I have said time and time again to people that you can learn a lot from watching bad films. They are good for any filmmaker on identifying the film’s problems so that they do not make the same mistakes. However, I find that my own statement comes into question about certain bad films because there are films that insult me personally. It’s hard to put into words but there are the type of films that whenever you hear someone talking about them, you start to feel tingly like a button has been pushed inside you that fills you with hate, at which point you feel you have to set the world right by going over everything bad about it. One such film that does this for me is Gus Van Sant’s shot by shot remake of Psycho in 1998.
There is no point giving you a rundown of the story of this Psycho remake because it is the exact same story albeit with some modern alterations. Marion Crane (Anne Heche) wants to marry her boyfriend Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen) so she steals $400,000 from her employer’s client. On the run, during a freak rainstorm, she stops at the Bates Motel run by Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn) etcetera, etcetera, yadda yadda ya.
First of all, I can sum up this film in one word, pointless. At what point did it compel anyone to think that Hitchcock’s masterpiece, with some considering it one of the greatest films ever made, needed to be remade? At what point was it decided that what people wanted to see what more Psycho considering the sequels had practically run that river dry? (oh yes, Psycho had sequels).
I do want to talk about the positives, or just the one positive about this film and that is the immediate reaction to the people behind it. This was directed by Gus Van Sant a very well-respected director at the time, in fact, before directing this, he had just made his defining film Good Will Hunting which won a lot of awards and praise from fans and critics. So, what I am failing to understand is how do you go from best director NOMINEE at the Academy Awards to worst director WINNER at the Golden Razzies a year later? How fast do you want your fall from grace to be again? There are some big acting names attached here. Julianne Moore is in this film as Marion’s sister Lila Crane, Viggo Mortensen as previously mention is Marion’s boyfriend and William H. Macy, who had just starred in the amazing Fargo, as Detective Arbogast. But as we will see, their talents are completely wasted here.
Now that is over, let’s talk about everything I hate with a passion about this film, the first being Norman Bates, one of my favourite characters ever. Anthony Perkins’s performance of this character is legendary, and he must have loved playing this character because he was willing to return to the role for the Psycho sequels. Of course, with his passing in 1992, the question was who would be the one to carry on his career-defining legacy and reintroduce us to the sweet but sinister boy next door persona. So, they went with Vince Vaughn.
What the hell were they thinking? Ok, granted by this stage he had not yet got his reputation as the funny guy, but even still, this is a serious case of miscasting. His performance is so awkward, it has as if he is constantly wrestling with the unsurely of when to be sinister or sweet, and often, he gets them the wrong way round. The scene in the motel office is a prime example. With Anthony Perkins’s performance, you could see it all on his face how mentally tortured Norman is, but when someone brings up the thought of him leaving his mother, he becomes scarily defensive. With Vince Vaughn’s Norman Bates, he is all creepy, all the time, if you were Marion in that situation and saw how creepy Norman acted all the time, you would be hauling out of there. Also, in the scene where Norman spies on Marion he, how should I put it, enjoys the scene a bit too much which we didn’t need to know
Remember how Hitchcock’s Psycho was in black and white because of budget restrictions, but now ask yourself would that looked at differently if it was in colour? The black and white I think is a crucial factor for how scary the film was at the time because darker shades of colour stand out more, for example, blood (which Hitchcock used chocolate syrup). If Gus Van Sant’s version achieved anything, it is to help people understand that some black and white films should stay black and white. The creepy nature of the film is long gone along with the element of surprise, so Psycho 1998 tries to compensate by drawing out the more suspenseful scenes. Sorry, but you cannot compete with the Master of Suspense no matter how hard you try. The sense of timing Hitchcock had is infamous for being so spot on.
The film even mismanages Bernard Hermann’s masterful score. It’s surprising to me that the filmmakers wanted to give a modern update of Psycho but not do anything about the music. I get that the sound of Psycho is something that is treasured amongst the people who adore this film and I suppose the filmmakers thought that changing it would be a step over the line, however, when you play an unaltered score form the 1960’s over music from the late ’90s, the big differences are going to be heard and it actually comes across as jarring and out of place.
Not that Gus Van Sant tries his hardest to implement his own style, which to some means this isn’t a literal shot for shot remake. The problem is when he implements his style, it deflates the emotional intensity Psycho is built upon. Do fast-moving storm clouds, a dominatrix, and a calf on the road sound like Psycho moments to you. If like me, you answered “hell no” it’s bad news for you because we get these shots as quick subliminals during both the iconic shower scene and the second murder. This film can’t even get the shower scene right! The most sacred scene in the film and you’ve reduced it to something devoid of any increment of horror!
It’s safe to say that shock was never of Gus Van Sant’s side. Whether you’re an avid fan like myself or just know Psycho from word of mouth, everyone is familiar with the story so there’s no real reason to be terrified again by the events that take place. This film feels like it was done as an experiment knowing that it was probably going to fail anyway, which is probably why the film has many filmmaking errors. In the same motel office scene, when Marion and Norman are discussing Norman’s mother, you can hear the cameraman’s footsteps as he pans around Norman. His taxidermy birds are blurred out meaning the composition loses any sort of clear visual intrigue.
I hate Psycho 1998. It should have been a lesson learned that just because you’re making the same classic film, does not mean you are making a classic. It sneaks it subtle changes that feel good in a script but put into practice is a terrible idea and the filmmakers should have identified that from the beginning. Hitchcock was a clever director, he knew how to use elements like shadows in a black and white film and snappy cuts to maximize what he was going for, take that away and what you have is a shell with no substance that completely misses the point of what makes Psycho a classic.