In The Bloody Truth, Calhoun Kersten looks at the deeper meanings within one of film’s most subtext-heavy genres — horror. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
I remember when I first heard that Psycho was being remade, back when I was 10 years old. Call it precocious, call it pretentious, call it whatever you want, but I could not wrap my head around somebody trying to one-up the Master of Suspense. Over a decade later, I decided to revisit this remake and…well, I’m not sure if Gus Van Sant is trying to improve upon a classic, or if he had something more to say with his remake. See, Van Sant’s Psycho is unquestionably one of the most confusing pieces of cinema in recent history. It never seems entirely too sure of what it wants to be or what it has to say.
I guess the thing that’s most bizarre about the 1998 Psycho is that it came along in a time when audiences and critics alike didn’t really have the vocabulary necessary to discuss. The complicated sexual and gender identity issues that are present even in the 1960 version aside, Van Sant’s Psycho isn’t an easy thing to discuss. Hailed by many critics as a shot-for-shot remake, Psycho makes this somewhat unclear. See, while technically the shots are the same, what is in the shots is not always the same. For instance, when Lila Crane is introduced, she is given the same treatment. Julianne Moore plays her with a little more ferocity, but she walks through the door, approaches the counter. The blocking is almost identical. However, she takes off her Walkman headphones.
While this might seem like a trivial detail, it differentiates itself from Psycho. It passively asserts itself as its own entity, while acknowledging that it owes virtually everything to its 1960 predecessor. However, it also complicates matters. Psycho (1998) has a dated feel to it, probably because it is a supposedly shot-for-shot remake of a 1960 film, but it also has modern conveniences like a Walkman. This makes for a jarring feeling of displacement throughout the film, making the audience unsure of whether they are watching a 1960 movie made in 1998, or a 1998 movie.
Perhaps a more visceral example of this same cinematic faux pas is in the scene leading up to the climactic shower sequence. As is done in the Hitchcock original, Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn) watches from a peephole as Marion (Anne Heche) undresses and gets in the shower. In the 1960 film, this is illustrated with a sort of unsettling curiosity, but Van Sant is not content with simple inference. Despite the fact that the 1998 version features the same shot, it is accompanied by Bates’ groaning and sounds of him masturbating as he watches Marion. Suddenly, Norman Bates is no longer a confused young man, but rather, he is seen as a lewd and opportunistic pervert.
The original film always treated Marion as an object of displaced jealousy for Norman and “Mother.” Norman may have wanted her, but there was always this underlying tone that he (or at least “Mother”) also wanted to be her. Again, Van Sant removes any real notions of complexity in favor of a more sexually charged, voyeuristic approach. While the “true” intentions of Psycho have been debated since the movie’s release in 1960, there is no denying that the 1998 version, while technically adding nothing to the shot, certainly adds a “shocking” element that arguably detracts from the story.
However, the complex matter of “shot-for-shot” remakes is perhaps most present in the death of Arbogast (William H. Macy). As a child of the late 80s, I remember watching Hitchcock’s original and being struck by how fake this particular death scene looked. Unfortunately for modern audiences, Van Sant shoots this scene in the same style. This makes the film feel dated in a bizarre way, where Van Sant has reassured his audience throughout the film that Psycho is set in “modern” times, but he still uses classic and outdated techniques. Even Anne Heche’s cuts in her murder scene are digitally added, creating a temporal confusion that runs throughout the film.
In the end, Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho is as confused as its villain. Reminiscent of the 1960s shooting style, but not fully committed to it, Van Sant creates a disjointed look into the fractured psyche of Norman Bates. Unfortunately, Psycho is confused in places where Hitchcock’s B-movie classic was charmingly self-confident. Not all together the same, but not different enough to rely on its own “shot-for-shot” merits, Psycho is (at best) an experiment in shot-for-shot filmmaking with arguably different intentions than its 1960 predecessor. At its worst, it is an absolute failure and a self-important exercise for Gus Van Sant. More than likely, and much like Bates, it is a clashing of these two identities that produces unsatisfying but undeniably complex results.