Film Reviews

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

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Why it’s still worth your time

Once you have your new cast playing the same characters, saying mostly the same lines, with the same music playing, sometimes with the same camera angles and edits, you still don’t necessarily have the same movie. Van Sant’s experiment raises some fascinating questions: Can the magic of great cinema survive a piece-by-piece rebuild? I guess not. Is the undeniable strength of the individual elements (the story, the storytelling, the characters, the score) enough to survive a reshuffling? Not really. Can a director be disciplined enough to re-create every single shot of somebody else’s movie? In Van Sant’s case, the answer is no. Even in the iconic shower scene he follows the Hitchcock template to a point, then can’t resist throwing in cutaways to storm clouds and a close-up of Marion’s pupil dilating, putting an extra spin on the pull out from her eye, taking out a cut to the shower head so we move from the dead body to the money to the window in one continuous shot.

Most conspicuously missing is the shot of the shower curtain rings popping off one by one, replaced with an overhead view of Marion falling to the floor as the curtain rips. But this is Van Sant’s smartest change to the scene, as Marion lands with her ass up, spread in an ugly, vulnerable position that, like a toilet in 1960, is not an image we’re used to seeing in movies. (A smear of blood on the wall and two bleeding wounds on her back also bring the scene up to modern violence standards.)

One of the original’s other most iconic scenes, Arbogast’s stabbing and tumbling down the stairs, gets similar treatment. Here, the camera movement is imitated and visible face-slashing is added, as are inexplicable flashes of a naked blindfolded woman and a cow in a road on a rainy day. I don’t know what that’s about.

I like some of these flourishes (and love that the end credits roll over a new scene of the authorities dredging the swamp) but each step away from Hitchcock’s template is a step away from the bold idea behind the remake. If Van Sant was going to go this far in duplicating the original, it’s a shame he didn’t try to go all the way.

Grace Wong of CNN wrote, “this film breaks a fundamental rule of do-overs: if you don’t have anything to add, don’t do it at all.” But if you believe in the auteur theory, you know it’s impossible not to add something. That’s another big question: How much of a director’s style and voice can come through within the limitations of this type of remake?

Quite a bit, it turns out. Much of that credit belongs to costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, who’d been working with Van Sant since Drugstore Cowboy in 1989. She gives the leads a kitschy, thrift store sort of style. Marion’s pattern dresses, her big earrings and purse, her bumbershoot -- all this suggests a kind of a quirky space cadet, but when you see Arbogast (William H. Macey) still wearing a fedora, and Sam’s Cowboy Curtis-esque version of redneck style, you realize these are just the types of clothes people wear in this world. Even Norman at one point sports a flashy collared shirt that seems a little too going-out-dancing for a sheltered mama’s boy in a dingy old motel (though you could say the same about the kaleidoscopic shower curtain).

Van Sant says on the DVD commentary track that he later found out Pasztor thought they were doing a period piece rather than a movie set in ‘98. But the retro clothes fit the theme of people hanging on to and fetishizing pieces of the past. Norman of course has his taxidermy animals, a mummified mother, and his preserved boyhood bedroom. Van Sant adds military memorabilia and a vintage porno mag to the room, and replaces a Beethoven LP with a 45 of “The World Needs a Melody” by George Jones and Tammy Wynette. In another scene, Slim Whitman’s 1952 cover of “Indian Love Call” drifts eerily from the house. Records were a dead medium in 1998, long since replaced by CDs and not yet revived as the specialty market we have today. Yet Stefano and Van Sant change Lila’s original workplace, “Music Makers Music Store,” to “Hardcore Vinyl Record Store.” As Marion says about taxidermy, “That is a strange hobby.”

Interestingly, while Stefano was brought in to adjust the screenplay for inflation, the update has already aged enough to be a bit of a time capsule. Lila is often wearing headphones, her line “All right, let me get my coat,” changed to “Let me get my Walkman.” The phone Arbogast uses is upgraded from rotary to push button, but it’s still a pay phone, and when he doesn’t return when promised, Sam and Lila have no way of contacting him. Van Sant just missed the “this story wouldn’t happen in a world with cell phones” dilemma of modern horror remaking.

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