The Unpopular Opinion: Gus Van Sant's 'Psycho' Remake Is A Fascinating, Bold Experiment

(Welcome to The Unpopular Opinion, a series where a writer goes to the defense of a much-maligned film or sets their sights on a movie seemingly beloved by all. In this edition: a defense of Gus Van Sant's misunderstood Psycho remake.)

Marion steps into the motel shower without a hint of hesitation. She adjusts the hot and cold valves until they're just right. The water streams out of the shower head, and she lets it wash over her, rinsing away her poor past decisions in the process. This shower is a cleansing not just of body but of spirit. She can feel the wrong-headed choices that brought her here, to this nondescript motel nestled in the middle of nowhere, circling down the drain. Marion, so enamored in her baptism-by-shower, fails to notice the shadow darkening the shower curtain; the shadow of an individual raising a long, sharp object in their hand.

We've seen this scene before. We know almost every frame and angle of it in our collective consciousness, even if we've somehow managed to avoid seeing the film the scene is from. But there's something different about it this time. This time, it's in living color. And the blood that's about to splatter the shower tiles will be bright red instead of a dark brown rendered in black and white. Because this is not Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. This is Gus Van Sant's Psycho, the 1998 shot-for-shot remake that lead critics and audiences to respond with a resounding, "Why?"

And it's a film worth revisiting.

psycho vaughn

We All Go A Little Mad Sometimes

Remakes have always existed in the movie business, and even remakes of Hitchcock movies aren't that rare. Hitchcock himself remade his own 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956. Van Sant's Psycho wasn't even the only Hitchcock remake of 1998: Andrew Davis' A Perfect Murder, with Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Viggo Mortensen (who also appears in the '98 Psycho) was a remake of Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder. What made Van Sant's stab at Psycho so unique, however, was that he didn't just want to remake the film, he wanted to recreate it almost scene-for-scene, shot-for-shot. This was something akin to art forgery, meticulously recreating a masterpiece to put one over on the masses. A remake that tries something new with the material, like David Cronenberg's The Fly or John Carpenter's The Thing, can be thought of as innovative. A remake that simple recreates what we've already seen? Well, that sounds downright nuts.

The roots of Van Sant recreating Hitchcock go back as far as 1979, when the filmmaker recreated the famous Psycho shower scene in a bit filmed for an theater group known as "Our Lady of Laughter." In the black and white footage, a woman in the shower calls out to her off-screen husband and asks if he's seen her shampoo. "Try some of mine!" he cheerfully replies, before a knife appears and butchers her. It's shot-for-shot matched to Hitchcock's famous scene, before ending with a title card advertising "Psycho Shampoo." And the idea of remaking Psycho entirely had been on Van Sant's mind since at least 1988. "Whenever I went to [Universal Studios] there was always some guy with a list of old B movies they wanted to remake," Van Sant told Entertainment Weekly in 1998. "So in reaction to that I suggested they find a really good movie and not change anything. I thought it would be an interesting pop piece. But they seemed sort of befuddled by the idea."

Van Sant's Psycho redux remained a pipe-dream until 1997. Up until then, the filmmaker was known – if he was known at all – for indies like Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and To Die For. Then came Good Will Hunting, which earned $225 million at the box office on a $10 million dollar budget, and earned Van Sant a Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards. Suddenly, the filmmaker had clout. He could use his newfound carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, and what he wanted was to remake Psycho.

But why do it scene-for-scene? Van Sant offered a variety of answers, but the one he came back to most often was "Why not?" There was a pop artiness to the project, akin to Andy Warhol taking someone else's work and turning it into a famous silkscreen. "It's a marketing scheme," Van Sant also added. "Why does a studio ever remake a film? Because they have this little thing they've forgotten about that they could put in the marketplace and make money from."

Robert Forster, who plays the exposition-laden psychiatrist at the end of Van Sant's remake, had his own theory: "They don't change Hamlet whenever some new company puts on a production." In a sense, by so slavishly recreating the 1960 original, Van Sant was paying it the ultimate form of respect. Indie filmmakers often talk about using big studio money to do something radical. Van Sant actually did it.

Right from the start, the reaction was less-than-kind. "I thought it was a very strange idea," said Casey Silver, then Universal's head of production. "The idea of remaking a classic like Psycho just seemed like a dangerous business to get into." When the film finally arrived in theaters on December 4, 1998, audiences mostly avoided it and critics dubbed it either pointless or lacking. "Attending this new version, I felt oddly as if I were watching a provincial stock company doing the best it could without the Broadway cast," wrote Roger Ebert in his one-and-a-half star review.

Nearly 20 years after its release, Van Sant's Psycho remains a curiosity, often derrided. When Shout! Factory announced a new Blu-ray release of the film, the online reaction was indifference to the point that Shout! didn't even bother to provide screener copies for review purposes.

With all that in mind, Is this scene-for-scene re-do worth a second glance? Hell yes.

Psycho Anne Heche

Newly Renovated

First thing's first: Van Sant's remake isn't really shot-for-shot. Yes, it comes very close. But the very concept of the film inhibits it from being a complete facsimile. The nature of actors, who are only human after all, prohibited Van Sant from copying Hitchcock's film completely, try as he might. The filmmaker kept a copy of Hitchcock's original on set, and had his actors study it and try to mimic the original performances as closely as possible, but save for one actor – James Remar, playing a highway patrolman – all of that goes out the window. The actors in Van Sant's take cannot help but put their own spin on their roles.

Then there was the actual filmmaking itself. "We started out being really fanatical about doing it exactly the same," Van Sant said. "But there were a couple of scenes we just couldn't get it right. We just couldn't see how Hitchcock did the blocking, where people were supposed to be standing in relation to the camera. So all we could do was loosely base them on the original."

"We realized early on that the film was begging to have its own rhythm," Van Sant later told the AV Club. "If we stuck literally to every frame number, it wasn't as loose as it could be. That was something we found out: It was hard to copy something literally, which was the experiment...Everything changed, because Hitchcock had an inimitable way of filmmaking. The way he relates to his characters, and just the way he learned to make movies in the first place, is very different than anything I've done. So the gestalt of my project was so different that we wound up with a very strange-looking copy."

The blood and guts of the film are still the same. It is the story of flighty Marion Crane (Anne Heche), a secretary at a real estate firm who steals a large amount of money from her boss in order to start a new life with her boyfriend Sam (Viggo Mortensen). On her way to tell Sam about her theft, she gets caught in a terrible downpour and pulls off at the out-of-the-way Bates Motel (as a cheeky touch, Van Sant has the neon Bates Motel sign read NEWLY RENOVATED). There, Marion meets the awkward Norma Bates (Vince Vaughn), who runs the motel when he's not being completely emasculated by his mother who dwells in the imposing house that looms on a hill behind the motel. After a conversation with Norman inspires her to return the stolen money, Marion slips into the shower and is promptly stabbed to death by Norman's mother.

Horrified, Norman covers up the murder. A private investigator (William H. Macy), Marion's sister Lila (Julianne Moore) and Sam all get involved to try to find Marion. The investigator is murdered for his snooping, and when Lila and Sam come to investigate the Bates Motel they make a shocking discovery: Norman's mother is long dead, a mummified corpse he keeps around the house, and Norman has a multiple personality disorder which makes him take on the personality of dear dead mom.

What makes Van Sant's Psycho so fascinating isn't the way it copies Hitchcock's classic, but rather in the subtle and not so subtle ways it forges its own path. First and foremost is the overall look of the film, courtesy of cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Doyle, who shot Chungking Express for Wong Kar-wai, bathes the new Psycho in an eerie effulgence, lit with striking intensity. "Psycho is not a film but a conceptual artwork," Doyle would later say.

As a result, every frame of Doyle's work on Psycho is stunning. While the shots may be recreating Hitchcock's work in 1960, the actual appearance is world's away from the flat black-and-white work done by Psycho 1960 cinematographer John L. Russell. Hitchcock made Psycho on the cheap, working with the TV crew of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents show, and for all of Psycho's brilliance, it does indeed have the air of 1960s television show about it. In Doyle's hands, the cinematography pops. The light from the infamous murder bathroom is almost blinding; the shadows that fall across the face of the desiccated corpse of Mrs. Bates after Lila accidentally smacks into an overhead light are unnerving. This is a gorgeous film to look at, perhaps one of the best looking films of the 1990s.

Anthony Perkins' performance as Norman Bates in the original Psycho is legendary; a nuanced, complex piece of acting that was so effective it ended up type-casting Perkins for much of his career. Those are tough shoes to fill, and Van Sant's casting of Vince Vaughn for his remake seems questionable. Vaughn's star was on the rise following a break-out performance in Swingers and a supporting turn in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Earlier in 1998 he appeared as a slick serial killer in Clay Pigeons, but Vaughn's murderous character in that film is far removed from Norman Bates. While Vaughn never comes close to the brilliance of Perkins' performance, his take on one of cinema's most famous momma's boy is still intriguing.

Perkins' Norman seemed completely harmless, which makes the film's twist all the more shocking. Vaughn, who seems even taller than his 6' 5" height, strikes a much more imposing figure from the get-go. He plays the character as emotionally stunted, almost child-like. He takes the stutter Perkins affected and amps it up, adding a high-pitched nervous giggle in the process. The original Norman seemed sympathetic and pitiable. Vaughn's Norman is a creep from the get-go. Perhaps concluding that audiences would already be well-aware of the famous twist, Van Sant chose to heighten this creepiness by adding a moment where Norman masturbates while peering through a peep-hole at Marion as she undresses. In one of the film's most telling moments, Norman sits at the kitchen table, alone, silent, and Vaughn bends his feet inward and sits slumped, giving the appearance of someone completely uncomfortable in their own skin, a not-too-subtle hint at the true nature of Norman (and "Mother").

psycho remake

Part of what made the 1960 Psycho so infamous was the sneaky way in which Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano (who was brought back in to update his script for Van Sant's film) make the audience think that Janet Leigh's Marion is the film's main character, only to kill her off early and switch focus to a completely new set of characters. What made this work was the sympathetic take on the character from Leigh. Marion is, after all, a thief, but Leigh played her as someone the audience can easily relate to, making her abrupt murder all the more shocking. Anne Heche's approach is less compassionate. "I looked at the character and thought, what a lamebrain," the actress said. "She pays no attention to what she's doing. She doesn't think about the consequences. Who is this doofus? So I kind of went with that. I went with her flightiness." Heche's Marion is aloof, completely oblivious to almost everything. It's not so much that the character is stupid, it's more that she's blissfully unconcerned with the results of her actions.

Viggo Mortensen, as Marion's lover Sam, employs a laid-back, lackadaisical approach to his part, while Julianne Moore, as Marion's sister, is much angrier than Vera Miles was in the part. The cast member giving the most interesting performance is William H. Macy, as a private eye who meets Norman's mother up-close-and-personal. While there's occasionally a deliberate showiness to the other performances, a sense that the other actors are all operating with the original film's performances in mind, Macy makes his character his own, and as a result, seems to be the only actor having fun.

As the story unfolds along a predestined path, Van Sant and editor Amy E. Duddleston occasionally cut in strange shots that are completely removed from the narrative, such as dark storm clouds rolling across an imposing sky during the shower scene, or a topless blindfolded woman and old footage of a cow standing in the middle of a rainy road. These additions don't make much sense, and some may find them pointless, but there's a distinct uneasiness when they flash on the screen. Van Sant is playing with the audience – we've grown so accustomed to his scene-stealing that when he introduces a new, unexpected element, we can't help but be unnerved.

The Psycho Path

Gus Van Sant's Psycho is a curiosity. It's not so much a film as it is an art experiment, and there's something wonderful about that. In the years since its release, it's found its defenders. Quentin Tarantino, curiously enough, once said he prefered the remake to the original. In 2014, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh uploaded a feature-length version of Psycho that cut together scenes from the original and Van Sant's remake, taking Van Sant's experiment even further in the process.

Van Sant, for his part, seems content with the film, claiming in 2003 that the real goal of the film was "the experiment of seeing what would happen"

"There was nothing good or bad or right or wrong in the outcome," he added. "The other part was whether the studio could make money with it, and that part was okay. It wasn't a disaster. The project was designed in some ways to see what the studios would do if something like that made money. Would it be something they would occupy themselves doing, making shot-by-shot remakes of other movies? Which was sort of a prank, really."

When studying Van Sant's Psycho, one can't help but think of the "uncanny valley" – the theory that a replicant that appears very similar to a human being, but not 100%, will elicit an uneasy feeling. Watching the 1998 Psycho, we're familiar with what we're seeing, and we know exactly how it should look, but it's somehow different. Emotions can't help but spring from this, and any film that has the power to cause some sort of emotion is worth exploring.

The 1998 Psycho is not an affront to Hitchcock's classic. It's a tribute, a film that has the nerve to take what the master of suspense created and attempt to replicate it, for better or worse. If you hold the opinion that Hitchcock's original is a masterpiece, then it's difficult to completely write-off Van Sant's remake, since it's telling an almost identical story in an almost identical way. When viewing Van Sant's Psycho, one should check their emotional baggage at the front desk and attempt to view the film with fresh eyes. You might be surprised at what you discover.

The sheer audacity of Van Sant's project is worthy of applause. The filmmaker found a way to make a major studio bankroll a star-studded art project. The thought of any major studio taking such a risk now, when most studios are more concerned with starting unimaginative cinematic universes, seems almost unthinkable. Remakes will always exist, but very few will dare to be as intriguing as Gus Van Sant's Psycho. In attempting to recreate something identically he ended up creating something unique. Talk about crazy.