Don't Hate Me: Why I Love 'Psycho' (1998)
Oh boy, this one will be a hard one to defend. There aren't many movies that are as hated as the 1998 version of Psycho, directed by Gus Van Sant. It is often seen as a total disgrace to the original 1960 Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, among other nasty things. Critics and audiences alike rejected it and the movie failed miserably at the box office upon release, grossing $37 million out of a $60 million budget. Nonetheless, whether you call it a disgrace, an odd experiment, or a waste of time and money, I can't help but find this film completely fascinating to watch. In fact, I think I've seen it more times than the original! How is that possible? Am I crazy? Well, as Norman Bates himself says, we all go a little mad sometimes.
Psycho (1998) is not the first movie to expand on the universe created in the 1960 original. There were two surprisingly great sequels, Psycho II (1983) and Psycho III (1986). There was also a rather dull 1990 TV movie prequel called Psycho IV. Anthony Perkins starred as Norman Bates in all of those, assuring some kind of continuity. There was also a crappy TV pilot made in 1987 titled Bates Motel, but the first episode was very bad and didn't gain enough of an audience to garner a full series. Then came the great 2013 series (also titled Bates Motel) that acts as a prequel to the Hitchcock film. The 1998 movie is neither a sequel nor a prequel; it is a shot-by-shot remake of the original. This time it is shot in color instead of black and white, and of course features a new 90s cast and updated production design. There are still some differences between the two films, most notably the insertion of strange, surreal shots during the murder scenes and minimal alterations to the script in order to make it more relevant to the period of 1998.
I believe Psycho is the only movie that has ever been remade shot-by-shot. That reason alone makes it worth watching for film enthusiasts or fans of the franchise. Director Gus Van Sant effectively replicates all of Hitchcock's camera angles and cuts. Van Sant himself is a great director; his 1995 film To Die For is worth watching if you liked Psycho. He was reportedly constantly carrying a laptop with him during filming in order to watch the 1960 original anytime during production. How strange is that? The way films were directed and cut in the late 90s was very different than the methods used in the 60s but Psycho (1998) looks and sounds like a 1960 movie. As odd as that idea might be, the film remains an extremely effective thriller. After all, it's a remake of the best entry in the genre. You simply can't go wrong with that kind of plot. Joseph Stefano's script (based on Robert Bloch's novel) remains terribly effective, as does Bernard Herrmann's musical score, here rerecorded by Danny Elfman. The problem is that almost everyone knows the plot twist and if you don't, then you are more likely to watch the 1960 version. I would also recommend watching Hitchcock's version first and then enjoying the remake for what it is; a unique film that remains a very bizarre and completely fascinating Hollywood experiment.
The 1960 classic stars Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, Vera Miles as Lila Crane, and John Gavin and Martin Balsam as Sam Loomis and Dectective Arbogast. All these actors gave excellent and memorable performances, especially Perkins and Leigh. This makes it virtually impossible to imagine someone else portraying these characters. After watching the 1998 version, my opinion about that remains pretty much the same. However, director Gus Van Sant assembled a terrific cast for his film that only a big budget could afford, albeit a quite controversial one. The movie is worth watching to see how the new cast compares to the original one.
The casting of Vince Vaughn as the iconic Norman Bates is the first element critics use nowadays to ridicule the film. Who could think that the Wedding Crashers guy could fill in Anthony Perkins' shoes? For some, it's as if Jim Carrey was hired to play Hannibal Lecter in a Silence of the Lambs remake. What most tend to forget is that back in 1998, Vaughn was not yet known only for comedies. He was hot from the 1997 hit Jurassic Park: The Lost World and was just starting his career. I believe he delivers an OK performance but nothing very memorable; he is obviously trying to act like Anthony Perkins. His biggest flaw is that he appears to be deranged the first moment we see him on-screen. We know straight away that this guy is crazy, while Perkins infused his Norman Bates with a boy-next-door charm that made the plot twist totally unexpected and much more shocking. I think it was simply impossible to replicate Perkins' performance and Vaughn deserves at least some respect for trying his best.
Anne Heche portrays Marion Crane, the Bates Motel's doomed visitor and the main character for the first half of the film. She was nominated for a Worst Actress Razzie Award for her role here. I don't believe it was deserved. Unlike Vaughn, it doesn't seem like she was trying to replicate Janet Leigh's performance at all. Her portrayal of the character is rather different. Her Marion seems like a more determined woman who feels much less guilty about stealing the money from the bank where she works. She also seems to sense that something is wrong with Norman Bates much sooner. I actually think I prefer Anne Heche's version. Don't get me wrong, Leigh was perfect for Hitchcock's film but Heche succeeded in updating the character for the late 90s. I simply feel like it is easier for me to relate to her as a working woman who gets trapped.
Viggo Mortensen is Sam Loomis, Marion's lover. In my mind, he gives an average performance. He looks more menacing and macho than John Gavin but he doesn't seem very troubled by the disappearance of his girlfriend. His heavy accent makes it hard to understand most of what he says in some scenes. Julianne Moore plays Lila Crane, Marion's sister. She is great in the part (Moore is great in any role) and like Heche, she succeeded in updating her character to the late 90s while echoing Vera Miles' performance in some scenes. She gets more to do in this version as she notably kicks Norman Bates down when he tries to kill her. I definitely prefer Moore's portrayal and I think she would have been terrific as Marion.
Worth mentioning is William H. Macy's performance as Dectective Arbogast. He portrays him as a genuinely sympathetic and caring character. As such, his death is much more shocking in the remake. I believe his portrayal is in every way superior to Martin Balsam's in the original, who seemed more detached. The rest of the supporting cast is all very good and director Gus Van Sant himself makes a cameo during the early bank scene, exactly like Hitchcock did in his own film.
The Production Design
The film looks strange. I mean that as a good thing as it makes it even more unsettling and gives it a surreal, dream-like quality at times. There is an odd mix of 60s and 90s fashion at play here. Just look at how the characters are dressed! While some of the costumes look cool, like Detective Arbogast's outfit, some are just bizarre. Marion's wardrobe is pretty out there. During the making of the film, it was decided that the Bates Motel and the house needed a redesign. What we got is an updated motel that looks just like any modern-day place and a house that looks weird but nothing special or memorable; the original house was instantly recognizable. A new facade was built over the old house on the Universal Studios backlot but they rightfully kept the interior as it was in 1960. The idea to give such a different look to the house was a mistake, as I think the original one had an iconic look that is a crucial part of the Psycho franchise. I visited the Universal Studios backlot a few years ago and saw that they removed the new facade. Good decision!
The music for the 1960 film was composed by the late great Bernard Herrmann. The score was rerecorded in stereo by Danny Elfman for the remake. It doesn't sound like the kind of musical score you would get in a horror film from 1998 but the music is perfect. It is suspenseful yet still very listenable on its own. The score is worth buying if you are an enthusiast of film scores. Like most big budget Hollywood films at the time, there was also a soundtrack album featuring pop and rock songs released to accompany the film. This is very strange as I recall hearing only one song in the film, Rob Zombie's Living Dead Girl (when Marion gets a new car). Most of the songs included are inspired by the film and some tracks are worth checking out, the best being Mono's Madhouse (which samples Herrmann's score to great effect) and the Rob Zombie song. Other than that, you should only get the score album if you are a die-hard fan of the 1998 film.
The film is worth checking out if you are a fan of the Psycho franchise or a film nerd. Other than that, you should stick to the 1960 original. This is one of those rare cinema oddities that happened only once and I'm completely fascinated by it. You have to admire the guts it took to remake a film as perfect as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. This is a film that could have, by its lack of success and the controversy surrounding it, seriously damaged the careers of those involved Luckily, this was not the case. Gus Van Sant directed plenty of successful films, starting with FindingForrester in 2000. Vince Vaughn went on to star in successful comedies, giving up serious roles. The rest of the cast found great success in various films over the years. Only Anne Heche seemed to suffer as she starred in only a few well-known movies after this one. She has stuck to numerous TV series that have allowed her to have a successful career.
Had the movie been a commercial hit, who knows what other films would have been remade shot-by-shot ? I guess we'll never know.
Thank you for reading!