Published December 1, 1998
The first question to be asked about the shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, directed from Alfred Hitchcock’s original shooting script by Gus Van Sant, is why? What is the point? Couldn’t they just have got Ted Turner to “colorize” the great man’s greatest masterpiece? Why bother to hire a whole new cast and crew to go through the same motions with the analytical certainty of looking bad by comparison? The answer is, I’m afraid — and I apologize for harping on the same string — that some creative genius wanted to make a post-modern movie out of it. This was done simply by remaking it, since the point of the original was to lead its audience to the two big surprises which, by now, everyone likely to see this movie will already know. Indeed, the first of the two surprises, the stabbing to death in the shower of the main character, Marion Crane — here played by Anne Heche, in the original by Janet Leigh — is actually presented in the advertising for the movie.
This is a bit like Andy Warhol’s printed reduplications of the image of Marilyn Monroe. Out of the imagery of scary or beautiful reality in primary art, all the reality is squeezed, and what we are left with is a series of after-images. Images that keep reminding you that they are merely images. Throughout this movie, the things that made the original of 1960 so memorable are deliberately sabotaged, and for the same purpose: to remind us that those haunting images are merely images. The apparent wholesomeness of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, for example, is not even attempted by Vince Vaughn, who is Van Sant’s Norman. Here is a man who has played serial killers before, and whose trademark is the menacing giggle. He gives it here again when we first meet him, as if we need to be reminded (we don’t) that he is not Norman and not Tony Perkins but the psycho-killer we were expecting from the beginning.
It’s a hell of a price to pay for a merely literary-critical point. Or that and what becomes a post-modern joke when Norman says of his mother that “She really isn’t herself today.” This is a movie on every frame of which is imprinted all but legibly Magrittean disclaimers. This is not a murder. This is not a psycho. This is not a thriller. It is merely a movie and, as such, a historical document. Van Sant fills the Bates motel and other locations with 1950s-era furnishings in order to remind us of this too. Psycho has now become a movie about itself, rather than about sexual pathology, since (presumably) the sexual pathology of Norman Bates is as much of his period as the lamps. Norman, like Ike, is merely an Ike-on of his times.
It is only for that reason that we enjoy taking him out of his box and winding him up occasionally. Like all postmodern heroes, he’s good for a laugh still if not for a fright. Van Sant gets his own perverse thrills, however, from repeating him and everybody else out of their contexts. Thus he has Marion’s sister, Lyle (Julianne Moore), suddenly asking for her Walkman. Or he shows Norman audibly masturbating as he watches Miss Heche disrobing through his peephole. If you think that that was what was missing from the original, you will like this remake. But not otherwise.