Gus Van Sant likes telling stories about troubled young men. He went on the road with them in My Own Private Idaho, then followed them into therapy for Good Will Hunting. And, thanks largely to the success of the latter, he amassed enough Tinseltown kudos to be allowed to turn his attentions to one of cinema’s all-time mama’s boys – the very troubled Norman Bates. The controversial result has been the most baffling movie sideshow of the past year, a “shot-for-shot”, full-colour “re-creation” of Psycho.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 original was a low-budget quickie. Deliberately shot in black-and-white, it became a classic. But anyone who missed seeing this masterfully realised, black-humoured horror may wonder what all the fuss is about. Van Sant’s new version is slow and not very frightening. It’s less a remake than a film-school-style experiment. Assignment: choose a famous movie, keep most of the dialogue, music, action and framing. Change the cast and the sets, bring it up to date by shooting it in colour. But just how different can the new flick be?
The answer? Too different. Some of Van Sant’s tinkering is jarring (“That is NOT the Bates house!... But ooooh, love the new shower curtain!”). Other tweaks are more subtle, like caged birds here and a big spider there. Some, however, are downright inexplicable – why is there a fuzzy shot of a cow edited into the midst of one of the murders?
Unfortunately, most of the new version’s ‘improvements’ prove to be no improvement at all. We can now know exactly how deeply Norman enjoys spying on Marion – far more information than most of us needed. We can now see that celebrated shower scene in colour, with an ample spatter of scarlet blood. We can even hear the famous knife enter tender flesh in digital, THX, multi-channel sound. By the time Norman arrives and gags at the bathroom carnage, we’re way ahead of him.
Van Sant also makes one truly subversive change: he turns the whole story’s sexuality on its head. Hitch’s Marion Crane was doe-eyed Janet Leigh, a gorgeous middle-class fantasy. In contrast, Anthony Perkins’ Norman was an asexual weakling, no match for the domineering Mother Bates, and so, at first, Norman seemed sad and almost sympathetic.
Flash-forward 38 years and the new Psycho offers a miscast, unappealing Anne Heche as Marion, looking almost completely androgynous. Vince Vaughn’s Norman is the sexy one, a bathhouse hunk with bulging pecs and pouty lips, while Marion’s boyfriend Sam Loomis (who was pretty forgettable in the original) is played as a cowboy fantasy by Viggo Mortensen.
Vaughn’s performance is certainly daring but he, too, is miscast. He is simply too big to be pathetic, and gives Norman a creepy nervous laugh (like the sound of a sheep choking in mid-bleat) that leaves no doubt that the character is, well, a psycho. The laugh is funny, but it means there’s no surprise when Norman turns out to be even crazier than he seemed.
To its credit, Van Sant’s Psycho does have lots of laughs – this is no accident, as even Hitchcock’s original is full of dry humour. But the biggest snicker comes in the closing credits, which include: “Special thanks to John Woo for his kitchen knife.” It conjures up the delicious thought of what the Hong Kong action master might have done with his own “recreation”. But Woo was wise enough to provide only the blade, leaving the butchery to Van Sant.