Generally, I take meticulous notes during film screenings, but about a
third of the way through "Psycho," I simply closed my folder, sat back
and put in my time. Taking notes on this exercise in cinematic mimicry
seemed pointless. Almost as pointless as the movie.
When director Gus Van Sant made his decision to recreate Alfred
Hitchcock's horror classic on as close to a shot-by-shot basis as
possible, he forgot to factor in time. In 1960, "Psycho" was a shocker,
but this is 1998 and Van Sant's pseudo-Xerox is flat, mannered and often
Were Alfred Hitchcock alive and remaking "Psycho" today, the finished
product wouldn't have looked anything like this. Hitchcock would have
taken into account the myriad horror films released in the 38 years since
the original, and revised his film accordingly. After exercises in terror
like "Silence of the Lambs" and an endless stream of slasher flicks, it
takes a lot to frighten contemporary audiences. Gus Van Sant refuses to
acknowledge this and the result of his tunnel vision is sad.
His slavish adherence to the original is all the more frustrating because
of the few cursory changes he does make. Aside from a couple of bare
asses and some whacking-off sound effects, the most notable change is the
dollar amount of the stolen money, bumped up from $40,000 to $400,000. If
Van Sant saw the need to adjust for inflation, why did he stop there?
Didn't he notice that his "Psycho" isn't particularly scary?
Most of the film just plods along, with Bernard Herrman's magnificent
score providing far more momentum than anything onscreen. Except for Anne
Heche, whose paranoid, guilt-ridden attempt at grand larceny is the most
compelling part of the film, the cast comes up lacking. As Marion Crane,
Heche gives the character much more depth than Janet Leigh, but her
screen time is limited. Chad Everett overacts wildly in a minor role.
Julianne Moore and Viggo Mortensen come off like a bargain basement
Scully and Mulder, and William H. Macy, looking quite uncomfortable in
ridiculously anachronistic clothing, is completely wasted.
And then there's Vince Vaughn. To his credit, Vaughn doesn't copy Anthony
Perkin's landmark performance as Norman Bates. Unfortunately, Vaughn is
too tall, too imposing and his acting too overtly sinister for the role,
and his nervous giggle sounds affected. Norman Bates is supposed to
appear deceptively mild-mannered, but Vaughn's Norman Bates appears
merely deceptive. The talented actor was much more frightening in the
recent "Clay Pigeons."
I went into Van Sant's "Psycho" with an open mind, but left the theater
angry. The film is dedicated to Alfred Hitchcock, but does him a
disservice by dragging one of his works into an age where it no longer
fits. If all the publicity surrounding this project intrigues you, rent
the original. You'll travel back to 1960 and enter an ominous black and
white realm of shadows and suggestion. You can watch Hitchcock's "Psycho"
and see a pivotal work that influenced a generation of filmmakers. Or you
can sit through Van Sant's academic curio of the same name and leave the
theater scratching your head. This shouldn't be a hard decision to make.
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott