Re-Fear: Psycho (1998) by Gus Van Sant
Review by Reid Ramsey
Eleven years into his already critically acclaimed career, Gus Van Sant finally broke big. From a script written by two young actors named Damon and Affleck, Van Sant directed a hit. Good Will Hunting, made on a budget of $10 million, would go on to make nearly a quarter of a billion dollars and earn nine Oscar nominations. With a reputation for being an actor’s director and as much new-found clout as any studio could hope for, Van Sant came immediately back to Hollywood with only one idea. He wanted to do a shot-for-shot remake of one of Classical Hollywood’s most celebrated masterpieces: Psycho (1960). Van Sant’s Psycho remake would become one of Hollywood’s most baffling and maligned grand experiments.
Shot from a barely updated script by original screenwriter Joseph Stefano, Psycho literally hits the same beats as the original. Marion Crane (Anne Heche), in love and suddenly adjacent to $400,000, decides to steal the money and bolt across the Arizona highways to Fairview, CA to help pay her boyfriend’s (Viggo Mortensen) debts. Along the way, she encounters a decrepit motel run by a young man named Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn). Jealous of Norman’s attraction to Marion, his mother sneaks into her bathroom to murder her while showering. With a mid-narrative shift to Marion’s boyfriend’s and sister’s (Julianne Moore) perspectives, Psycho is primarily interested in mystery, identification, and repression.
Gus Van Sant makes only moderate changes to his version of the story. He even uses the same score almost completely throughout the film. The remake is in color, while Hitchock’s film is in black and white. The new cast often exists somewhere between direct imitation and wholly new in relation to the original. Vaughn’s Norman Bates is a little more overtly sleazy than Anthony Perkins’s often sympathetic original. Lastly, Van Sant adds enigmatic montages throughout several of the death scenes, where, I can only assume, the dying characters have some sort of vision. Marion Crane, while repetitively stabbed with a knife, looks up at her killer as Van Sant cuts away to rolling, darkening clouds. Later when Detective Arbogast (William H. Macy) visits the Bates’ house, Mrs. Bates meets him on the stairs, slashes his face, and as he falls backwards, he envisions a semi-nude woman followed by a cow abandoned on a road.
Having set out to make a nearly shot-for-shot remake, Van Sant’s Psycho only barely strays from the original. That seems to be the purpose, though. In interviews he has talked endlessly about his desire to show Hollywood what a genuine remake is like. Perhaps he even predicted the remakes and sequels that would have money thrown into them for the twenty following years. In a year where a Suspiria remake will hit theaters in only a matter of weeks, the model Van Sant was railing against by performing within is still so strong. The lasting effects of his film are far more provocative than the original impetus for his experiment would suggest.
When praised, Psycho (1998) is typically hailed as a $60,000,000 art installation, with little-to-no investigation into what kind of art it is. Generally speaking, those that praise it that way aren’t wrong, but they’re mostly trying to reckon with the fact that they still find this critically-panned movie vastly entertaining, as I do. The key to unlocking Van Sant’s so-called misstep is to look at the rest of his career.
A forbear of the New Queer Cinema movement, as defined by B. Ruby Rich in 1992, Van Sant cut his filmmaking teeth making movies that challenged both filmmaking norms and societal norms. He challenged actors to move outside of their typical modes and even assisted in launching male heartthrobs Keanu Reeves, Matt Dillon, and River Phoenix. Good Will Hunting had been his most generic film to date, which perhaps guaranteed its success, yet was still about a male-male relationship. This tendency toward queer stories and to stories which exist outside the mainstream could be what led him to Psycho.
Hitchcock’s film was sensational and scandalous and unlike anything Hollywood had seen by 1960. It featured partial nudity, sexual perversion, graphic murder, premarital affairs, and unchecked mental illness with grave consequences. By contemporary standards, Psycho was one of the wildest studio movies audiences had seen. The film was abnormal, outside the mainstream. Even the black and white color palette had gone out of style by 1960. Yet Hitchcock released it and was congratulated on yet another masterpiece.
Despite many queer readings and criticisms of Hitchcock’s Psycho, no critic has taken the time to assess Van Sant’s Psycho in this same way. Perhaps narratively, it is uninteresting to compare to Hitchcock’s, but the remake does refreshingly subvert the original’s abnormality. For those who have seen the original film, watching Psycho (1998) is a full-blown trip into the uncanny valley.
Van Sant queered Psycho not by changing key plot points or characterizations, but solely by remaking it nearly shot-for-shot. The effect is unnerving. Take, for instance, the shower scene. The scene had already been ripped off at least two other times — in Tobe Hooper’s Funhouse and the Anthony Perkin’s directed Psycho 3 — yet the black and white images of the stabbing of Marion Crane followed by muddy blood running down the drain remain some of the most lasting images from the 20th Century. When the remake positions the camera and cuts identically to the original, but in full color with bright red blood and dark shadows around the killer’s face, the film forces the viewer to reckon with their own fear of the original.
For example, I find this particular scene terrifying in the original. While the remake never reaches that same level, it wants to return the viewer to their experiences with the original film. The resemblance is so unnerving that I confront my fear of the original. I confront my own obsession with the Psycho story. I confront my own obsession with Marion Crane’s gruesome murder.
Gus Van Sant’s Psycho is more about confrontation and self-reflection than anything else. Exploiting history’s obsession with such a gruesome, pulpy act, he asked, through his star-studded art film, viewers to reach deep inside themselves. He asks viewers to find where Norman Bates lies dormant in each of us. Van Sant took one of the most famous works of American filmmaking, and made it unfamiliar to everyone. The beats are the same, the performances are often similar, but the film is so different and so uniquely unsettling. Psycho isn’t a typical scary movie. Sure, the content is scary if you’ve never seen the original, but the true fear comes from the obsessions of the filmmaking and the Hollywood that produced it.
Why are we so obsessed with the story of Psycho? Norman Bates’s story of murder, cover-up, and identification issues has been a pop-culture obsession since its release in 1960. In his remake Gus Van Sant is asking himself and the audience one simple question: Why?