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”).

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