Psycho Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

Check in.  Relax.  Take a shower.

Do you have any vacancies?
Yes, twelve in fact. Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies.

"Psycho" has been labeled a 'cultural artifact', 'one of the great works of modern American art', and Alfred Hitchcock's best film. Indeed, this 1960 film struck a chord with American moviegoers, tapping into the psyche of a society that was becoming increasingly amoral and violent. Despite the film's prominent place in popular culture, especially the infamous 'shower scene' (which is even known those who have never seen the film), the origins of the film were not quite as abstruse.

Having made a number of films on lavish budgets, such as his classic "North by Northwest", Hitchcock found himself envious of low-budget yet financially-rewarding horror features, such as the films of William Castle. So he took it upon himself to out-do his down-market competitors by shooting a feature film on a shoestring budget of $800,000. Using Robert Bloch's novel "Psycho" as a starting point, screenwriter Joseph Stefano crafted an unconventional screenplay that not only toyed with the audience's sympathies, but broke many of the rules while doing so.

The house overlooking the Bates Motel

While "Psycho" did not have the narrative complexity as some of Hitchcock's earlier films, it went on to create quite a stir, especially with a brilliant marketing campaign which warned theater patrons that no one would be allowed to enter the theater once the first reel began rolling. Not only did this groundbreaking film create long line-ups at theaters all across the United States and bring in over $20 million of profit, but it also had the distinction of scaring numerous moviegoers away from taking showers for many years afterwards (including its star, Janet Leigh).

Now, twenty-eight years later, this classic horror film that paved the way for other 'slasher' movies ("Halloween", "Friday the 13th", "Scream") has been remade by director Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting"). For those of you crying 'blasphemy!' against remaking this groundbreaking film, Van Sant worked from Stefano's original shooting script and utilized identical camera angles. In essence, the new "Pscyho" is identical to the original film, shot-for-shot, with the only difference being that it is now in color and populated with popular actors of our time. Almost as blasphemous as 'colorizing' old black-and-white films.

Well, I ain't about to kiss off four hundred thousand dollars. I'll get it back and if any of it's missing, I'll replace it with her fine soft flesh. I'll track her. Never you doubt it.

Like the original, the story begins with Marion Crane (Anne Heche of "Wag the Dog", in the role originally played by Janet Leigh), a secretary in a real estate office who wants to run away with her debt-ridden lover Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen, who was also in "A Perfect Murder", another Hitchcock remake). But because of her financial situation, Marion can only take comfort in the odd lunch-hour fling with her lover, who lives out of a stockroom in a hardware store. However, a golden opportunity presents itself when Marion is entrusted with $400,000 belonging to one of her firm's well-to-do clients. Unable to resist the temptation, she takes the money and drives out to Fairvale, California, hoping to elope with Sam.

You mean you don't want the usual day-and-a-half to think it over? Ha! You are in a hurry, aren't ya? Is somebody chasin' ya? Well, it's the first time the customer ever high-pressured the salesman!

However, Marion's flight does not go as smoothly as hoped. In addition to being spotted by her boss on her way out of town, she has run-ins with a number of people that pick up on her suspicious behavior, including a used car salesman and a California Highway Patrol officer that seems to be following her every move. After much driving, she manages to find respite during a rainy night at the out-of-the-way Bates Motel. The shy motel manager, Norman Bates (originally played by Anthony Perkins, and now by Vince Vaughn of "The Lost World") is very accommodating, providing Marion with a room, some dinner, and conversation, which ends up providing her with a moment of clarity. Seeing Norman's predicament, trapped under his domineering mother and working away at a dead-end motel, Marion decides to return to Phoenix and make reparations for her inexplicable act of avarice.

My hobby is stuffing things... you know, taxidermy. And I guess I'd rather just stuff birds because I hate the look of beasts when they're stuffed. You know, foxes and chimps. Some people even stuff dogs and cats, but boy, I can't do that. I think only birds look well stuffed because, well, they're kinda passive to begin with.
Strange hobby. Curious.
Uncommon too.
Oh, I imagine so.
And it's... it's not as expensive as you'd think. It's cheaper than, you know, needles, and thread, sawdust. The chemicals are the only thing that, that cost anything.
A man should have a hobby.
Well, it's... it's more than a hobby. A hobby's supposed to pass the time, not fill it.
Is your time so empty?
No... uh, well, I run the office and tend the cabins and grounds and, and do a little errands for my mother. The ones she feels I might be capable of doing.
Don't you go out with friends?
Well, a boy's best friend is his mother.
Anne Heche is Marion Crane

Later that night, Marion takes a shower before retiring, symbolically washing away her sins. Unfortunately, fate deals her a cruel hand, and Marion is fatally stabbed by Norman's jealous mother (brilliantly executed with in the original films with some clever editing that never actually showed the knife touching Janet Leigh's body-double).

My mother's harmless... as harmless as one of these stuffed birds.

Having killed off what the audience thought was the film's main character, the story then shifts to Norman, who attempts to conceal the crime from the subsequent investigations of private detective Arbogast (Willam H. Macy of "Pleasantville"), Loomis, and Marion's sister, Lila (Julianne Moore of "The Big Lebowski"). What then follows are a series of startling discoveries...

I think that we are all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw, but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch.
Sometimes, we deliberately step into those traps.
Vince Vaughn is Norman Bates

The beauty of the original "Psycho" was that it defied expectations at every turn, and got the audience to root for the wrong people. In the beginning, the film creates sympathy for the likable-but-greedy Marion-- when the police officer looks at her suspiciously, the audience is on pins-and-needles, hoping that she won't be arrested. However, barely a half-hour into the film, Marion is killed off, and audience sympathies are then paradoxically directed towards Norman, whom Marion also felt compassion for. Later on, as Norman is dumping Marion's car in a nearby swamp or being questioned by Abrogast, we are once again on pins-and-needles, hoping that Norman doesn't get caught for his indiscretions and that it will all somehow work out for him in the end.

You know what I do about unhappiness? I buy it off. Are you unhappy?

Though Van Sant has stated his intentions to bring the film up to contemporary sensibilities, what he has in fact done is recreate the original with only superficial changes. Other than the differences in the acting department, most of the film remains exactly the same, including many of the trademark camera techniques of the original.

And despite his assertions of updating the classic, Van Sant has chosen an odd production design that combines nostalgic elements with modern ones. While Marion and her co-workers are adorned in retro-wear from the Sixties, their office is populated with many modern amenities, including desktop computers. Another example would be the contrast between fedora-wearing Arbogast, who seems to have just stepped off a film noir set, and Lila, who brings her Sony Walkman with her everywhere. Unfortunately, this makes certain scenes almost laughable, given the jarring clash of styles.

No, I tell you! No! I won't have you bringing strange young girls in for supper by candlelight, I suppose in the cheap erotic fashion of young men with cheap erotic minds.
Mother, please!
And then what after supper? Music? Whispers?

This odd pairing of contrasting styles is also evident in the film's dialogue. Using the original dialogue, with its dated mannerisms and figures of speech, the conversations come across stilted, such as the first meeting between Sam, Arbogast, and Lila. In the hands of the film's more capable actors, such as Vaughn and Heche, this antiquated dialogue is tolerable. However, other actors are not as successful, such as Robert Forster's ("Jackie Brown") strained handling of the film's verbose bookend.

The only noteworthy aspect of this remake was the exquisite cinematography by Hong Kong trained Christopher Doyle, who has won numerous awards for his work on the films of Wong Kar Wai (such as "Chungking Express" and "Happy Together"). In "Psycho", the cinematographer infuses the color images with a washed-out appearance (similar to an effect used in his work on "Fallen Angels"), giving the film a muted look that complements the film's retro-feel and grim atmosphere. It's unfortunate that his talent is being wasted on such drivel.

I have a long drive tomorrow, all the way back to Phoenix. I stepped into a private trap back there and I'd like to go back and try to pull myself out of it before it's too late for me too.

But cinematography aside, the new "Psycho" is a pale imitation of the original, a seemingly pointless remake that does very little to enhance the source material. You're much better off heading to your local video store to rent the original.

Mother! Oh god! Mother! Blood! Blood!

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

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