While I’m never going to consider it a “good” movie, I’m strangely glad that director Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho exists. It only serves to make the original movie that much better (as though such a thing was possible) by demonstrating all the things Hitchcock does so perfectly that the remake gets perfectly wrong. Think of it as a $20 million experimental film; now that is has been tried and failed, we know that the experiment doesn’t need repeating. That alone has to be worth something.
Coming off the enormous box office success and a bunch of Oscar nominations for Good Will Hunting, indie director Gus Van Sant suddenly found himself with a great deal of studio clout. Ever the outsider artist, Van Sant decided to cash in all of that goodwill by finally realizing a long-held desire to do a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho—which, truth be told, is maybe the only way to even try to remake Psycho, even if the finished film doesn’t quite work. Taking over for Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is Vince Vaughn, an out-of-the-box choice and arguably the remake’s biggest weakness; Anne Heche steps into Janet Leigh’s shoes as the doomed Marion Crane, whose overnight stay at the Bates Motel leads to the worst shower anyone has taken. Rounding out the new cast is William H. Macy, a highlight as detective Arbogast, Julianne Moore as Marion’s sister Lila, and Viggo Mortensen as Marion’s lover Sam Loomis. These are all good actors. Van Sant is a good director. They’re working with material proven to be great. Why doesn’t it work?
Because filmmaking is alchemy. Psycho 1998 isn’t Psycho 1960 for the simple reason that it can’t be Psycho 1960. Changing just one element changes the entire alchemy of the thing, and the Psycho remake changes every single element by recasting, using a new director, shooting in color—you name it. This is, I suspect, a major reason why Van Sant wanted to conduct the filmmaking experiment in the first place. The problem is that to successfully prove this theory, the resulting film almost has to be unsatisfying. And that’s how we got Psycho ’98, a well-intentioned experiment that falls short because it more or less has to.
But the movie isn’t all bad. I know it’s probably blasphemous to say so, but I still find it pretty watchable. Yes, Vaughn is miscast and, yes, some of the costuming and production design is garish and, yes, Van Sant makes the inexplicable decision to sometimes deviate from Hitchcock’s template to cut away to stock footage of clouds or cows or to spell out any subtext and literally show Norman Bates masturbating to Marion in the shower, effectively undoing his very motivation for killing her. The changes beg the question: if you’re going to do a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, why not just do a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho?
But, if we consider this remake of Psycho to be a kind of “cover version” of Hitchcock’s original, there are things to like in it. Some of the actors’ interpretations of their respective characters offer enough difference to be compelling (yes, even Vaughn at times). Danny Elfman’s sweetening of Bernard Herrmann’s legendary score packs a punch, and the movie is always interesting even as it falters. It’s very well made, because Van Sant is a good director copying a great director. The ideas behind the movie may have been misguided, but the execution ranges from competent to skillful. Now that enough time has passed, I’m hoping some viewers can see the movie less through the lens of “they shouldn’t have” and be able to look at it as the odd cinematic experiment that it is.
Having previously brought all of the Psycho sequels to Blu-ray, Scream Factory now gives the remake an HD upgrade. The 1080p image is decent, appearing to come from an existing master that’s bright and colorful but also appears to be quite noisy; whether that’s a function of the way the movie was shot or a transfer issue, I’m not entirely clear. Even if it’s just as a curiosity, Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray is worth owning for the new commentary by editor Amy Huddleston and Blumhouse.com’s Rob Galluzzo, writer and director of The Psycho Legacy, a documentary covering the series.
Galluzzo is respectful towards the film while still being aware of its flaws and curious about the choices Van Sant made, while Huddleston is incredibly open about the entire experience. She doesn’t badmouth the remake—even going so far as to say it’s the most fun she ever had on a movie—but she isn’t shy about calling out issues they might have had during production or post. It’s a frank conversation full of fun and humor and it not only made me appreciate the movie more, but even gave me more affection for it as well.
The other bonus features have been ported over from Universal’s original Collector’s Edition DVD: a commentary with Van Sant, Heche, and Vaughn (totally worth listening to but also cringeworthy in all of its actor-speak, particularly from a Vince Vaughn out to prove his dramatic chops), a making-of featurette, a still gallery, and the excellent theatrical trailer. Combined with the remake’s brilliant poster, Psycho ’98 had some of the best marketing-to-product ratio of any movie in the last 20 years.
I would never fault anyone for having a strong reaction against this version of Psycho, especially if he or she (rightfully) holds the original in high regard. I’m less harsh towards the remake than most because I’m fascinated by it as an experiment in cinema. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray does right by the film on a technical level and offers some special features that help to put the remake in its proper cultural and historical context. Is this the version of Psycho I’m going to reach for on my Blu-ray shelf? Of course not. Would I leave it on if I came across it on cable one night? I would.
Movie Score: 2/5, Disc Score: 3.5/5