4 July 2010

Here's a Thought: Psycho 1998 didn't kill off Psycho 1960

So, twelve years on and Hitchcock's Psycho didn't disappear when Gus Van Sant made Psycho mark two.

Instead of greeting the remake with outright dismissal as many folk did, I always thought it more interesting to look at it for what it tried to do. I was always under the impression that as much as it was a remake, it was also an experiment. In some folks' eyes it was just an exercise, a retread, a homage, a blasphemous shambles. Any or all of the above. But its formal daring and artificial qualities intrigued me more than they baffled or infuriated me.

Van Sant clearly wanted to do a near-direct retelling of the Psycho story (it's not exactly shot-for-shot) for whatever barmy reasons or creative purposes he had in mind. It may have been his love for the original. Or maybe it was just to shake up people's long-held adoration of a revered classic? Maybe he thought the Bates Motel needed a new coat of paint, a freshen up. Who knows? Either way, the reception to the outcome regretfully outweighed the merits of its intention.

It's not a masterpiece like Hitchcock's original. Of course it's not. Nor is it a particularly incisive or truly surprising film. But it's certainly worthy of discussion and further thought. It was commendable and entertaining for the most part. Vince Vaughan can't match Anthony Perkins' thin-lipped deceitfulness and he doesn't try to. But he does make Norman Bates boyish, icky, embarrassed. Anne Heche doesn't have Janet Leigh's subdued elegance or her nervy poise but she does a game impression of her, early '60s clipped accent and all. (And Van Sant appearing outside Marion Crane's office talking to a Hitch look-a-like, where Hitch himself stood in the original in one of his usual blink-and-miss-it cameos, was a witty touch.)

There are diverting pleasures throughout, both imitative and unforeseen. I was drawn in by sheer fascination alone. And can we truly say, with honesty, that a great many remakes, before or since, have been compelling or fascinating? Even if it's due to being drawn in via the in-built novelty factor. I stayed to see how the infamous shower slaying was to be played out.

I embraced Van Sant's version as a cheeky reply (a rebuttal?) instead of lazily fobbing it off as an insult. Folk, even today, and over a decade on, still find new ways to be appalled by the film: check out any online messaging forum with the words 'Psycho' and 'remake' as a subject line and see how the knee-jerk derision outweighs the thoughtful assessment. I always tow the line that if you love the original then why not be at least partially interested in what someone else could do the the same material? It's only essentially trading like for like anyhow.

After all, Van Sant's version didn't replace Hitchcock's. It's still there. Now we have two Psychos to choose from. What choice? Watch them both. Chronologically, or not. Accompanied by the original's three sequels or without them. I love the intrigue of the story of Psycho. I love Hitchcock for making Psycho, one of the most impacting and resonant films of the last 50 years. And I also like that Gus Van Sant took a creative route in reminding the world about it. It didn't need to be remade. Nothing does. But it accompanies the Hitchcock - it doesn't take its place.

*Now, I'd like to see some bold, fearless director take on Citizen Kane. Paul Verhoeven's version, say? Or maybe Brian De Palma's? Or how about a Farrelly brothers take? Such old, canonised stalwarts of cinema aren't forever untouchable, are they?

*I'm only partially joking. Perhaps.


  1. I think Psycho was the last mainstream experimental film, but maybe people hated it because remake implies that you can make it better.

  2. You make a good point. I doubt - considering Psycho's feeble, negative reception - that too many filmmakers of Van Sant's ilk, or otherwise, would risk doing something along these lines again. They should though. One thing this remake did was get people thinking about the nature of remaking and filmwatching. We need more cinematic effrontery to shake up expectations even now and then. And many other remakes since Psycho haven't exactly improved on their originals. (Maybe The Crazies bucked that trend, kinda, though.)