Monday, May 2, 2011

Gus Van Sant's Psycho Movie Review: If It Ain't Broken, Don't Fix It

First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 11 December 1998.
Republished here unaltered.

As things generally go, you may want to avoid those rare films which aren’t screened for critics. They are usually extraordinarily bad and the filmmakers would rather have a chance at opening weekend box office and not kill those chances with bad reviews on opening day. But the case for Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, a shot-for-shot re-creation of the original is not the same. Hitchcock did not screen his 1960 masterpiece for critics and Van Sant does the same as a way to take one more step toward his carbon copy.

I watched the original twice in the week preceding my viewing of the new version so that I could get a feel for the movement of the camera and take a handle on the dialogue. So little is changed in Van Sant’s that what is changed is hardly worth mentioning; even the license plate on Marion’s car is the same.

Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, and Viggo Mortensen take over the roles of Marion Crane (doomed shower victim), Norman Bates (momma’s boy), Lila Crane (Marion’s sister), Arbogast (private investigator) and Sam Loomis (Marion’s boyfriend). Each new face brings a new spin to his/her respective role and some do a great job keeping Joseph Stefano’s original dialogue alive.

Vaughn is the one actor I was truly excited to see in this film, I thought he was perfect for the role of the demented split personality, but he doesn’t come through with the force and charisma I had hoped for. Norman is a truly complicated character. Anthony Perkins made him exactly what he should have been, a seemingly nice guy who looks and acts like he wouldn’t harm a fly. But underneath that lonely, innocent boy facade lies a deep-seeded affinity for knocking off young, good looking women.

Vaughn brings fidgety ticks and awkwardly nervous laughter to the character. He makes Norman more of a psychotic than he really ought to. In the hands of Moore, Lila has become a liberated woman, raising her voice when necessary and helping out Sam in the final conflict (Vera Miles merely stood by and screamed in the original). Mortensen turns Sam into a dumb cowboy whereas John Gavin brought a dashing, debonair look to the screen. Heche and Macy do the best in handling the cookie-cutter roles they’ve been dealt. Something about their performances really hold to the roots of the original characters while keeping it fresh at the same time.

The most notable difference in the film is the addition of a masturbation scene as Norman stares through the peep hole at Marion getting undressed. If Van Sant is trying to be true to the original, this is perhaps the worst change he could have made. Hitchcock was masterful at the hint of voyeurism a la Rear Window. Effectively, the only thing this change does is elicit laughter from the audience at the very time when it is unnecessary and unwanted.

It’s a very odd, almost uncomfortable feeling to watch a brand new movie and know exactly what will happen next and exactly what the next line will be. That’s where it is not an exact re-creation of the original. When Hitch released the original, there apparently was a trend across the nation to keep the plot points a secret. Hitchcock committed a daring act by casting Janet Leigh, a huge star, in the lead role and then killing her off midway through the film. If that particular magic has been lost in the new version, we really must ask the question that has been on everyone’s mind since the announcement of this harebrained project: “What’s the point and why wouldn’t I just watch the original?”

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