Examining Hollywood Remakes: Psycho

The original Psycho (1960) was the masterpiece of Alfred Hitchcock, one of the greatest film directors of all time. No one in the history of the industry could build suspense better than Hitchcock. The list of classic films he directed goes on and on, but Psycho is considered his ultimate achievement. The film not only foreshadowed and inspired the Slasher genre, it also gave us one of the most famous maniacs ever depicted in film—Norman Bates, owner of the Bates Motel—as well as the most famous and iconic murder scene ever filmed. The shower scene murder in this film has achieved a legendary status. Even Stephen King has praised the famed scene, saying, “No remake or sequel can top that moment when the curtain is pulled back and the knife starts to do its work!”

The big question that both fans and critics asked about drector Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho was “Why bother?” There was nothing new or clever about the film at all. It was a shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene remake of its predecessor. Van Sant even reused much of the same dialogue. It’s just imitation posing as art. As Roger Ebert explained it, “If you have seen Hitchcock’s version, you already know the characters, the dialogue, the camera angles and the surprises. The only thing missing is the tension…the conviction that something urgent is happening on screen at this moment.”

The story behind the creation of this film is that Gus Van Sant realized young film fans were not watching the classic black-and-white movies of the past. Van Sant had an idea to ‘preserve’ the past by doing exact recreations of old movies in color, with modern casts. The other reason Van Sant did this film was as an experiment in cinema theory…he argued that there was no such thing as a remake. He claimed that you can re-film a movie exactly as it was originally done and it would still come out as a totally different and unique film. Well, maybe he was right, because after seeing him remake Psycho exactly as Hitchcock did, it becomes obvious that creativity cannot be photocopied. To quote Roger Ebert again, “Genius apparently resides between the shots, or in a chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.”

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The plot, which is identical in both films, follows Marion Crane who impulsively steals a bag of cash from her employer and flees the city, driving her car across country, hoping to start a new life somewhere else. Exhausted by her long drive, she stops at the secluded Bates Motel, run by the unimposing but somehow odd Norman Bates. Norman convinces Marion to have dinner with him. Norman’s attraction to her causes a problem with Norman’s mama, who won’t have a ‘dirty woman’ defiling her precious son. Mother soon stabs Marion to death in the shower and the horrified Norman does his best to cover up the crime. Meanwhile, Marion’s boyfriend Sam and her sister Lila hire a detective to find her. When the detective is killed by mother as well, Lila and Sam arrive at the Bates Motel to take matters into their own hands. When Mother attacks again, the big plot twist is revealed…Mother is long since dead, and the “old woman” doing all the murders is actually Norman, who has a split-personality. Years earlier, the Oedipal Norman killed his own mother in a fit of jealous over her new lover and then went mad. He took on her personality in his guilt. While his Norman personality is (mostly) normal, his madness manifests itself in the mother persona, who goes on killing sprees whenever ‘she’ is displeased or feels threatened.

The remake adds nothing new to the plot. What makes a good remake is taking what was good about the first film and reshaping it into something new and more timely, while still keeping the spirit and intention of the original. Van Sant may show the proper reverence to the original but since he offers nothing original or creative, he might just as well have colorized the original film and re-released it in theaters.

Even the cast members seem to be trying to do an imitation of the previous actors. Anthony Perkins played Norman in the original, and gives one of the best performances of an insane person ever depicted on screen. Most actors play insane people as being funny and making sadistic puns, but Perkins was frighteningly normal as Norman. He seems likeable and sympathetic most of the times, but occasional hints of something disturbing under the surface slip out. He was odd but he’s not too odd, until the end. Perkins plays it perfectly. It was a masterful performance.

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In the remake, Vince Vaughn plays Norman, and this movie shows that he should stick to comedy. He was the wrong choice to play Norman. It’s true that much of the problem with his performance can be laid at the feet of director Van Sant, who adds in little touches (like Norman masturbating or having Playboy magazines in his room) that make Norman seem more like a pervert or sexual predator than a mentally ill young man. Also, Vaughn plays the part with less subtlety than Perkins. The scenes where he’s talking to Marion and we see hints of the madness under the calm are done more overtly, with more maniacal expressions. Further, he seems too smug and self-satisfied when he sinks Marion’s car in the swamp to hide it. Perkins was more convincing because he was nervous, rather than smirking.

Janet Leigh did a better job playing the doomed Marion in the original. Her interpretation of Marion was calm, cold and calculating. She starts to fall apart after she steals the money, as her fear of being caught haunts her, but she does it in a subtle way. Anne Heche, who plays Marion in the 1998 film, overdoes it by trying to show every emotion Marion is feeling by expressions, twitches and murmurs.  Leigh is not only the better actress, but another reason the casting of Leigh was better was because she was a big box office star (the only genuine A-list star in the original) and her name could carry a film. Heche was never a big draw.

The only members of the remake cast who do justice to their roles are William H. Macy as the private detective Arbogast, who brings some friendly charm to the part, and Julianne Moore who plays Lila as being angry that her sister stole money, as well as being concerned. It’s a realistic take on the character. Other than those two, however, no one does anything new.


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To be fair, Van Sant does occasionally add in a few small touches that weren’t in the movie, yet ironically, the scenes that are new are actually the worst parts. The masturbation scene is unintentionally funny because of the squishy sound effects. Also unintentionally comical is the sight of Vince Vaugh dressed in a blonde wig when he’s “mother”. It looks like he’s doing a parody of Psycho.

At the end of the day, there is nothing about the remake that I can recommend. There’s really nothing laudable or praiseworthy. It’s just a snapshot of a far better film. Trying to recapture the brilliance of Hitchcock is a daunting task and Van Sant was not up to the job. Stick with the original. It’s a masterpiece.

That’s all for this week’s look at Hollywood Remakes. We’ll be back next week to dissect a better movie, but in the mean time be sure to check out our previous article.