most compelling reason I can think of is to reach modern audiences. I am reminded weekly that young people are turned off by black and white films. Their very mention rankles the students in my high school film literature classes. I might as well threaten to show art films with subtitles. Or some of the filmstrips still stowed away in our library's cabinets, titles from 38 years ago like "Weaning Pigs" or "Why Go To the Moon?" Or play an audio tape narrated by a dead British actor.

So director Gus Van Sant has given youth a chance. They will see for the first time Hitchcock's captivating vision of pure film - even if it's done by an American nearly half a century later. They will see clever techniques worked seamlessly into a smart narrative. Several kids, I'm sure, will rent or borrow copies of the source on videotape. Even if they have seen the original, they will witness subtle updates and intricate spins that will knock around in their memories for awhile. We showed Hitchcock's "Psycho" this past semester, and many students did not grumble, but realized its importance as a groundbreaking work. These students have all the more reason to see this recreation. So Van Sant's homage will mean that the original film and its director will live even longer in our personal filmgoing histories.

Another reason for a remake is the acting (and a few of the preachier scenes) of the original. Let's face it - Hitchcock's cast smacks of stiffness today, with no puns intended. Granted, perhaps it was stylish to be wooden, just as it is stylish today to wear tacky polyester jackets and pseudo-70's rayon blouses. (Can you tell I don't give much credit to the costumers of this latest incarnation? I know they meant the wardrobes to be throwbacks to the kitsch of postwar America, as well as echoes of angst-filled grunge, but c'mon!) Many of the performances of the new "Psycho" seem more natural and casual than their forebears. I think Anthony Perkins and Martin Balsam, that character actor's character actor, were among the highlights of the oldie. This new one has stalwart performances from almost everyone.

Vince Vaughn plays Norman Bates, the mama's-boy-gone-way-wrong. Norman runs a small motel made obsolete by the superhighway that bypasses it. He lives in an imposing house up the hill from the cabins, a house also apparently occupied by his mother. When a lone young woman - Marion Crane, played by Anne Heche - stops to get out of a rainy night, Norman's psychosis kicks in, and Marion is the victim of a terrible punishment. (For what is she being punished? Stealing the $400,000? Sleeping with Sam Loomis without being his wife? The latter would seem absurd in terms of 1990's values.) When Marion's sister Lila fails to locate Marion, she panics and leaves Phoenix for California, where Sam lives. There's also a private detective involved, one Milton Arbogast (the ubiquitous William H. Macy). The bulk of the plot traces the attempts of this trio in locating Marion, ostensibly at the last place she was seen - the Bates' place.

In his reprise of the Bates role, Vaughn is more menacing than Anthony Perkins. Vaughn wears shorter hair and longer sideburns, and occasionally glowers like a leering devil. His performance is strong, but considering Perkins' ownership of the role, a comparison would benefit no one. Vaughn is good with the nervous candy-eating habit, but weak with the awkward chuckle. Heche's version of Marion Crane is very expressive. Her face reacts variously: she's a cold customer at first, but in Norman's "parlor" she is compassionate, smiling, horrified. Julianne Moore is fitting as the equally cold sister. In a brief comic relief bit, she shakes off Sam Loomis' arm as they enter one of Norman's cabins. No matter who plays the Cranes, the script virtually predetermines our lack of concern for them. Viggo Mortensen, as Sam Loomis, continues the slovenly hipness established by the wardrobe and sets; perhaps our distance from him, Marion and Lila shifts our sympathy from the ruination of their lives to the oddly compelling predicaments of Norman Bates.

Now for what Van Sant saw fit to change. This is his "re-creation" of "Psycho," so he shot the same number of scenes on each day of the same six-week period used by Hitchcock. The dialogue is mostly intact, and the music and cinematography have been only slightly tweaked. What I liked includes some of the striking shots in the stabbing scenes. Again, the shower scenes should not even be compared. For its time, Hitchcock's was unique and shocking; for any time, it was superior. And I don't think Van Sant was out to one-up the master. But this new showering does catch and sustain attention. Particularly impressive is an extreme close-up in which Marion's pupil dilates as she is dying. Characters in this film also seem to have flitting hallucinations as the life force leaves them. There are infrequent updates, as when Lila says, "Let me get my Walkman." We witness at least one distasteful scene with Norman peeping at Marion - though I wonder if "Hitch" wouldn't have included it himself, had the censors and the country's milieu permitted. A final nice touch is mysterious murmuring inside the house of Bates, a little aural stimulation that might make himself chuckle politely. Applause to Van Sant for retaining the set decoration, especially in the parlor, where Marion, positioned beside the rounded shapes of a lamp and a pitcher, is surrounded by the beaks and talons of Norman's stuffed birds, not to mention the sharp triangle of the sandwich half she never eats.

One scene that could not be improved upon - because it was blatant and talky to begin with - is the explanation of Norman's illness. It's delivered by Robert Forster instead of Simon Oakland, but it still rings false. At least Van Sant edited out the ineffectual line, "He's a transvestite."

A good purpose "Psycho" could serve would be interesting young people in its predecessor. After watching both, viewers could think critically for themselves. And as long as they don't give lame reasons like, "It was better because it was in color," I wouldn't blame them for liking either one.

One question I have wasn't answered because the movie was not released for critics to pre-screen: outside the real estate office, is that Hitchcock in a final, computer-generated cameo?

Copyright 1998 Mark OHara

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