Psycho (1998)

D: Gus Van Sant
S: Vince Vaughan, Anne Heche

Weak remake of the seminal 1960 thriller based on the original screenplay by Joseph Stefano and taking many of its visual cues and camera movements from the direction of Alfred Hitchcock. The film caused a minor squall of controversy, largely generated by pre-release hype to rival that of the master himself, creating anticipation not by offering another darkly comic, taboo-breaking chiller from the director of Vertigo and North by Northwest, but a 'sacrilegious' remake by one of contemporary cinema's most interesting stylists. Its eventual release caused a small sizzle of confoundment and apathy. The film itself simply did not generate enough interest on its own merits to match the post-release hype which sustained the original long enough for it to become a classic.

Postmodernism has reached yet another soulless plateau here. This film is an ironic in-joke which sits smugly above and beyond criticism. It takes Hitchcock's sense of humour and turns it on itself. Psycho was a black comedy neatly wrapped in psychobabble and suspense. The remake is a 'high concept' gag which laughs not only at itself, but at the very idea of itself. No one involved in the making of this film could for one minute have assumed that it would either match or surpass its predecessor. Therefore we must look elsewhere to understand why they would bother to make it.

Commercially, it couldn't fail. Provided the budget didn't get too high, it was guaranteed a return at the international box-office and in video sales out of sheer curiosity and historical interest. Love it or hate it, people would go to see it. Even Waterworld eventually found its following. Gus Van Sant is a different proposition. He has made some interesting films, including Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and To Die For. He'd even generated some commercial clout and bourgeois cred with his workmanlike service on Good Will Hunting. Why would he do this? Presuming he had a serious artistic goal in mind, it would have to be rooted in a long-held adolescent fascination with the original and a desire to do it for himself. I'm sure this is not an uncommon impulse in fledgling directors. It would have to be something more though, and the only answer is that postmodernism offered the perfect forum to play an elaborate gag on the cinema. Perhaps it's a cinematic "up yours" to the commercial mainstream, a serious artistic statement in disguise?

For the first few minutes, Gus Van Sant's Psycho is funny. It is amusing to see Saul Bass' credits reworked in colour, to listen to Bernard Hermann's score being conducted with some embellishment by Steve Bartek (produced by Danny Elfman), to see how the exact camera movements have been mimicked, to hear how the dialogue has been more or less carried over (though some lines excised from the original script in the Hitchcock version have been reinstated here). Unfortunately, the amusement doesn't last. You then begin waiting for the big moments out of sheer curiosity. How will Van Sant handle the shower scene? Will Vince Vaughn manage the delicate balancing act of making Norman seem edgy but sympathetic? What's all this I hear about masturbation?

This reaction doesn't last either. As the film goes on, it simply becomes tiresome, as it is obvious that Van Sant cannot generate suspense or tension and that Vaughn is just not interesting in the film's central role. The all-important parlour scene does not convince us that Anne Heche as Marion would have stayed for the night in his Motel. Norman is just too obviously unhinged and not a bit likable. The shower scene is completely ineffective, and mysteriously intercut with an additional shot of a stormy sky. The scene of the car sinking into the swamp does not make us care for Norman's dilemma. Curiosity about just how things will go next is not as strong as it was before.

Julianne Moore enters as Lila Crane wearing a walkman. Giggle. Snort. Yeah, that was a good one. Okay, now what? Boredom begins. Arbogast arrives, played by William H. Macy. He's wearing a funny hat. Snort. There is then one authentic frisson, as Van Sant manages to emulate that wonderful shot of Norman's chin seen from below as he leans over to look at the register while chewing candy, making him look like a bird of prey. Alas, of course, it is a frisson of recognition rather than an authentic emotional response to the film itself. It passes. Van Sant gets his second shot at scares with the Arbogast murder. Nope. Again he deliberately fragments the scene with cutaway imagery and adds some virtually subliminal sound effects during the build up, as if knowing he cannot scare, he attempts to create some kind of tension by keeping the viewer unbalanced precisely because it isn't scary. This doesn't work. It's not very interesting as an idea either.

The film trundles on towards its resolution. Viggo Mortensen is frankly laughable as Sam Loomis. Julianne Moore is convincingly hostile, but she's playing to nothing as the two go in search of Marion and Arbogast. Van Sant misses one great visual gag in the framing of Lila by a set of garden rakes in the hardware store which makes it look as if she has wings. The avian imagery of the original abounds, and there are even additional birds for our entertainment, but this is old news.

At this point it's just waiting, and the climax eventually arrives. There's one nice shot of Norman seen from Lila's perspective through the front door of the house, his image momentarily doubled (nudge nudge...oh, well I suppose the Hitchcock version was sort of replete with parallel lines and images of duality too...oh...forget it then). The horror in the basement is completely farcical, Van Sant fails even to repeat the Hitchcock gag of making Mother's eyes 'move' with the swinging lamp. Then there's a nod of political correctness as Lila deals the knockout kick to Norman. Finally Robert Forster comes in to give a truncated, apologetic, deeply uncomfortable explanatory speech. He looks as if he knows that what he's doing isn't funny, or even effective in terms of narrative resolution, it's just pathetic. The final scene in the cell with Norman leaves you cold, there is no final sting in his smile. The film ends with a sustained long shot of the swamp after the car has been pulled from it with traffic visible in the distance hurtling along the new highway, the only substantially new image in the film. It's not very interesting either.

What can you say about Van Sant's Psycho that is not obvious before you see it? Okay, it never should have happened. If someone repainted "Guernica" in colour, would it be a significant contribution to the art of painting? If someone retyped "Ulysses" with red typewriter ink, would it be any more interesting? Hitchcock's Psycho was a combination of quality and circumstance which cannot be repeated. Quality can be mimicked, circumstances change. Anyway, Psycho has been reworked and virtually remade several times, with Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill succeeding to an extent in generating the same level of excitement and outrage in its day.

Let's get past that. We must give fair opportunity to Van Sant to try, and we have. Unfortunately the film is devoid of basic dramatic components which are necessary to sustain it. Heche is solid enough as Marion, but she over-reacts and overdoes the facial twitches, removing a great deal of the subtlety of the character. Vaughan is terrible as Norman. He fails to elicit sympathy or suggest a childlike innocence which matches the psychological profile of the character. He is so obviously unbalanced from his first appearance that Marion becomes another dumb blonde in a slasher movie when she fails to leave the Motel. Lacking the ambiguous relationship between audience and character, the film is left with narrative mechanics, which are, obviously, predictable and predetermined. The longer it runs, the more depressing it becomes. It feels progressively emptier and more pointless and has no edge whatsoever. You are finally left only with the impression that it has all been a joke.

Okay, so it's a joke, but it's a joke that is beaten to death for an hour and forty minutes. Of course excess is itself a weapon of satire, and taking the joke all the way has a certain precedent in the work of Andy Warhol. If there is artistic interest here, it is linked only to the artless postmodern aesthetic, where because all art is the meaningless product of the emptiness of capitalism, an empty film made within a commercial system is a kind of knowing commentary upon the role of cinema as an art form in postmodern society. Postmodernism denies art the right to have meaning, punishing society for its blindness. Gus Van Sant's Psycho is a prime example of the punishment. It is empty, worthless and smug.

Perhaps the audience deserves more than this. Maybe the way to address the problems of contemporary cinematic art is to restore some sense of moral and aesthetic meaning to works or art rather than simply point out that none exists by making films which are self-referential to infinity (Natural Born Killers, Deconstructing Harry, Scream 2).

This is an unrewarding viewing experience which is nonetheless essential and inevitable. As a final kick in the guts to contemporary audiences, capitalism will have its say and its makers will have their joke in the fact that this film will probably be as widely seen as the original. Maybe the one consolation we have is that it will never be as loved.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.