May 27, 2020
For quite a while now, many film fans (including myself) have noted the countless remakes/reboots that are coming out of the woodwork. One example of this which certainly gave remakes/reboots a bad name was Gus Van Sant’s follow-up to his successful drama Good Will Hunting. When Van Sant’s version of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1960 film was first announced, many immediately expressed shock and anger that anyone was going to attempt to redo a movie that was perfect in the eyes of many. This feeling of dread was not helped by the fact that Van Sant was going to remake the film scene-by-scene and in color.
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Looking back now, I’d say it was the scene-by-scene route that Van Sant took which was worse than actually remaking a classic movie. I recently re-read the novel by Robert Bloch. Hitchcock’s movie certainly does the book justice, although there are some slight differences. Perhaps the one that sticks out for me is the character of Norman Bates. Bloch’s book describes him as overweight with a drinking problem. In other words, Norman has a bit more in common with the real-life psychopath whom Bloch modeled him on: Ed Gein. He was a farmer from Wisconsin who was arrested in 1957 when it was discovered that his home was littered with human remains, some of which he ate, wore, or used as house decorations. Like Norman, Gein also had a fixation on his deceased mother. This story would also inspire later horror classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs. Hitchcock, however, had the character, played by Anthony Perkins, as a slender and sensitive man who would rather drink milk.
Van Sant’s film could’ve shaken things up by having a physically different type play Norman, but instead he cast Vince Vaughn, who was and remains best known for playing slacker types in comedies like Swingers and Four Christmases. I also think of his role in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Regardless of build, Vaughn was never able to make us fear or pity Norman the way Perkins did. The annoying chuckle Vaughn gives at several moments in the film certainly doesn’t help. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert said that maybe no actor could’ve held a candle to Perkins in the role, although Ebert suggested Jeremy Davies, who had a memorable role in Saving Private Ryan, which was released the same year. A friend of mine suggested that Crispin Glover would’ve been a good choice as well.
This also brings us to the one difference between this version and Hitchcock’s version that made this film infamous. When Norman is spying on Marion Crane (Anne Heche playing Janet Leigh’s role in the original) we actually hear him masturbating. This caused some audiences to chuckle, thus diffusing any tension that the scene in the original movie generated. Putting aside the fact that Hitchcock couldn’t have gotten away with something like that when he made the film, we were able to determine on our own that Norman was turned on by what he was looking at without anything superfluous to drive that point home.
The rest of the cast had solid actors, such as William H. Macy and Vaughn’s Lost World costar Julianne Moore. Alas, none of them end up matching their respective counterparts in their roles either. Call me biased, but they all seem to deliver their lines as if they’re rambling and without any conviction. Perhaps the movie’s biggest offender in this regard is Robert Forster, who plays the psychiatrist played by Simon Oakland in the original. Forster sounds downright bored as he repeats the same exposition explaining why Norman is the way he is. Ebert and others have stated that the explanation for this (which is not in Bloch’s novel) was unnecessary even in Hitchcock’s film. I’m indifferent to it myself, but I will say that Oakland at least sounded like he gave a crap when he delivered it.
Other slight differences include the images that are inexplicably shown when Macy’s character Arbogast (played by Martin Balsam in the original) is killed on the staircase. Maybe this was supposed to be surrealistic or something, but it just makes me go WTF?, never mind it not being the shocking moment that it was in the original.
This probably highlights the major issue with Van Sant’s film: it’s too derivative and the moments that are original don’t add anything.
There are those who defend Van Sant’s version; Quentin Tarantino said that he preferred it to the original. As I stated earlier, the idea of another version of Psycho shouldn’t automatically induce scorn. But remakes should at least bring something different and memorable to the equation. Hammer Films brought different dynamics to their Dracula and Frankenstein series which differentiated them from Universal’s. This is why those films stand proudly alongside Universal’s versions for horror fans. Other remakes, such as Carpenter’s The Thing or Cronenberg’s The Fly succeeded by taking similar tacks.
But Van Sant’s decision to remake each specific scene in Hitchcock’s film gives his work an aura of awkwardness. In his review of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Ebert likened Sergio Leone’s earlier film A Fistful of Dollars to Van Sant’s in the way it closely remade Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai movie Yojimbo. But this comparison is a bit unfair, because the western setting of Leone’s film alone helped differentiate it from Yojimbo (although Leone would make a slight faux pas when he neglected to clear the rights with Kurosawa before filming; this resulted in the latter being awarded the distribution rights to the film in his native Japan as well as a chunk of the worldwide profits. Needless to say, A Fistful of Dollars made Kurosawa a very rich man).
Remaking a revered classic like Psycho is bold, to say the least. Van Sant’s method, though, is what drew the ire of many. As a result, while Van Sant is still directing movies, he has yet to achieve the career high of Good Will Hunting, and unfairly or not, that may be due to his version of Psycho. No, I don’t believe the film itself diminishes the impact of the brilliance of Hitchcock’s. Perhaps a remake would’ve been greeted with less criticism had it drawn more inspiration from Bloch’s novel and had more contemporary sensibilities. The start of Van Sant’s film may state that it takes place in 1998, but aside from Moore’s Lila (played by Vera Miles in the original) saying she needs to grab her Walkman, you’d never get that impression watching the rest of the film.
While Tarantino is probably the only person I know of who says Van Sant’s version is better, I can’t exactly condemn Van Sant for electing to use his clout to do a project like this. I believe him when he says that it was solely meant as a tribute to the original. But a little more originality thrown into the mix could have conceivably made his film less of the lightning rod for criticism that it remains. It could have even be viewed as a good film in its own right.