Profit and hubris are the only logical explanations for Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot retread of Psycho, a rigorous exercise in homage that suffocates under the weight of its source of inspiration. Van Sant attempts to add his signature to “The Master’s” canvas, injecting subliminal stock footage and contemporizing sexual mores, but his supplements are nothing more than extraneous hokum, pallid attempts at the psychosexual that wilt when held against Alfred Hitchcock’s subtle insinuations. The finished product lacks the verve of Hitchcock’s pacing, the formality of his characterizations and starkness of his modest, black-and-white photography, settling instead for a game of compare and contrast that functions only to separate the viewer from the narrative. By attempting to channel the essence of Hitchcock’s genius, Van Sant has sapped the lifeblood from Psycho, leaving the audience to desperately search for the ghost of suspense within a barren forgery.
Remnants of tension can be found lurking in Bernard Herrmann’s score and Saul Bass’ title design, key elements wisely pilfered from the original for the opening credits, apropos of nothing more than their preeminence. The addition of color photography, notable in Anne Heche’s pink business suit and lime green slip, is a nice diversion from the otherwise rigid compliance with the archetype, though it functions as a pleasant distraction instead of organic element. The once-risque opening sequence also benefits from a dash of modernity, presenting frank sexuality in the faint moans and bare flesh that occupy the intimate moments of Marion Crane (Heche) and her hardware-peddling beau, Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen). Regrettably, the sweat-soaked sheets and passionate whispers don’t pair well with Joseph Stefano’s buttoned-up dialogue. In 1960, his words were full of insinuation, obscuring their latent eroticism just beneath Ms. Crane’s pointed brassiere. When transported to the 1990s, Stefano’s exchanges feel stiff and artificial, developing into affectation in an environment free of the partition between fantasy and the naked, human form.
Anne Heche’s reading of Marion Crane feels just as lifeless and contrived, operating based on the nuances of Janet Leigh’s iconic lead performance instead of the actual motivations of her character. Van Sant, possibly in reaction to Heche’s indecipherable emoting, placed the lion’s share of the responsibility on cinematographer Christopher Doyle, having him shoot Heche at a low angle during the automobile sequence, creating a clammy, cramped air space that parallels the character’s mounting stress level. Doyle’s eye is the only unequivocal success for Psycho’s B Team, manifesting a claustrophobic environment that imparts anxiety despite the middling performances and lack of narrative drive.
Sadly, Van Sant doesn’t utilize Doyle during the film’s many verbal exchanges, focusing instead on the performers, who falter when forced into established roles. The introduction of Norman Bates and the dialogue-driven dinner sequence that fleshes out his psyche are comprised of nothing but empty gesturing, each word hanging in the air like stale smoke as Vince Vaughn wavers between curious facial tick and melodramatic wailing. Vaughn even attempts to convey menace in his interpretation of Bates, plastering a sinister smile on Norman’s face that betrays the character’s persona. Van Sant buys into this adulteration, allowing Norman to masturbate as he peers at Marion’s nude physique, unnecessarily revealing deeper conflict and playing his antagonist’s hand far too early in the feature.
The modifications to character motivation and mise en scéne don’t end there. A keen eye will detect a diamond-patterned shower curtain, interspersed shots of storm clouds and deeper entry wounds during the infamous shower scene, additions that were intended to revamp a moment of cinematic ubiquity, but end up draining the tension from George Tomasini’s initial sequencing of shots. Avoiding contemporary irony when re-creating an emblematic setpiece is certainly admirable, but all prospects of retaining the zeitgeist are dashed by the addition of pseudo-intellectual inserts, heightened violence and the presence of a canary yellow Walkman. Even more perplexing are the details Van Sant refuses to alter, particularly operator-assisted phone calls and dated fashion sensibilities (i.e. Viggo Mortensen’s cowboy get-up), elements that reek of anachronism at the turn of the 20th Century. It’s hard to determine if Gus Van Sant is having fun with these contradictions or if he was so overwhelmed mirroring the construct of Alfred Hitchcock’s massive achievement that he didn't have time to rectify the inclusion of personal elements. Either way, his vain attempts at faithful adaptation smack of desperation and narcissism, proving once and for all that the general article is always more valuable than a carbon copy.
Psycho (Universal Pictures, 1998)
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Written by Robert Bloch (novel) and Joseph Stefano (screenplay)
Photographed by Christopher Doyle