directed by Gus Van Sant
(Universal International, 1998)
It's never easy following in the footsteps of a master.
It's like walking around in your mom's or dad's shoes when you were a kid. No matter how well you did, someone always found fault with your performance, or at least giggled.
So it is with movie remakes, especially remakes of bona fide classics like Psycho. Letting even the most talented director remake Psycho was like asking Danielle Steel to rewrite War and Peace. Yet Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting) took on the job with relish and added some touches the master himself would no doubt have approved of.
The first is the color scheme. Hitchcock worked best in black & white, but Van Sant has added a dimension to Psycho by using color, particularly the glowing red "Motel" sign that serves as a painful reminder of all the bloodshed within.
And there's no shortage of that.
Granted, Van Sant spills no more blood in bumping off Anne Heche than Hitchcock did in taking out Janet Leigh, but in color, the effect is heightened -- not so much in the actual stabbing as in Norman Bates' desperate efforts to clean up his "mother's" crime.
The second is Bates' motivation. Van Sant makes it perfectly clear what Bates' interest in Marion Crane was, and why it made him feel unclean -- all in a manner not available to Hitchcock under the old, more restrictive movie codes.
Finally, there's that last long wide-angle shot of the police cleaning up the swamp where Bates dumped Crane's body. The shot runs for several minutes under the credits and continues nearly half a minute after the last credit has faded from the screen. The effect is eerie, and just what Van Sant means by it is unclear, leaving viewers as uncomfortable at the end of the film as they were at the beginning.
Yet for all his successes, Van Sant ultimately comes up short, undone for the most part by uneven performances.
Vince Vaughn is an interesting Norman Bates. He has piercing eyes and an ominous upper lip. But he's no Anthony Perkins. All too often Vaughn simply looks like a man playing a psycho, someone who's mastered a few tics and a silly giggle. Perkins made a career of playing fragile characters. One word from his lips and you could tell why.
But William H. Macy is even less at home as Milton Arbogast, the investigator who follows Crane to the Bates Motel only to end up following in her bloody footsteps. Macy's entrance in the hardware store is so unnatural as to make it seem him seem more like a Psycho re-enactor than a real-life character -- too much Fargo, not enough Martin Balsam.
Finally, Julianne Moore gets off to a slow start as Crane's concerned sister. Her very body language is obtrusive and alienating, and her dialogue delivery only reinforces the effect. She's good at creeping around the Bates house or flirting with Bates to distract him, but she leaves you wishing Van Sant had shot Psycho as a silent.
Remakes have been part of the Hollywood scene almost from the beginning; no doubt Hollywood's last film will be remade a few years later. Van Sant's Psycho is an interesting, if not totally satisfying, effort. The work of a master it's not; but it won't leave you giggling.