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Psycho (1998)

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/27/07 04:50:56

"Such a terrible idea that it should've been great; it isn't."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

To prepare for the high-concept new run-through of 'Psycho,' I intentionally didn't revisit Alfred Hitchcock's classic. I last saw it a few years ago, and I didn't want it fresh in my mind.

Critics are supposed to review what's in front of them, but we often don't; we compare a film to the better film in our heads -- whether it's an adaptation of a book we love (in which case we've already made the movie in our imaginations), or a remake of a movie we love. The new Psycho is both an affront and a challenge to critics. Can we allow Gus Van Sant to escape the large shadow of Hitchcock -- and should we, given that Van Sant has quite willingly placed himself there?

The new Psycho seems such a dumb idea that, perversely, it has slowly become a fascinating idea. A shot-for-shot remake of a film already etched in the memories of movie buffs? Van Sant and his new cast have taken up the challenge, and, contrarian that I am, I'd love to fly in the face of American film criticism and report that the result is a postmodern triumph of appropriation and homage. But Psycho doesn't do much for Van Sant, and he doesn't do much for Psycho. Gus Van Sant should stick to being Gus Van Sant; those familiar with his idiosyncratic early work (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho) may get depressed by his subjugation of his personality. Van Sant has both eyes on Hitchcock throughout: The Master blots out Van Sant's own vision.

Van Sant's Psycho comes to seem more of a stunt, a novelty, than an experiment. For a while, the hot rumor was that Van Sant had scrupulously reproduced the original film up until the famous shower scene -- at which point he veered off in a whole other direction. The rumor had some credibility: People expecting a remake from first shot to last would be shocked, the way audiences were shocked at Janet Leigh's abrupt death in 1960. That would be a great, ballsy way to redo Psycho -- a prankish tribute to Hitch's power to catch us leaning the wrong way, and precisely in the mischievous Hitchcock spirit. Sadly, the rumor turns out to be just that. Van Sant's Psycho is faithfully Hitchcock's Psycho in word and deed -- if not in spirit or style.

Not all remakes are evil: John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly are less remakes than remixes of oldies-but-goodies. But why remake something if you don't add anything of yourself? That's what Psycho lacks, though fans of Van Sant will bend over backwards to cite parallels to his early work -- a gay subtext, for instance. And it's pointless to remark upon how slavishly a director apes another's work. Van Sant does it, all right -- though he can't resist splicing a few Private Idaho-like random images into the murder scenes, as if the knife slashes were tearing open the killer's subconscious, or some such heady nonsense. But you or I could do the same dupe job, given $25 million. (That may be part of Van Sant's subversive, Warholian point, which I'll get to in a moment.)

So all a critic can really do with the new Psycho, besides the obvious "compare and contrast" game, is comment on the new faces. I wanted to like Anne Heche and Julianne Moore, two of the best actresses now working, but they're playing ciphers (a limitation, I think, to be blamed on Joseph Stefano's script), so they can't add much besides irritation or fear. Vince Vaughn's Norman Bates won't make you forget Anthony Perkins, but he's not supposed to. Once I got used to Vaughn's take on Norman -- a giggly, libidinous little boy, rather than Perkins' gawky adolescent -- I enjoyed his performance, which has reserves of sadness and pain equal to what Perkins, in his own style, gave Norman. Other actors, like William H. Macy and Viggo Mortensen, bring little to the party. They're in the same boat as their director, who's too intent on duplicating Hitch's set-ups to show his usual mindful touch with actors.

Gus Van Sant comes from the Warhol school of anti-art, found art, appropriation and deadpan irony. So this remake may be his comment on remakes (which he says he hates) -- proof positive of the artistic bankruptcy of the form. Yet the only way a Psycho remake can work as a rebuke to remakes is if it flops -- showing the studios, in the only way they understand, that remakes are a dead end. If Psycho is Van Sant's fuck-you to Universal for bankrolling a remake of a classic, I suppose it makes a perverse sort of sense that Hitchcock himself, who had no love for studio executives, might have appreciated.

'Psycho' will be debated for months in the film journals: Does its pointlessness have a meaning beyond itself?, blah blah blah. That's in the great tradition of artists -- who are often the same as con artists.

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