Psycho directed by Alfred HitchcockPsycho directed by Gus Van Sant

Psycho is perfect to refashion as a modern piece. Reflections are a major theme in the original, with mirrors everywhere, characters who reflect each other. This version holds up a mirror to the original film: it’s sort of its schizophrenic twin.

-Gus Van Sant (1)

Gus Van Sant’s 1998 version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) stands as a unique event in motion picture history. Never before had a director attempted a more or less shot-for-shot remake of a still-popular classic, using contemporary filmmaking techniques and technologies to update a nearly identical script. Anticipation prior to the film’s opening was high, thanks to Van Sant’s impressive track record-previous accomplishments included Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991), and To Die For (1995)-as well as an expensive ad campaign, complete with tantalizing preview, official web site, and a re-issuing of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel, upon which Joseph Stefano based his original Psycho screenplay.

The question in everyone’s mind (and on their lips), of course, was “Why?” Why attempt a remake of this sort, and of such a beloved film in particular? In the best Hitchcockian manner, Van Sant’s answers were vague, contradictory, and more than a little disingenuous. To some interviewers, he described his project as a bold experiment, to others a tribute to Hitchcock. He was also fond of labeling it a “new introduction” for younger audiences: “I felt sure that.there was.a whole generation of movie-goers who probably hadn’t seen [Psycho]. I thought this was a way of popularizing a classic, a way I’d never seen before. It was like staging a contemporary production of a classic play while remaining true to the original.” (2) Here, the director’s showmanship comes across loud and clear. As James Naremore points out, “movies have as much in common with novels as with theater, and Van Sant’s Psycho is not simply a re-filming of Joseph Stefano’s script, but.an elaborate quotation of things that were literally printed on another film.” (3) Furthermore, the phrase “popularizing a classic” seems inappropriate with respect to Psycho, one of the most profitable films of all time, and one that has haunted American culture’s collective consciousness ever since its release. (4)

Thus, when Van Sant’s Psycho finally opened in the United States, December 4th, 1998, nobody was exactly sure what they were watching. But one thing the vast majority of reviewers, critics, and scholars could agree upon (surprisingly enough) was that the film was, if not a travesty and insult to the Hitchcock name, at the very least a failed experiment, an “intriguing lesson in what not to do with a remake.” (5) Roger Ebert called it “an invaluable experiment in the theory of cinema, because it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.” (6) Jonathan Rosenbaum took a different route, only to arrive at the same destination: “Theoretically, a nearly shot-by-shot, line-by-line remake of any movie could produce something marvelous, fresh, and revelatory, at least if an artist had a viable artistic program to go with it. Practically, I would argue, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho is a piece of dead meat.” (7) Some of the harshest words came from William Rothman, author of the groundbreaking 1982 study Hitchcock-The Murderous Gaze, who wrote that “Van Sant.deserves all the blame anyone might heap on him for making his dreadful version of Psycho. .How could a director, especially one not devoid of talent, make a virtually shot-by-shot copy of Psycho that is interesting only for being so utterly uninteresting?” (8) Whatever their theoretical inclinations, audiences seemed to agree with Ebert’s, Rosenbaum’s, and Rothman’s overall negative assessment. After a promising opening weekend in which it grossed more than $10 million, ticket sales for Psycho tapered off dramatically, and it left theatres with barely a whimper.

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Holding Van Sant’s Psycho up against the original, and criticizing it on the grounds that most (if not all) of the changes made were for the worse, was an easy task- one happily indulged by many reviewers. Here are five of my personal favorites:

In Hitchcock’s Psycho, the state trooper observing Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) before and during the Bakersfield car lot scene is wearing opaque sunglasses. In Van Sant’s version, these sunglasses are relatively transparent. Rothman, in his chapter on the original Psycho in Hitchcock-The Murderous Gaze, argues quite convincingly that the trooper’s opaque sunglasses stand as “a memorable realization of everyone’s paranoid fantasy of being scrutinized by the cold eyes of the Law.” (9) (Cf. the sadistic prison guard in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke [1967]) By allowing us to see the state trooper’s eyes, Van Sant effectively short-circuits the realization of Hitchcock’s “paranoid fantasy.”

While listening to the voices in her head as she drives off with the stolen $40,000, Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane wears a chilling grin on her face, one which “reveals the pleasure she takes in contemplating the aftermath of her act, [thereby] exposing that act’s violent aspect.” (10) The clownish grin on Anne Heche’s face, by contrast, is chilling only because it is so empty and devoid of meaning. (11)

In various places, Van Sant and Stefano (who was somehow convinced to come back on board) attempt to “update” the original script by injecting some signs of the times. Suffice to say, this strategy has its weaknesses. Marion Crane’s intrepid sister, Lila (played by Julianne Moore), for example, is simply too old-in the film, as well as in real life-to be hiking around with that trendy, teeny-bopper backpack and walkman. It just doesn’t work.

As Naremore observes, when Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn) appears dressed in his long-since deceased mother’s clothing near the end of Van Sant’s film, he looks like “a fullback wearing a fright wig” (12); that is to say, like a football player in drag. Vaughn is simply the wrong body type to play a character whose psychological fracturing receives visual expression by means of diverse physical manifestations.

In Van Sant’s version, Norman is shown masturbating while looking through a peephole at Marion undressing in the bathroom. Slavoj Zizek has pointed out the problem here: if Norman is able to successfully engage in onanistic activity, would he not lose the urge to murder Marion? (13) More generally, and even if the answer to Zizek’s question is negative, this scene only serves to reduce Norman’s “problem” to the most boring of psychosexual perversions, effectively underdetermining the question-“Why does he kill her?”-that is supposed to haunt viewers long after they see the film.

Peter Keough of the Boston Phoenix sums up the exercise just indulged quite nicely when he notes that, ultimately, Van Sant’s film “is most intriguing not for the similarities [to Hitchcock’s version], but for the differences.” (14) A far more challenging task-but one that I believe could be well worth the effort-is the search for a way (or ways) to redeem the new Psycho, even without apologizing for its flaws. Time and again, Gus Van Sant has proven himself an intelligent, idiosyncratic, more than capable director. Although it may be the case that his remake of Psycho is simply an aberration, the first major stain on an otherwise fairly spotless career (leaving aside the question of Good Will Hunting [1997]), some words in his defense are certainly warranted. Along these lines, I will sketch some preliminary remarks-remarks that I hope to expand upon in a future study-to the effect that Van Sant’s Psycho is not so much a failed experiment, an unnecessary introduction, or a self-serving homage to Hitchcock, as it is a continued exploration of themes examined by the director in previous works.

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Perhaps the most obvious of these themes is the non-traditional depiction of homosexuality in mainstream Hollywood cinema. In many of Van Sant’s films, queerness is not represented by way of “safe” characters who (a) are immediately recognizable, and so are containable for heterosexual and (especially) homophobic viewers in virtue of their exaggerated physical mannerisms, behavioral quirks, and/or stylistic choices; and (b) who occupy tangential, albeit rigidly-defined, positions in the narrative (e.g., best buddy of the opposite-sexed protagonist; wise-cracking bartender; etc.). Instead, in films such as Mala Noche (1985), My Own Private Idaho (1991), and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), Van Sant-who is openly gay himself-gives queer lifestyles a romantic (if tragic) and central treatment.

Although this fact appears to have been ignored (repressed?) by both audiences and critics at the time of its release, Hitchcock’s Psycho undeniably possesses a strong queer subtext: Norman may or may not be gay-or bi-sexual, or sexual at all, for that matter-but at the very least he is a transvestite who identifies so strongly with his dead mother that he adopts her persona, and whose femininity comes across even when he is in “straight” mode. Certainly, his famous parlor scene speech, which begins, “I think that we’re all in our private traps. Clamped in them. And none of us can ever get out,” is open to multiple interpretations. In a recent article examining Hitchcock’s methods of creating horror effects in Psycho, I elaborated on the above claim with reference to a different scene, the one near the end in which Norman attacks Lila in the fruit cellar:

Obviously, the sight of this tall, threatening man wearing an ill-fitting wig and dress, with his pants sticking out from the bottom, signifies major gender confusion. The restrictive movie production codes of the time would have prevented any overt reference to queer sexuality, but the overtones are definitely there. Why is Norman grinning like that? His dramatic entrance, which Hitchcock plays for full effect-Norman practically jumps into the doorway/frame and pauses there for a beat before entering-may be read as a rebellious reaction to his having been “outed” by Lila, who has just discovered his terrible secret/perversion. Though Naremore fails to explicitly address the homosexual subtext of Norman’s interaction with Sam here, his description of the sequence speaks for itself: “the pain on Norman’s face is completely out of proportion to his physical suffering. His eyes squint and his mouth contorts wildly. His back arches and his fingers claw at the air as he sinks to the floor, his dress ripping apart and his wig falling off. He seems to disintegrate before our eyes.” (15) Is Norman being subdued by Sam, or is he having a violent orgasm (or both)? (16)

“It is interesting to note,” I continue, “that in the Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho.the homoerotic charge of Sam’s ‘manhandling’ of Norman is played for full effect.” (17) Continuing with this line of thinking, it would seem that one of Van Sant’s unstated goals in remaking Psycho seems to have been the making manifest of what was (and could only have been) hinted at in the original film.

Additional evidence for this claim lies in the director’s choice of actors: was it an accident that Anne Heche, an out-of-the-closet lesbian, was cast as the sexually fulfilled but emotionally discontented Marion Crane? Marion’s unhappiness stems in large part from her restricted position in society; by seeing through this character to the actress who plays her, in-the-know viewers were encouraged to suspect that a radical change in lifestyle may be just what the doctor ordered. Furthermore, by casting fair-haired heartthrob Viggo Mortensen as Marion’s lover, the formerly tepid Sam Loomis, Van Sant draws attention to the sexual dynamics in play between the couple. Hitchcock has been quoted as saying that if it were not for the censors, he would have shown Marion’s (Leigh’s) naked breasts in the film’s opening scene. By showing us Sam’s (Mortensen’s) bare bottom instead, followed by a look of appreciation from Marion, Van Sant turns Hitchcock’s directive on its head and exposes the revisionist nature of his project. This too helps make sense of the curious and seemingly ill-fated decision to present Norman masturbating during the peephole scene. It is likely that Van Sant achieved just the effect he was after here, as audiences are forced to confront in full force not homosexuality but (male) unisexuality.

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I hope it is apparent from what has been said here that Van Sant’s exploration of queerness in and through Psycho would certainly repay thorough analysis. Before closing here, let me just make mention of three additional (and related) themes which receive foregrounding in many of Van Sant’s films, including Psychoartifice, constructedness, and self-referentiality. The very decision to “re-make” a classic and still popular film, despite the director’s own claims to the contrary, reveals Van Sant’s preoccupation with precisely these issues. (Cf. Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, in which key episodes from Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight [1965] are played out with all the actors in contemporary garb.) Crucial to keep in mind, and contrary to what many of his critics assumed without question, is that Van Sant chose to remake Psycho not for merely academic or theoretical reasons, but in order to provide a commentary of sorts-even one that ultimately resulted in the film’s winding up a commercial failure-on the societal urge to recycle past successes, and to willingly trade sincerity and authenticity for irony and disruptive self-reflexivity. Consider the moment, early in his Psycho, when Anne Heche as Marion Crane passes by a billboard for the 1998 Anne Heche-Harrison Ford vehicle, Six Days Seven Nights. The numerous anachronisms in the film at the level of fashion, performance, and dialogue can also be explained, at least in part, by underscoring Van Sant’s interest in calling attention to (rather than covering up), and forcing people to reflect upon (as they surely did), the self-consciously constructed nature of his project.

Van Sant may not be the genius Hitchcock was-who is?-but with respect to his remake of Psycho, I really don’t think he was trying (much less claiming) to match the “master.” He was just being Van Sant.but the case can, and I believe should, be made that this was more than satisfactory.

Endnotes

  1. From Universal Pictures’ official Psycho (1998) web site: http://www.psychomovie.com/
  2. Ibid.
  3. James Naremore, “Remaking Psycho,” Hitchcock Annual, 1999-2000, p. 6. Emphasis added.
  4. To ensure the redundant “popularization” of Hitchcock’s classic, Universal stopped distributing it on video and laser disc a month before the release of Van Sant’s version.
  5. Naremore, p. 11
  6. Roger Ebert, “Psycho,” Chicago Sun-Times, December 6, 1998, p. 12
  7. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Hack Job,” Chicago Reader, 1998. Available online at: http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/1998/1298/12258.html.
  8. William Rothman, “Some Thoughts on Hitchcock’s Authorship,” Alfred Hitchcock Centenary Essays (ed. Richard Allen and S. Ishii Gonzalès), London: BFI, 1999, p. 29
  9. William Rothman, Hitchcock-The Murderous Gaze, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982, p. 262
  10. Rothman 1982, p. 264
  11. Along similar lines, consider Vince Vaughn’s fairly pathetic attempt at aping the quirky way in which Anthony Perkins pops candy into his mouth as Norman Bates.
  12. Naremore, p. 8
  13. Slavoj Zizek, lecture on Van Sant’s Psycho at New York University, February 2000
  14. Peter Keough, “Psycho,” Boston Phoenix, December 14, 1998, p. 19
  15. James Naremore, Filmguide to Psycho, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973, p. 68
  16. Steven Schneider, “Manufacturing Horror in Hitchcock’s Psycho,” Cineaction 50, 1999, pp. 74-75
  17. Schneider, p. 75

About The Author

Steven Jay Schneider has published widely on the horror film and related genres in journals such as Scope, Other Voices, Kinoeye and Senses of Cinema. His book on Wes Craven, An Auteur on Elm Street, will be published by Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press in 2003.