In one of the many unintentionally bizarre moments of Gus Van Sant’s ”Psycho,” Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn), a tall, polite, rather jittery young man who operates a depressing roadside motel, submits to a casual interview with Arbogast (William H. Macy), a pushy private eye who has shown up to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Marion Crane (Anne Heche). Norman, doing his best to appear friendly, extends the paper bag he is holding and offers the detective some candy. In the original ”Psycho” (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, this tiny affable gesture was a nerd’s desperate attempt at ”normality” — his feeble stab at making the detective feel right at home. In the new ”Psycho,” we watch Vince Vaughn, a strapping late-’90s hunk, nattering on about candy, and he sounds like a complete and utter wackjob. Norman Bates, of course, is a wackjob, but even Hitchcock didn’t mean for him to be quite so obvious about it.
”Psycho” is one of my favorite movies (I’ve seen it close to 20 times), but when I heard about Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake, it sounded like an intriguing, even inspired, idea. Those who dismissed the notion of doing a big, shiny, color update as a sacrilege, or said that it was simply unnecessary, seemed to be missing the point. Unique among studio-system films, ”Psycho” is a movie that invites you to watch yourself watching it. In killing off his lead character after just 40 minutes (and, along with her, our entire sense that a Hollywood movie would always unfold in an ordered dramatic universe), Hitchcock teased the audience’s elemental desire for identification and, in the process, undercut the notion of identity itself. It was his ultimate ghoulish prank to make a movie about a monster — Mrs. Bates — who literally doesn’t exist. The monster is in Norman’s head — and, as we watch, in our heads as well. To see ”Psycho” is to experience a thriller as a test for the limits of rationality. That’s why a remake seemed so seductive. What could be juicier, or more appropriate, than this post-postmodern ”Psycho,” a movie that asks us to sit back and meditate on our self-conscious response to it?
Van Sant duplicates the dialogue, the camera angles, the squealy accelerated heartbeat of Bernard Herrmann’s high-anxiety score, but, more than that, he mimics the precise visual rhythms of Hitchcock’s film. When Marion takes her ominous highway drive, the rain pours down the windshield with the same pulsing density. Later, the shadow of Norman’s mother passes across the Bates house window with the same languid, spectral flow. With a few pointed exceptions, everything in the new ”Psycho” is an exacting mirror of the old. There’s really only one difference — but it turns out to be a major howler. The film is now set in the present day, and so a great deal of it no longer makes sense.
In the original, Marion absconds with $40,000 as a desperate means of rendering her sordid romantic relationship ”respectable.” Janet Leigh plays Marion as prim yet deeply, neurotically divided; she’s a fallen woman who sins to save herself. (Every other line is a malicious double entendre.) In the remake, Van Sant has Anne Heche, as Marion, come on as a vivacious pixie clad in wildflower orange. She looks like she belongs on the back of a chopper, so that when she steals the money (now $400,000), it’s not really a sin — it’s just a whim. There’s no whirlpool of guilt to her actions, no sense that she’s being cosmically baptized (and then punished) when she finally steps into that shower. Vaughn, as Norman, works hard to update Tony Perkins’ nervous-Nellie mannerisms, and he’s quite good when he’s mopping up after the murder (he looks full of nauseous anxiety), but the essence of Norman is that he appears harmless — he ”wouldn’t even hurt a fly” — and Vaughn is too naturally imposing. I would have given the role to Jeremy Davies (”Saving Private Ryan”).
In a provocative addition, Norman, true to his last name, now masturbates when he’s peeping in on Marion, and we see rapid-fire shock cuts (roiling clouds, a macabre calf) during the murders. Van Sant probably should have gone further in this direction, adding gaudy explicit touches to what had been implicit before. Either that, or he should have set the entire film in a meticulously re- created past, a la ”Pleasantville,” aping not just the cinematic ingeniousness of Psycho but the film’s whole pent-up, black-and-white universe of repression, lust, madness, and release. What makes the original loom in our imaginations to this day is the way that through its violence and terror, its trapdoor nightmarishness, it slashed through the essence of the ’50s itself. Van Sant’s ”Psycho” is a fascinating stunt, but it’s as weightless as air, because it depicts the annihilation of a world that has already been destroyed.