Review: Psycho (1998)

[Originally written for Mr. Showbiz, December 4, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

Is there anybody on this planet who doesn’t know Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror-suspense classic Psycho? Or hasn’t been exposed to its sundry bastard offspring (name any slasher movie), hommage-y imitations (the collected works of Brian De Palma), and sequels (none of them Hitch’s); or the hundreds of jokes it has inspired; or the earnest insistence of any number of aunts, neighbors, or co-workers that, no sirree, they haven’t felt comfortable taking a shower ever since. So there won’t be lots of folks who’ll wander innocently into a theater where Gus Van Sant’s virtually line-for-line, shot-for-shot remake is playing, experience the story of Marion Crane, Norman Bates, and the dark doings at the Bates Motel as something brand-new, and say, “Heavens to Betsy, that took me by surprise!”

Say this much: Van Sant’s Psycho is no tacky ripoff—it’s a worshipfully faithful “replica” (GVS’s word), scarcely ever straying from Hitchcock’s compositions, cutting, and itinerary. Joseph Stefano’s fiendishly dense script and Bernard Herrmann’s insidious music score have been carried over almost intact. (A reference to aspic has been updated to Jell-O; a sinister highway cop who, with disturbing effect, exited saying nothing in the original here says “Have a nice day”—the closing words of Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho). John L. Russell’s TV-blunt but nonetheless uncanny black and white has been replaced by the color artistry of Christopher Doyle, lighting cameraman of choice to Wong Kar-wai et al., but that artistry is held scrupulously in check—Anne Heche’s glow under a salmon parasol, a lone drop of blood, a few elegantly sinister neon doodles ushering in a nighttime phone call from an outdoor booth.

And yet…. Van Sant’s version offers no fresh insights into why the original was, and vividly remains, one of the matchless masterpieces of modern cinema. Extra sound is occasionally layered on, but only to literalminded, aesthetically jejune effect: an unseen couple making noisy whoopee next door as Marion and her boyfriend enjoy their extended hotel nooner; a madhouse chittering at the white-noise level as she and Norman discuss putting Mother “someplace”; a slap-slap-slap as (major cultural advance, this) a voyeur masturbates while watching a woman through a peephole.

Nor, despite hiring solid actors, could Van Sant credibly have expected to improve upon one of the most legendary casts in movie history. Anne Heche tries gamely but can’t come near the ambiguity of Janet Leigh’s blankly blond Marion (who, to the very first audiences of Psycho, seemed to be the psycho, for a while). Julianne Moore is subtler but markedly less compelling than Vera Miles as Marion’s sister. Viggo Mortensen would seem to be an improvement on John Gavin’s Sam Loomis—except that Mortensen doesn’t look like Vince Vaughn, whereas Gavin’s separated-at-birth resemblance to Tony Perkins added a whole, unstated layer of peculiarity to the original. And Vaughn, so good as a serial killer in Clay Pigeons, only succeeds in defining what a towering, inimitable achievement Perkins’s performance was. In the last analysis, the new Psycho is a talking mummy. – Richard T. Jameson


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