Why Should I Care?
Hitchcock's 1960s broke the genre and changed the way that audiences looked at the psychological horror genre. It was also the film that sealed Hitchcock's reputation as a master film-maker and director.
The 1998 big Hollywood attempt at a shot for shot remake is a rare enough thing to happen to any film. Because the 1998 remake is an attempt to copy the original source material, it serves as an excellent sounding board to compare themes, methods, and styles not just of the directors, but of the gigantic gulf of 38 years of film-making. A slight alteration makes us not just ask why something has been altered, but why the original was the way it was.
I will dissect the two films according to five different sections, clearly segregated below:
Differences in Camera Perspective- Changing the placement of the camera changes the film, even in a "shot for shot" remake.
Detail Manipulation- Sometimes the smallest details, and alterations of those details in scenes give an insight into a director's intent.
Character Alteration- Norman Bates is presented in two very distinct ways between both versions of the story.
Plot Hole Closure- Van Sant tries to explicitly close some of the minor errors in Hitchcock's film.
Shifts of Overall Tone- The inclusion of a montage changes the tone of the films.
What Has Changed in 38 Years?- How much is the directors, and how much is the time between the two versions?
The relevant still shots from each film are included in each section with any relevant footnotes being placed at the bottom of each section, separated by a dividing line.
By the Money...
|Hitchcock's Original||Gus Van Sant's Remake|
Can The Remake Tell Us Anything?
Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho is a curious artifact for any Hitchcock aficionado. Critical reviews have largely denigrated Van Sant's shot-by-shot retelling of Hitchcock's most iconic and famous film, but are they missing the point? It may seem natural to view the new version as an attempt to out-do the brooding genius of Hitchcock, but more thought is needed before dismissing an imitation as inevitably derivative. Van Sant’s reshooting of Psycho, comparatively reveals the distinctions that made Hitchcock an effective film maker through both shooting style and detailed manipulation in the development of characters, plot, and overall tone.
 The inference that critics are less supportive of Van Sant's version are drawn from the relatively low ratings given on IMDB (4.6 of 10) and Rotten Tomatoes (3.7 of 10) when compared to the original: IMDB (8.6 of 10) and Rotten Tomatoes (9.7 of 10).
Differences In Camera Perspective
Van Sant’s Psycho takes a different stance in shooting style. Van Sant’s Psycho is not an entirely “pure” shot by shot remake of the original. In addition to the creation and editing of a handful of scenes, several original scenes are altered through having original camera positions. The effect is subtle, but useful in understanding the way that Hitchcock’s original functions through its use of camera perspective.
Van Sant’s alterations become the most significant immediately before and during the scene where Marion eats dinner with Norman in the hotel office parlor. In the handful of shots where the characters of Marion and Norman converse outside of her open room door, there is one divergent, but crucial change of shot.
When Leigh suggests that they eat in her room she takes a step back and gestures as an invitation. Perkins consequently steps forward before hesitantly stepping back and asking her to join him in the hotel office instead. Within this original shot Perkins’ half-step forward and then back are from a medium side-shot continuous from the previous dialogue (Figure 1).
Van Sant chooses to jump to a closer shot of Vaughn from the front where his face is more visible (Figure 3) before having him step back (Figure 4) and cutting to the next shot. The change is significant for several reasons and the effects it has are rooted in the ways that an audience might perceive the characters. One of the draws of Norman’s character for audiences is his sympathetic appeal which relies on the audience being sutured into his perspective for an instant within one shot in the scene. The next shot is of Marion’s character from Norman’s perspective. Altering the scene to include a shot of Vaughn from Heche’s perspective right before switching to his perspective naturally diminishes the amount of an audiences’ suturing into his character. When Vaughn steps forward the audience doesn’t see him stepping toward Heche as in the original, but towards the screen and themselves. Van Sant inadvertently places us within two sutures very rapidly and so cancels out their effect for one character or the other. This element alone reminds one of the effectiveness with which Hitchcock used the technique of suturing to manipulate the audience's emotions.
Another effect of this shot change is the shift of focus from Perkins’ overall body movement in the original to primarily Vaughn’s facial expressions as they step forward into light and then back into symbolic shadow. This arises again in the next scene.
The dinner in the parlor scene is designed to tell Norman’s background story. The scene focuses heavily on exploring his personal dilemmas and establishing him as a sympathetic individual. One can only realize how passively Hitchcock accomplishes this when observing Van Sants’ remake.
Hitchcock consistently shot Perkins from exactly the same angle so as to frame the swooping owl in the background with a deep depth of field (Figure 5). Perkins’ clasped hands are also placed so that they are just fully visible where they rest on top of his lap. Van Sant’s shot composition by contrast cuts off Vaughn’s hands when they are on his lap, uses a shallow depth of field, and drifts so that the owl goes from being distinguishable (Figure 6) to almost cropped out (Figure 7). Hitchcock makes it possible for the audience to focus their attention on details in the background of the scene and so passively enables the development of Norman’s character. Van Sant by contrast seeks to focus the audiences’ attention exclusively on the Vaughn’s face and upper body movements, drawing focus more actively to the actor himself.
Aside from changing the visual focus of the scene, Van Sant also changes the climax of the scene through his shot technique. Van Sant pans around Vaughn to come for a closer shot on his line, “Understand, I don’t hate her, I hate what she’s become. I hate the illness,” (Figure 8). In Hitchcocks original direction he jump cuts to a slightly closer perspective and has Perkins suddenly lean forward to make the shot a closeup just before he responds to Leigh’s line of, “Can’t you put her someplace.” The alteration makes Vaughn seem more assertive in making excuses for his mother whereas the more passive Perkin’s only reactes to the allegation that his mother should be institutionalized. When the traditionally climactic line does occur Vaughn can only slightly shift himself forward since he is already close to the camera. Van Sant’s alterations within the scene structure draw attention to the beats of the scene that Hitchcock focused on: particularly the passive nature of Norman.
 Two of the most noticeable examples of heavily altered scenes are principally: (1) The scene of therapist who diagnoses Norman at the end of the film is shortened. (2) The final shot of the car being pulled from the swamp is extended with an extended shot on a crane that pulls up to show the landscape.
 Due to the possible confusion that could occur when referring to two different sets of actors playing the same set of characters, this paper will refer to the characters by their character names when talking about both sets of actors and the respective actors when referring to a specific version.
 It is very possible that Van Sant chose to shoot it this way because of Vaughn’s considerable height advantage over Heche (Perkins and Leigh were even) which contributes to the audiences perception of him as larger and potentially more dominant (Figure 2). One of Hitchcocks strategies throughout the original seems to have been to portray Perkins as diminutive, heightening the surprise when we discover he is the killer. Vaughn’s size puts him at a disadvantage so Van Sant is forced to compensate.
 In this case the overall objective of Hitchcock’s suture into Norman is to make the revelation that he is the killer even more jarring for the audience.
After considering the ways that Van Sant can manipulate Hitchcock’s original picture through changes of camera perspective, the only other touches of influence are in small details that can affect overarching themes that recur throughout the original film. Besides choosing actors, Van Sant was faced with decisions such as: which decorations to place in the parlor or which lines of dialogue to add or exclude. These minute elements become crucial as the only means of divergent expression and commentary on the original.
The list of changes that Van Sant makes can be broken down into three categories based on the kind of thematic commentary they make: character alteration, plot closure, and shifts of overall tone. With each change the audience has the opportunity to ask why Hitchcock chose to present things as they are in the original.
 Because Van Sant’s script was in many ways already written for him in the form of most shot directions and dialogue, there is only a small margin where the director can take creative initiative. Because the creative margin is so small, the smallest changes of details become important statements.
 It is worth noting that for two examples: Van Sant followed Hitchcock’s intent by including an additional line from the wealthy homebuyer “[the bed is the] only playground that beats Las Vegas.” He also included a shot right after the shower murder where the camera looks down on Marion’s body where it lays sprawled halfway in the tub. Because these elements were part of Hitchcock’s original intent they will be excluded from analysis on the basis that they are not comments by Van Sant on the original through original changes.
 Due to the highly subjective nature of analyzing Van Sants choice of actors and their performances, this paper will focus on the concrete aspects of the production that Van Sant would have had complete or near complete control over in accordance with Auteur theory. For example, it is impossible to compare two actors’ “feel” of a character while remaining objective. General movements and physical positioning can be compared though because the director has control over them.
Main Actor Guide
William H. Macy
Vaughn’s portrayal of Norman is decidedly darker than Perkins. The most obvious and profound change between their characters is the decision to portray Vaughn as masturbating during the scene where he looks through the hole in the wall at Heche undressing.
Whether or not masturbation was what Hitchcock wanted to imply originally, there is no question that it would never have been accepted by movie censors in 1960. One can see the inclusion of masturbation as an attempt to update the scene for modern audiences who may be more desensitized to what would have been shocking a generation ago.
Leaving aside the question of how to “update” Norman for modern audiences, the inclusion of blatant sexual deviance considerably reduces the ability to perceive Norman as sympathetic. Perkins retains a sort of immature boyhood that reduced his perceived culpability; whereas Vaughn distinctly reminds the viewer through masturbation that Norman is filled with adult inclinations and deserving of all the responsibility of an adult character.
This raises the question of Hitchcock’s intent of how the audience is supposed to perceive Norman. In his famous interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock admitted that he intends the viewer to feel a certain degree of sympathy with Norman. Based on this insight, it seems unlikely that Hitchcock would have chosen to portray Perkins masturbating even with the permission to. The detrimental effect to his character’s likability would have been too much.
 The inference can primarily be made by the sounds of his pants zipper opening, a slapping sound while he watches her accompanied with a slight rocking of his body, and then another zip when he is finished.
 Also leaving aside the question of whether or not Van Sant was successful or not in updating the character.
Plot Hole Closure
As complete and relatively flawless as many critics will tell you the original Psycho is, it still harbors its share of what could be termed flaws. Van Sant seeks to rectify a few choice examples through additions that are intended to complete the original by taking note of flaws and cleverly steering around them.
One of earliest apparent flaws in the original Psycho is in the scene where Leigh is approached by a police officer after being discovered sleeping on the side of the road in her car. The policeman asks for her identification, inspects her front license plate, and then wordlessly hands her back her identification while walking back to his patrol car. Because he did not say anything one might assume that he expected her to stay put while he got something from his patrol car. Her abrupt departure from the scene could appear to be fleeing from police while his following her seems to corroborate this to some degree even though he doesn’t have his siren on. Van Sant inserts the line “have a nice day,” as the policeman walks away, giving a little more closure to the encounter and letting the audience know that when the officer follows Heche, it isn't because she pulled out without his permission.
Another distinctly noticeably flaw occurs a few minutes later when Leigh buys a used ’57 Ford sedan from the used car salesman. The year ’57 is clearly painted onto the windshield (Figure 9) but it seems unlikely that someone came by and scraped or wiped it away in the few seconds that Leigh steps into the bathroom. In the nest shot of the car the windshield is completely clean (Figure 10). Van Sant cleverly remarks on this by having the used car salesman panic and grab the year placard that Heche almost drives away with still attached to the windshield of her 1889 Volvo sedan (Figure 11).
For the number of plot holes that Van Sant apparently attempts to fix, he inadvertently creates a handful that are equally as bad. The cashier who works in the department store with Sam’s character is referred to as “Bob” in both versions even though his shirt name badge reads “Rick” in Van Sant’s retelling (Figure 12).
Ultimately comparing Hithcock to Van Sant reminds one that mistakes are bound to occur within films. Hitchcock personally reported having an almost nonchalant attitude towards plot holes in his Truffaut interviews.
Shifts of Overall Tone
The most pronounced changes that Van Sant makes occur during the climactic “shower scene” and the stairwell scene where Detective Arbogast is murdered. In the first example, Heche’s death montage is interspersed with two rapid flashes of a thunderstorm (Figure 13) in time-lapse and accompanied with the sound of thunder. For Detective Arbogast the two shots are of a nude woman laying supine (Figure 14) and a shot of a car approaching a lone cow on the road (Figure 15). The shots in the context of their respective murders are surreal and not easy to dissemble in relation to the larger themes of the Hitchcock’s original. The most basic explanation is that the flashes are the profound last thoughts that each character “sees” before their death. This conclusion is supported by an extra shot of Heche’s eye where her pupil dilates at the end of the second thunderstorm shot (Figure 16).
The addition of the shots is clearly meant to give the audience a means by which they can feel closer to the murdered Marion and Arbogast through a suture into their last moments. This is consistent with the earlier established theme of Van Sant choosing a shooting style which places the camera perspective closer to the faces of the actors.
Arguably the problem with this is the sheer unexpectedness and seeming randomness of the scenes that don’t appear to make sense within the logical narrative of the story. Both examples are profoundly un-Hitchcockian because of the metaphysical and confusing undertones that they carry. Perhaps their closest analogue is the Salvador Dali produced dream sequence in Spellbound, but in that case the scene was clearly explained with narration. Throughout his films Hitchcock was always extremely conscientious about making sure that the audience fully understood the meaning and implications of what was occurring on screen.
 It is also curious to note that in order to be completely accurate, Heche’s pupils should dilate after she has fully died. In the scene she clearly has some motor control before falling down over the edge of the tub, apparently lifeless. A small error made during the scene can be noticed during the shot where the camera spins outward, her eyes don’t appear dilated as they were established to be in the previous shot.
 For example, in his reproduction of The Man Who Knew Too Much he makes it explicitly clear at the start of the film that the cymbal crash would be significant. He then has his actors play the relevant section twice over so that the audience can anticipate the moment without any confusion.
How Have We Changed In 38 Years?
While many of the minor changes can be attributed to the difference in directors, the difference in time between the original Psycho and the remake also needs to be taken into account.
Van Sant exudes in close perspectives on the actors at the expense of a wider shot. This puts the actor more in the audiences "face" by making the shot much more intimate. If a scene is made up too extensively of close shots it runs the danger of losing the "feel of the setting" or of other parts of the actors that are not being focused on.
A close shot might convey a wink better than a medium shot, but it cannot as easy show a shrug of the shoulders, or a fidgeting set of hands unless it explicitly chooses them as the target.
Hitchcock's wider shots didn't force the audience to become intimate with the characters, but rather allowed them to approach the characters in their own terms. This is overall a characteristic that gives Hitchcock a very distinctive sense of subdued realism that other filmmakers sometimes lack when they are zooming in and out of details. Sometimes giving the details in a wider shot and allowing the audience to notice without sticking their nose in it has a way all of its own.
Limits of what it is acceptable to show are also a big difference between the 1960s and the current period. Leigh's toilet flush in 1960 was the first one to be shown in a film, tearing down the censorship conventions on the time. Now nobody thinks twice. The characterization of Vaughn as a masturbatory pervert rather than merely a peeping tom is also another change that the times have wrought.
Perhaps finally, Macy's death montage represents a fundamental shift in the direction Van Sant wanted to take his murder as opposed to Hitchcock's direction. The three seemingly random and disparate scenes have little connection to each other and Arbogast's death. What connection that there might be can only be speculated at. One might suggest that it does at the very least represent a certain fascination with the surreal. The viewer is given the sense that Macy's death has a certain amount of mysticism.
Laura Smith from Pittsburgh, PA on June 03, 2014:
I feel like I didn't give the remake as much credit after seeing the original first. I wonder if I would have had a different opinion of the remake if I had seen that version first and not known about the surprise ending. This is a really interesting dissection of both movies, and it makes me have a little more appreciation for the remake.
Joe from north miami FL on June 02, 2014:
The original is just so much better then the remake but I like all the points you made
Travis Wakeman (author) on June 01, 2014:
Thanks for the kind words. This was originally a term paper for an undergraduate course that I brushed off and thought I could put to some use here with a few minor alterations. My professor enjoyed my analysis and hopefully you might as well.
Carlo Giovannetti from Puerto Rico on June 01, 2014:
I'm gonna bookmark this for later. Seems like you made a pretty exhaustive analysis and I'd like to give it proper attention.
For what it's worth, I've always respected Van Sant's intention to honor and revitalize a classic, regardless of the end result.