psycho shower

(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.

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