Olden Shower

First of all, if you're among the benighted who've never seen Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 shocker Psycho, stop reading at the end of this paragraph. A movie review, even one as incisive and elegant as this, is no way to be introduced to Hitchcock's horror masterpiece. Your assignment is to rush right out and rent the video. Then, if you want to, you can go see Gus Van Sant's strangely conceived, full-color update/homage/remake. And, no less important, you can finish this review.

Now, for everybody else: Van Sant's new Psycho is funny, and sort of creepy--a not-bad little thriller with some peculiarly dated plot development. I suspect it wouldn't be much more than that, to an audience member who had never seen the original, but who had seen some of the innumerable films that ripped it off. For the rest of us, however, including those of us who know the original so well we can mouth the lines along with the actors, the new film is fascinating, and it's fascinating mostly because it really is Gus Van Sant's Psycho, not Alfred Hitchcock's.

Yet this is not a case of someone trying to one-up an earlier director--Van Sant clearly isn't implying that, yeah, old Hitch was on to something, but I can do better with the same idea. His approach is more like that of a rigorous thesis writer who keeps the research up front and allows himself any original expression only in the footnotes.

What's striking is how much these "footnotes"--the design and costuming and sound effects, the slight shifts in interpretation by the actors, the little curlicues added on the margins--permeate the picture with Van Sant's idiosyncratic personality. This Psycho is an auteurist critic's wet dream; the most compelling case I've ever seen that it's the director's sensibility, more than anyone else's, that is expressed through the cinema.

In the tug of war between the two visions, it need hardly be said that Hitchcock "wins." Van Sant may well be capable of greater emotional and philosophical depths than Hitchcock, who generally couldn't be bothered with all that rubbish anyway. But Psycho, it's important to remember, was intended as comedy, a nasty Oedipal joke that plays on our aesthetic expectations like a Surprise Symphony with the left turn it takes at the famed shower scene. Despite the psychological explanations we are offered, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, at the end of the film, Psycho was less about a tortured psyche than it was about manipulating the audience, and nobody could beat Hitchcock at that. Yet Van Sant's obsessive desire to dress up a new film as the Mother of Modern Horror Pictures produces some fascinating variations.

For one thing, the story is now in bright, lurid color, shot by cinematographer Chris Doyle. Even those wonderful Saul Bass titles are no longer black-and-white--the bisecting line patterns are now a jolting green. Hitchcock had been fond of working in lush color himself since the '40s, but the prospect of Technicolor blood in the original's shower scene made him squeamish. It was his last black-and-white film. The red of the gore in Van Sant's film does indeed leap out at us, in a way that movie blood rarely does anymore, though this is likely a reaction to having a new element added to such familiar images.

Van Sant has made the film's sexual subtext overt. In the opening scene, while the two postcoital lovers (Anne Heche and Viggo Mortensen) talk with each other in a fleabag Phoenix hotel, we can hear loud sex going on in a neighboring room. At many other points throughout the film, particularly those involving voyeurism, the sexual ante is upped, not that most viewers could have been in doubt as to their implications back in the '60s.

Yet Van Sant's approach to the film's brutality is different: The violent scenes seem less savage, somehow, than those in the original. It's in these brief but crucial sequences that Van Sant allows himself some latitude. Instead of following Hitchcock's model exactly, he uses one of his own favorite techniques--the quick intercutting of incongruous, free-floating psychic imagery. This generates a twisted atmosphere rather than the all-out shock that Hitchcock gives us in these scenes, probably because Van Sant knew very well he had no hope of reproducing that.

The plot, obviously, is the same, and it's here that Van Sant's Psycho seems most eccentric. Once poor Marion Crane (Heche) arrives at the lonely Bates Motel and starts to interact with its nervous manager Norman (Vince Vaughn), who shares the Victorian heap at the top of the hill with his mother, the old lines play comfortably enough.

But when the film is out of horror-movie land, when it's in, so to speak, the real world, we realize how much has changed since Joe Stefano penned his original adaptation of Robert Bloch's leering 1959 novel. The sheriff's wife still asks an operator named "Florrie" to connect her to the Bates Motel, for instance. Despite this careless miss, there are many small changes--the word "Jell-O" for "aspic," the line "Let me get my Walkman" for "Let me get my coat"--but these cosmetic touches don't hide the period nature of the material.  

Marion, a young secretary from Phoenix, has swiped $400,000 in cash (in the original, it was $40,000) from her boss, and then gone on the lam to give the money to her boyfriend, a small-town California hardware dealer who can't marry her until he's paid off his debts. This young unmarried couple who, in the '90s, go to the trouble to get a cheap room to hide their trysts, seem weirder than Norman. So does Marion's office mate (Rita Wilson) when she keeps smugly reminding her co-worker that she's married--is that still a female status symbol?

On a sociological level, the long, red-herring prologue may be the most intriguing portion of this Psycho--it tells us the most about the differences between now and then. Sadly, the cheerfully condescending sexism of the rich good ol' boy (Chad Everett) and the car dealer (James LeGros) still seem entirely plausible.

Van Sant has cast the film well, with one exception--the mumbling Mortensen, handsome though he is, hardly seems like someone for whom you'd steal 400,000 bucks. William H. Macy plays the hapless private detective Arbogast; he's becoming such a specialist at ineffectual losers that he could be called the new Elisha Cook Jr. In the film's wittiest bit of updating, Julianne Moore, riffing on a suggestion in the old script that Marion's sister Lila works in a record store, plays her as a tough, retro-clad vinylhead.

Vaughn is excellent. Between this performance and the giggling sicko he gave us in the recent Clay Pigeons, he more than makes up for his post-Swingers sophomore slump in Return to Paradise. His Norman is more physically imposing, less callow and boyish, than that of Anthony Perkins, yet Vaughn's, too, is oddly sympathetic.

Best of all, though, is Anne Heche, who has the most difficult role. Removed from the 1960s context of doing anything to get married, Marion's impulsive, plainly ruinous actions seem really nutty, and many of her lines seem curiously over-ornate. Perhaps this isn't as noticeable in the original because Janet Leigh, who played Marion, was always getting stuck with lines like that; check out her crazy verbiage in The Manchurian Candidate and Touch of Evil. Yet Heche makes the lines her own--chatting with Norman in his parlor, she is remarkably believable, overcoming the period gap.

Van Sant has reportedly wanted to take a stab at Psycho for at least a decade, and the publicity machine at Universal, the owner of the property, has dutifully played up the resistance with which he was met at the idea. That way, if the film proves a triumph, they can hail Van Sant as their visionary genius, and if it's a dud, they're covered. But how commercially daring a project was it, really? The film was inexpensive to make, by big-studio standards, and critics everywhere could be counted on to supply most of the publicity for free, by elaborately asking who the heck Van Sant thinks he is.

The answer is that he's a superb filmmaker, even if his two weakest pictures, My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting, are the ones for which he's been most acclaimed. Maybe the most interesting thing to come out of the overrated Good Will Hunting was the clout it gave Van Sant to indulge this bizarre whim. I really enjoyed watching this Psycho, although I don't know--nor do I much care--if it's because it's a good movie or just because it's an irresistible experiment.

What I found most disappointing about the new film, actually, were the scenes that it left out. The long, explanatory monologue of the psychiatrist, delivered with rather inappropriate self-satisfied glee by that fine actor Simon Oakland at the end of the original Psycho, has usually been cited as that film's major flaw, but I've always thought it was one of the film's best jokes, a smirking goof on the patness of Freudianism. I was sorry that Van Sant, or perhaps Universal, chose to slash Robert Forster's more somber reading of it down by more than half.

I was also sorry to lose one whole scene, and part of another, featuring the skeptical Sheriff (Philip Baker Hall) and his wife (Anne Haney). In Van Sant's version, Haney doesn't get to deliver one of Psycho's few sweetly poignant lines, when she hears a mention of "Mrs. Bates" and optimistically asks, "Norman took a wife?"  

Directed by Gus Van Sant; with Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Robert Forster, Anne Haney and Rita Wilson.


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