Film Reviews

Gus Van Sant's Psycho Just Turned 15 -- and is More Fascinating than you Remember

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It’s hard to enjoy most remakes unless you can put the original out of your head to avoid comparisons. Here, comparisons are the whole point. If those kids had been obsessed with Clint Eastwood’s Firefox instead of Raiders, would you really be able to sit through the whole thing? Similarly, Van Sant had to choose a film as well known as Psycho to give us the surreal experience of watching a film we’ve already seen, but different.

Hitchcock built Psycho on surprises (spoiler -- Marion Crane dies and Norman Bates did it), but the remake knows you know what’s going on. Think of the scene where Marion (originally Janet Leigh, now Anne Heche) goes into her motel room and Norman (formerly Anthony Perkins, now Vince Vaughn) spies on her through a peephole. In one of Van Sant’s most notorious modifications, we can hear Norman whacking it below camera while he spies on her. That may seem to violate the rules of suspense that Hitchcock followed -- doesn’t that seem like tipping the cards too much if Van Sant doesn’t want us to know that Norman is a creep?

No, because of course we know who Norman Bates is. The movie is designed to not let you forget about Hitchcock. (He even cameos, chewing out Van Sant outside the window of the office where Marion works.) And don’t worry; the remake didn’t catch on in the popular consciousness. A decade and a half later, I think we can safely put away the fear of talking to some young person about Psycho and realizing they’re picturing Vince Vaughn.

Why it doesn’t quite work

Maybe that’s because Vaughn wasn’t up to the task. It’s an odd casting, but not as out-of-left-field at the time as it may seem now. Like Julianne Moore, who plays Lila Crane, Vaughn had done some TV shows, some acclaimed indies, and a Jurassic Park sequel. There was little sign that he would become the king of the pre- Hangover bro comedy with Old School and Wedding Crashers. I like his moronic smile as he watches Marion and her car sink into the swamp. Sometimes I like his nervous, nerdy giggle, but other times it seems forced, just like his heavy reliance on Perkins’s gimmick of nibbling on little pieces of candy during conversations. He’s taking a shot at it, but he’s not hitting the target.

Maybe it all comes down to that performance; a more distinctive and interesting Norman might have warmed more people to the idea of the remake.

Heche fares better as Marion, always looking for ways to play the same material differently. Instead of staring nervously at the pile of money on her bed she smiles at it mischievously, thinks about it, stares at it, hesitates, bugs her eyes out in surprise at herself once she’s tossed it into her purse. Later, she’s playful as she searches for a place to hide it in her motel room. She looks excited instead of pained.

When Norman tells her about his taxidermy hobby, she laughs a little at its weirdness. When he tells her “a boy’s best friend is his mother,” she winces and practically rolls her eyes. Her reactions acknowledge his social awkwardness but make clear that she doesn’t understand its significance. On the other hand, all this makes it less believable that Marion’s conversation with Norman would inspire her to go back home and accept responsibility for her crime. Just changing a little piece of a movie can knock another piece out of place.

My favorite recasting is pre-Lord of the Rings Viggo Mortensen, replacing John Gavin as Marion’s boyfriend, Sam Loomis. He seems like a good guy, content in his low-wage life at the hardware store but standup enough to take action when his girlfriend is in trouble. Mortensen is also manly enough to intimidate Norman, who he suspects stole Marion’s money, essential given Vaughn’s larger stature (and the impossibility of matching Perkins’s nervous chewing and tapping in that scene).

Other fine casting includes Philip Baker Hall as the sheriff and Robert Forster as the psychiatrist, really selling the explanatory monologue at the end with a more naturalistic delivery than Simon Oakland in the original. Maybe the difficulty of recasting is celebrity, not talent. Seeing solid character actors of today replace their counterparts from yesterday feels more natural than seeing stars filling in for stars.

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