I'll admit that I didn't rent the original PSYCHO last night so I
could make my shot-by-shot comparison with a fresh memory. I'm fairly
certain Hitchcock didn't make it explicit that Master Bates was
masturbating while watching Marion Crane disrobe, the opening helicopter
shot was definitely new, and I can't recall near-subliminal shots of
gathering storm clouds edited into the legendary "shower scene."
Otherwise, everything appeared pretty consistent with my recollection.
Director Gus Van Sant -- for reasons he has given anywhere from "why not
remake a good film instead of a bad film?" to just plain "why not?" -- had
indeed taken one of American cinema's most iconic horror films, dipped it
in color, and served it up whole to a new generation of movie-goers.
The metronomic repetition of "why" is a bit futile at this point, but
I'm willing to hazard my own guess as to the answer: Van Sant wanted to
remind viewers what a brilliant director Alfred Hitchcock was, and what a
brilliant example of direction PSYCHO was in particular. I hope viewers
(and critics) don't fold their arms in indignation so tightly against
their chests that they fail to recognize how incredibly suspenseful and
tautly paced the first hour of this PSYCHO is. Beginning with the most
famous red herring in film history -- the theft of $400,000 from a real
estate office -- the story follows Marion Crane (Anne Heche) from Phoenix
to California, where she makes an ill-fated stop at the Bates Motel.
There she meets manager Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn), whose heart belongs
to Mommy and whose cutlery has a way of finding itself imbedded in flesh.
Heretical though it may seem to say so, the first half of this
PSYCHO is better than the original, because Heche's interpretation of
Marion is better than Janet Leigh's. Her steadily mounting guilt and fear
of discovery as she tries to bring the loot to her bankrupt boyfriend Sam
(Viggo Mortensen) are palpable. The staging -- Hitch's ominous angles,
Bernard Herrmann's chilling score -- masterfully builds the tension, but
it also allows us to watch Heche's mind work, and she's as fiercely
intelligent an actress as we have today. While the narrative is focused
on Marion's flight, it really flies.
Eventually, of course, Marion exits the film wrapped in a shower
curtain, which leaves us with Norman and the snooping of Sam, Marion's
concerned sister Lila (Julianne Moore) and private detective Arbogast
(William H. Macy). It also leaves us with the PSYCHO's one huge problem:
Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. There's nothing exactly wrong with Vaughn's
performance, which is edgy and scary. Vaughn simply can't help the fact
that physically, he is completely wrong for the role. Towering over every
other actor in the piece, his good looks untamed by a bad haircut, Vaughn
is far too physically intimidating to play the meek, sexually repressed
basket case. He throws the entire second half of the film out of whack,
leaving the audience with nothing to do but watch Van Sant and his cast
play out the rest of the film.
There are any number of reasons why a PSYCHO nearly 40 years removed
from the well-known original can't work quite as well. The shower scene
is now a film-school standby as minutely dissected as the Zapruder film,
not a viscerally shocking surprise; familiarity with the true nature of
Norman's "mother" makes some of his dialogue unintentionally humorous.
But there's no question that it does still work as an example of building
terror through film-making skill. It also shows that the success of
particular choices may be built around the casting. The best choice with
Anthony Perkins as Norman does not equal the best choice with Vince Vaughn
as Norman -- it's chaos theory at its finest applied to the art of
directing. Gus Van Sant has honored the master (closing the film with a
dedication to Hitchcock), but he hasn't duplicated him. This incarn
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