An ad campaign for Gus Van Sant's remake of the 1960 spine tingler goes way beyond cutting edge

You’ve seen the movie, now…see the movie? That was the marketing challenge facing Universal Studios last April when it announced it would release Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 chiller, Psycho. First, the idea of an exact remake of the consummate horror flick elicited a collective ”Why bother?” from fans. Second, selling audiences on an update of any classic — let alone one so revered — is often a no-win situation. How do you address the original? ”You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t,” one marketer at DreamWorks says. ”If you act like the first one didn’t exist, you’re being disrespectful. But if you reference the first movie, it presumes that everyone has seen it.” Another complicating factor? Today’s core moviegoing audience is too young to remember a 38-year-old film.

Well, what a difference a few trailers make. In September, Universal premiered a series of hip, edgy ads for the new Psycho that have created more of a stir than seeing Norman Bates in his mother’s dress. Marked by quick cuts, eerie close-ups of stars Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche, snippets of the famous murder in the shower (maybe the one Psycho bit everyone does know), and tongue-in-cheek humor, the spots are worthy of Hitch himself. (”Psycho,” says the soothing voice-over in one that mocks a Motel 6 ad, ”we’ll leave the light on for you.”) Suddenly, the question marks began turning into exclamation points. Maybe this second Psycho could make a killing after all.

”The [ads] are supercool and brilliant,” says Valerie Van Galder, senior VP of marketing and publicity at rival studio Fox Searchlight. ”They’re using what could have been a disadvantage and turning it around really well. It makes you feel like you’re in on the joke, so you feel drawn into the film.”

The campaign, unleashed a full three months before the movie’s Dec. 4, 1998, opening, is the brainchild of Universal’s new marketing president, Marc Shmuger. The objective, he says, was to have the spots — eight in all — ”impact the consumer much like a recurring nightmare does. It comes out of nowhere, it’s everywhere, it’s haunting you, then it’s gone. And then it’s gonna come back.” As for the early lead time — a practice usually reserved for Armageddon-size event flicks — Psycho producer Brian Grazer says it’s about combating a slew of scream-worthy competitors this fall, including John Carpenter’s Vampires, Apt Pupil, Bride of Chucky, and the sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. ”We wanted to be in people’s consciousness,” says Grazer. ”The idea was to say ‘Hey, we’re the movie to wait for.”’ And Grazer concedes that Hitchcock fans aren’t the prime target. ”We’re trying to appeal to the people who haven’t ever seen Psycho — all the kids and 20-year-olds.”

So just what will hooked moviegoers get in December? Though the new Psycho has been touted as a precise shot-for-shot of the original, a veil of secrecy has shrouded the production since shooting began last July (more echoes of Hitchcock?). The information blackout has spurred rumors, including one purporting that the Van Sant version remains faithful to the original only until the shower scene, at which point it completely diverges. Asked about the possibility, Grazer turns cryptic. He admits that the new version will feature a few new spins — an altered Mother character, a grislier shower slaughter — but has little to say beyond that. ”There’s stuff that changes,” he says hesitantly, ”and it starts to become more significant around [the shower scene].” The marketing plan has a few ”more surprises” too, adds Shmuger, who says that a brand-new trailer will surface just before Halloween, so ”stay tuned.”

Psycho (Movie - 1998)
  • Movie
  • 105 minutes