Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Universal, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], French Dolby Surround, subtitles: none, single side-dual layer, 18 chapters, rated R, 103 min., $34.98, street date 6/8/99.
Directed by Gus Van Sant. Starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Viggo Mortensen, Chad Everett.
Criminal on the run, Marion Crane take refuge at the motel operated by Norman Bates - a troubled man who's victims encounter a grisly fate at the hands of his "mother." Marion soon becomes the next victim and her disappearance prompts inquiries from her sister and a private investigator. They both soon discover the morbid bond linking Norman to his mysterious "mother" at the Bates Motel. Relive the terror in acclaimed director Gus Van Sant's all new version of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece of suspense. . .Psycho
Here's a little story that may well prove the existence of God: last December, I was in one of those "wanna see a movie!" moods. Unfortunately, I'd already seen all of the recent releases that interested me, so it was time to dip into the "B" stock. What was new that week? The bizarro remake of Psycho was about it.
Against my better judgment, I decided to give it a go. After all, how bad could it be? Well, I wouldn't find out that day.
The first screen I entered ran just fine through the trailers, but as soon as the film itself started, terrible scratches were visible in the print. This wasn't a case of me being an oversensitive cineaste and whining over minor problems; these marks resulted in huge green stripes all across the image, and I don't understand why others didn't seem concerned about this. I quickly left that room and saw a manager, who apologized and said I could try another showing of Psycho that was to start in a few minutes.
I settled into my new seat and waited for the film to start. This time the print didn't wait for the movie itself to begin before it betrayed flaws; smaller but similar scratches were visible in this print of Psycho from the trailers on. I stayed through the start of the film itself just to make sure that the scratches weren't miraculously isolated to the trailers. They weren't. As such, I headed out and talked to the manager again. He asked if I wanted to try the next showing, but I figured that I'd wasted enough time trying to see a movie that didn't really interest me all that much to begin with, so I hit the road!
Looks like this all might have been a sign from God, for when I gave the 1998 remake of Psycho a look on DVD, I realized what a disaster it really was. I'm glad I was able to screen it in the comfort of my own home instead of being trapped in a theater with it.
Director Gus Van Sant put a bull's eye on his head when he decided to make this picture. Simply remaking Psycho would be bad enough - new versions of classics don't go over very well - but he took this problem to an extreme in his avowed intention to literally recreate the original film. This wasn't an adaptation of the first movie; it was a scene-by-scene reshoot!
The question on most peoples' minds was "Why?!" On this DVD, Van Sant mentions his intentions, and they're actually fairly honorable. He says that he recognizes the aversion many folks have to watching black and white movies, so he hoped that he could make this classic more accessible to a modern audience.
If that's the truth and not just serious spin control, it's a nice gesture, and it actually may have succeeded in a backwards way. What I mean is that while just about nobody went to see Van Sant's movie, its release and the concordant hubbub certainly renewed interest in Hitchcock's original. I'm sure many people saw that film for the first time due to the publicity about this one, and since Hitchcock's piece was quite a fine movie, that's a good thing.
As for Van Sant's Psycho, it's not a terrible movie, but it does still seem terribly pointless, Gus's altruistic motives to the contrary. Van Sant also states that he did this remake as something of a science experiment; he says that he wanted to see if by copying the camera shots and the script, would it still be Psycho? In regard to this film, yes, it still is Psycho, but in the same way that a carefully counterfeited painting still is "The Mona Lisa"; it may be able to dutifully replicate the original, but it ain't art.
While I think that's a pretty apt analogy, the comparison we most frequently hear from Van Sant and the others is that of the staged play. After all, they reason, if plays can be produced with hundreds of different adaptations, then why not a movie? On the surface, this analogy makes some sense. They also bring up other remade movies, and it briefly seems unfair to attack this remake while letting the others slide.
However, there are crucial differences involved. In regard to the "play" comparison, the main problem with that comparison is that plays are meant to be staged over and over again by different people. They aren't usually meant to be one time only events and then never performed again. Somehow I don't think Hitchcock or anyone else involved with the original "Psycho" saw that it would have the same fate.
And what about the issue of remakes? The difference between other remakes and this one is that none of the others slavishly attempted to replicate the originals. They don't use the original (mildly altered) scripts and they don't study videos of the originals between shots. Normal remakes don't try to perfectly duplicate the originals.
Actually, despite public perception, this version of Psycho isn't an absolute shot-by-shot replication, though it's not far from the mark. Some "outdated" phrases are altered or removed, and a little additional gore and nudity are added. We also get to see the lovely sight of Vince Vaughn's Norman Bates whacking off as he spies on Marion Crane (Anne Heche). I won't argue whether or not this is in keeping with the spirit of the character (though I don't think it is), but I think it's a distasteful and pointless scene nonetheless.
"Pointless" - there's a phrase that seems to come up a lot in discussions of the remake of Psycho. Ironically, despite Van Sant's best efforts to duplicate the original film, his actors consistently undermine this attempt by almost uniformly altering the characters. This should be a good thing - at least they were trying to give their performances some life instead of just behaving like an actor's version of a cover band - but their interpretations are so odd and are so disparate that it usually feels like each member of the cast thinks they're in a different film.
Take Heche, for example. I won't belabor her sexual preferences, other than to say that they don't matter to me. What does matter to me is whether or not she seems right for this part, and she clearly doesn't. Part of this stems from my own taste in women. Marion should be sexy and alluring, and while Janet Leigh didn't fit my usual type, she definitely had an aura that made her believable. Heche, on the other hand, is almost androgynous and sexless. She looks like a pixie! I imagine that she should be toiling away in Santa's Workshop, waiting for the next opportunity to sing "Holly Jolly Christmas"! She should be baking cookies in a tree! She should - oh, okay, I'll stop now...
Anyway, my point is simply that Marion's supposed to be very sexy and desirable, and while Heche isn't ugly, she lacks any kind of real spark in that regard. One other casting miscue connects to that fact. In the original Psycho, Marion's officemate Caroline (played by Hitchcock's daughter Pat) existed as something of a contrast to her; while Pat was not bad-looking, she certainly was plain, and that heightened Leigh's glamour-girl looks. This contrast is comically featured when Caroline mentions that a visiting VIP flirted with Marion and implies that he didn't seem to notice her because he must have noticed her wedding ring.
That small comic bit is completely lost in the new Psycho because Rita Wilson has been cast as Caroline. Wilson's no ultra-babe, but she's a very good-looking woman and is about a million times sexier than Heche. Because of this fact, the contrast between the two characters is completely lost.
Heche is problematic as Marion for other reasons. Mainly, her performance suffers from Heche's own theatrical tendencies. The woman was born to play comedy; her perfect role would be as someone's wacky sidekick in a sitcom. As such, she simply seems to nutty and silly as Marion. She lacks the haunted, somber quality of Leigh and makes Marion seem like much less of an interesting, unique character.
Next up: Vaughn's conventional take on Bates. By "conventional" I mean that he bases his performance much more on how we commonly think that a nutbag like Bates should behave. Anthony Perkins played Norman absolutely perfectly. He made him boyishly charming and innocent; because of this he seems much creepier when his dark side starts to enter the picture since it comes as much more of a surprise.
Vaughn, however, tips his hand from word one. He comes across as a bizarre giggling nut-job from almost the second he enters the movie. In the original, we don't question Marion's willingness to spend time alone with Norman because he seems fairly normal despite his lack of social elegance. With Vaughn's Norman, however, you have no idea why Marion would do anything other than run away from him immediately; he has "lunatic" written all over him.
In a way, I feel bad for Vaughn, because he had the least room for success of all the actors. Perkins was simply perfect in Psycho; why Leigh got nominated for an Academy Award and he didn't is a mystery to me. Vaughn probably felt that he needed to do something different, so he made Norman more of an obvious nut. It doesn't work - end of story.
Ironically, the remake of Psycho boasts a much better cast than did the original. There are some terrific actors here, but they don't do very well in their roles. Again, it's simply the lack of cohesion that makes their performances suffer. Well, and they make some odd choices also. The wonderful Julianne Moore offers a strange turn on Marion's sister Lila. She turns her into some sort of macho, militant, man-hating Riot Grrrl who would look more at home in a remake of Terminator 2. Funnily, Heche claims during the commentary that she thinks almost no one other than lesbians noticed that Moore's Lila was supposed to be "one of them." Sure, Anne, whatever you say - we straight folk never could pick up on that! It couldn't be more obvious if she had a scarlet "L" stitched to her shirt. (Strangely, despite her surly demeanor, I found Moore to look much sexier than usual in this role. What does this say about me? Oh, let's not discuss that!)
Odd acting choice number 72: Viggo Mortensen's "aw shucks" cowboy act as Marion's love interest Sam. Why does he play Sam as a cowboy? You got me. The guy owns a hardware store - what's that have to do with being a cowboy? You got me. Granted, Mortensen didn't have to worry about sullying the role; original actor John Gavin was no Olivier, and his stiff portrayal of Sam didn't do much to bring the character to life. Still, at least the character made some sense; Mortensen's Sam just seems odd.
"Pointless" and "odd" - those are probably the two best phrases to use to describe Van Sant's remake of Psycho. It's clearly not watchable, and in a strange way, it's entertaining. But it's nothing more than a curiosity, and once you've had your fill of that, you won't have much use for the movie.
But at least it's a nice DVD! Universal have released Psycho as part of their fine "Collector's Edition" line, and while it's not as good as some - including their DVD of the original Psycho - it's still a pretty decent piece of work.
Psycho is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. Overall it looks pretty good. The print utilized was very clean; no marks, scratches, spots or grain are noticeable. The focus seems sharp, although some digital "edginess" is visible at times; some images - especially early in the film - have a slight "halo" around them. Colors generally seem solid and accurate, although they tend toward a kind of pastel spectrum that occasionally gives the movie a strange "colorized" appearance. (The audio commentary mentions that they wanted the colors to be desaturated for the early parts of the film, and this may be the reason I noted the color peculiarities.) Black levels and shadow detail look excellent, however, and though it has some flaws, the picture looks quite good as a whole.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix for Psycho isn't very broad; the rear channels are used pretty infrequently (mainly for some filler effects such as rain and for some "voices in the head"). However, the audio does display consistently excellent quality; I think Psycho is one of the best sounding DVDs I've heard. Danny Elfman's adaptation of Bernard Herrmann's famous score comes across especially nicely and sounds very natural and "musical." Both effects and dialogue also appear quite crisp, clean and real. The front soundstage also offers some nicely spatialized audio, with good use of panning and well localized sounds. While the use of the surrounds is weak, the high quality of the audio and the nicely utilized front three channels compensate for that flaw pretty effectively.
Since this DVD of Psycho belongs to Universal's Collector's Edition line, I rightfully expected some nice supplements, and those provided are fairly interesting, though not always for the reasons intended. Foremost in that category is the audio commentary from director Van Sant and stars Vaughn and Heche. Many of these types of tracks tend to be rather self-congratulatory, but the commentary for Psycho seems excessively so. Of the three participants, Heche and Van Sant dominate, and while Van Sant seems fairly subdued. Heche spends an awful lot of time telling us how brilliant various aspects of the film were. Sorry, Anne, but they weren't. Also, despite your belief to the contrary, no one will view this version of Psycho as a classic in ten years.
This commentary resembles an auditory car wreck because the behavior of the participants is so compellingly pathetic; you cringe at what they say but you can't stop listening. They just don't seem to understand why the movie tanked. At various times critics, the general filmgoing audience, and the advertising campaign are blamed. No one involved really seems to get why people viewed this film as being different from a typical remake; they don't seem to understand why the public so strongly rejected it.
Heche comes off the worst of the bunch partially because she spends more time than the others praising what they did; that's mainly what she does on this track. In addition to her remarkable comment about how future audiences will greet this version of the film, she also feels that it bombed because folks these days want gore, gore and more gore and they don't go for a "psychological thriller" like Psycho. 'Zat so, Anne? That must be why The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project did so poorly at the box office - not enough blood! Boy, does Heche come across as fatuous and absurd; she really seems to believe that this film blows the original out of the water. (I agree with part of that statement: Psycho 1998 blows all right!)
Throughout the commentary, Van Sant seems largely content to bask in the adulation of his stars and to occasionally point out deviations from the original film. Vaughn's main contribution is to use the word "organic" as many times as possible. Sorry, Vince - try as you might, you still don't sound very intelligent. (You can make a fun game of this - have a drinking game ala "Hi Bob" whereby everyone chugs when Vince says "organic" during the commentary!)
Okay, I have to inject one more Heche related comment. During the track, Van Sant discusses the story of Ed Gein, the killer who originally inspired the plot for Psycho =. Van Sant mentions how reality was much more gruesome since Gein would skin his victims and keep their pelts for his own use. Heche knows none of this and seems fascinated; at one point she states something like, "There's your next movie, Gus!" as though this Gein guy would make for one tremendously original film. Hey Anne - Silence of the Lambs! Texas Chainsaw Massacre! Look them up! What a dope...
Again, I did find the commentary to be somewhat interesting, but more as a morbid curiosity than as a factual primer on how the film was made or because of fun anecdotes. Perhaps it's because the movie received such a scathing reaction that the participants seem to desperate to justify it. Whatever the case, it just appears silly.
The DVD also offers a good 30 minute documentary called "Psycho Path". It more directly confronts the issue of why this project was attempted and presents these reasons in a more upfront way than was done in the commentary. After all, that's the main issue people want to hear addressed. After that, I think the changes between the two versions are of most interest, and this program also discusses those. It's an interesting piece, though it did make me kind of sad to see so much talent waste away on this pointless project.
In addition, Psycho contains some of the old DVD standards. One trailer is presented; it's not bad, as it shows us symbolic representations of what's going on inside Norman's head. Basic and average but useful biographies are presented for five of the actors and for Van Sant. Production notes are presented both on the disc itself and inside the DVD's booklet. Oddly, the content of these two sets of notes overlaps to a degree but not completely. As such, some of what you read from the text on the disc is unique to it, some of the printed material in the booklet only appears there, and much of it can be found both places. I think the disc-based text has more "exclusive" information. It's pretty good stuff; as usual, the notes are fairly rudimentary, and some repeat details we've heard in the commentary and during the documentary, but there's enough new data here to warrant reading it.
Finally, those of you with DVD-ROM drives can utilize the Psycho screen savers on the DVD and also cam easily access some weblinks. I can't comment on these since I don't have a DVD-ROM drive. Have fun!
Or don't, because there's not much fun to be had with the cinematic oddity that is the 1998 remake of Psycho. I found it interesting to watch it right after I finished viewing the original, but that process also made me more confused and disgusted with this bizarre piece of work. On its own, Psycho 1998 is not a badly made piece of film, but its strong lack of originality or any valid reason for existing makes it pretty much useless. If you're interested in it anyway, you should be very happy with this DVD; it does nicely in all of the major areas and would be something I'd strongly recommend if the content were more interesting. However, as it stands, I have to shy people away from it. Do yourself a favor and buy the original instead.
Current as of 1/8/2000
Official Site--The site offers a very detailed examination on the making of the film.
Previous: Psycho (1960) | Back to Main Page