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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Psycho (1998)
3 Stars

Directed by Gus Van Sant
Cast: Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Viggo Mortensen, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Chad Everett, Rance Howard, Robert Forster, Philip Baker Hall, Rita Wilson, James LeGros, Anne Haney.
1998 – 108 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, partial nudity, sexual situations, and blood).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 5, 1998.

Note: Contains spoilers.

Ever since a "recreation" of Alfred Hitchcock's infamous 1960 classic, "Psycho," was announced earlier this year, many fans of the original yelled blasphemy and were outraged that anyone would attempt a remake. But, of course, this wasn't just any remake, because acclaimed director Gus Van Sant firmly stated that the new version would rigidly follow the original's screenplay, although it would be set in 1998, and that his purpose was to freshly introduce a classic to a new generation. Up until its release, rumors flew by, questioning what the differences would be in this 1998 version. And in keeping with its predecessor, Van Sant didn't even screen it for critics in advance, just as Hitchcock didn't 38 years ago.

Ultimately, there is one question in all "Psycho" fans' minds: Is this film better than the original? The answer is no, not quite, but to my shock, it is just about as good of a remake as could have possibly been expected.

For a full synopsis of the storyline, my review for Psycho (1960) is recommended, but simply to recount the plot, a young banker by the name of Marion Crane (Anne Heche) steals $400,000 (it was $40,000 in the original) and while on the run, picks the wrong motel to spend the night in, headed by the boyish young man, Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn). "Psycho '98," which I will refer to this film as for the rest of my review to avoid confusion, surely does follow Joseph Stefano's original screenplay, and is a bold experiment on Van Sant's part. No film has ever been remade shot-by-shot, but, for the most part, "Psycho '98," is. And since the original was such a masterpiece, the things an audience must go on this time around are the elements surrounding the script, such as the technical credits, acting, style, etc. Luckily, "Psycho '98," is a startling success, a film that is impressive in almost every department.

Van Sant has assembled a great line of actors in this film, and although the tempting thing to do would have been to mimic the original actors, they all smartly choose to add their own interpretation and spin to the characters, and thus, we actually do grow different feeling for the people than in the 1960 version. Anthony Perkins has been such a staple of, "Psycho," that no one could ever replace him as Norman Bates, but Vince Vaughn must be applauded for going in a totally different direction with the character, and dare I say, nearly equalling Perkins. Vaughn's Norman has the ability to be threatening, but I also felt far more sympathy for him in this film. Anne Heche is also very good as Marion Crane, and although Janet Leigh might have been a little better, Heche was more likable. Julianne Moore, as Marion's sister, Lila, replaces Vera Miles and is interesting because she is so much more 90's. She is even introduced wearing a walkman. Viggo Mortensen, as Marion's boyfriend, taking over for John Gavin, also does a full 180 degree turn on the character, giving him a cowboy attitude. Rounding out the five central characters is William H. Macy, outstanding as Detective Arbogast, actually improving upon Martin Balsam's portrayal (although he was fabulous, as well).

There are lots of nice, eerie touches throughout that add to the film. For example, the shower scene, far more graphic this time around, is actually more suspenseful than in the original. The set-up wisely goes on longer, as we see the door open and a figure walk into the bathroom, as we see through the shower curtain. Unlike the original, where the murder happens abruptly, the figure pauses for a few moments through the shower curtain, before...well, you know. The actual murder set-piece also puts a new spin on things, and is harrowing, to say the least. The other murder sequence, set on the staircase, is also extremely effective. As Arbogast is stabbed, there are quick flashes of disturbing images, such as a cow in the middle of a desolate road about to be hit by an automobile. This stylish decision, thanks to Van Sant, is atmospheric and ingenious. Finally, the climax set in the fruit cellar surpassed all of my possible expectations, and the unveiling of Norman's mother really was frightening.

There are things that occur in, "Psycho '98," that Hitchcock could not have possibly done in 1960, because of the censors, but that add to the Norman Bates character. For example, while Norman peers through a hole in the wall at Marion undressing, he begins to masturbate, and it was actually touching. I couldn't believe how moving it was. Also, in the climax, while Lila is looking through the house, she goes into Norman's room, which resembles a twisted children's bedroom, equipped with toy soldiers, stuffed animals, and a porno magazine hidden in a drawer. It was subtle elements like this that made me start to care for Norman Bates, who is obviously a very confused, lonely man.

Major kudos, aside from the performances, must go to the alternately beautiful and moody production design by Tom Foden, the disturbing, original cinematography by Chris Doyle, and, of course, the incomparable, pounding music score by Bernard Herrmann, which was flawlessly adapted by Danny Elfman.

So with all of this praise, why isn't "Psycho '98," quite as good as the original? Well, the Lila character wasn't quite as memorable as when Vera Miles did the role, although this is no fault of Moore's. And the black & white photography of Hitchcock's could never possibly be replaced by color.

Although this new, "Psycho," is, in my mind, the best horror film of the year, I have a feeling that most people unfamiliar with the original will not like it very much. I have no doubt in my mind that some dimwitted teenagers are going to go into this thinking it will be a "Scream"-style slasher film, and they will be sorely disappointed. Although those types of movies have a rightful place in the horror genre, "Psycho," is better, because it is not all about killing (there's only two murders in the film), but instead is about the style and characters. Watching this film, I was struck by the extended dialogue scenes between some of the characters, which are so much more developed than most films of today's times. Director Gus Van Sant took a risky chance in remaking what is considered one of the greatest horror pictures ever made, and he has succeeded in all departments, actually improving upon the original in a few select aspects. Nothing will ever be able to take the place of Hitchcock, that is for sure, but I was amazed and awestruck at just how close Van Sant actually came to doing just that.

©1998 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman