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The Reactionary Utopian (classic)
September 9, 2010

Cloning PSYCHO
A classic by Joseph Sobran
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ARLINGTON, VA —I've spent much of this summer with a grandson who, at age eleven, already has, to my dismay, an encyclopedic knowledge of slasher movies. In some obscure way it seemed fitting that he should induce me, one August evening, to watch the video of Gus Van Sant's curious remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic, PSYCHO, the direct ancestor of today's epidemic of slasher films.

Van Sant's version isn't an adaptation; it makes no attempt to improve on the original, or even to add some new element to it. It's an almost slavishly faithful shot-by-shot reproduction, retaining even most of the original dialogue and Bernard Hermann's shrieking soundtrack score. Its chief effect is to make you appreciate Hitchcock's genius.

I first saw Hitchcock's PSYCHO in 1968, long after it came out, on late-night television, with commercial interruptions. I'd heard my friends discussing it for years and wondered what I'd missed. I'd missed plenty. Even seen under adverse conditions, it was by far the scariest movie I'd ever seen. And one of the most brilliant. I hardly slept that night, torn between terror and admiration.

At the time Hitchcock was becoming a cult figure, thanks in large part to a book of interviews Francois Truffaut conducted with him. Eschewing any philosophy of life or cinema, the old man simply explained in very practical terms how he kept audiences in suspense, film by film, scene by scene. He believed in using violence sparingly; even PSYCHO has only a few seconds of it, but uses it to maximum effect, making the audience expect far more than it actually sees.

Younger directors adored Hitchcock, but his only film most of them wanted to emulate was PSYCHO, which was actually a departure from his more romantic thrillers. THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS, REBECCA, NOTORIOUS, REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO, and NORTH BY NORTHWEST each has, as PSYCHO does not, a central love story. Hitchcock was a great director, but a baneful influence.

Van Sant's version is shot in color. The original is black and white. It was the first black-and-white movie Hitchcock had made in years, and for an artistic reason: color dissipates tension. Orson Welles once called black-and-white "the actor's best friend." It may also be the director's. It focuses attention on the dramatic essentials. Even the shower scene (a great example of Hitchcock's economy; he took a whole week to film a minute's hacking) loses force in color, with scarlet blood flowing down the drain.

In fairness to Van Sant, he has probably attempted the impossible. PSYCHO is by now so familiar -- we've all seen it (and its imitators) so often -- that its story has lost most of its power to frighten. It's easy to forget that when it first appeared, it was so terrifying that its stars' careers actually suffered from their association with their roles.

No danger of that with the remake. In the 1960s nobody could forget Anthony Perkins as the eerily eccentric Norman Bates or Janet Leigh as the ripely alluring Marion Crane, hacked to death in the shower. Today, everyone has already forgotten Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche playing the same characters. He is too masculine; come to think of it, so is she. (She is best known for her lesbian affair with Ellen DeGeneres, which earned the pair a welcome at the Clinton White House.) She's petite, but not feminine -- even her short hair looks dykish. She also lacks Leigh's rich voice, just as Vaughn lacks Perkins's touching yet ominous vocal hesitancy.

In fact, the most implausible feature of Van Sant's version is that he posits a world of 1998 in which nobody has seen PSYCHO. His script adjusts for inflation the amount of money Marion steals from her employer.

The casting presents problems too. Vince Vaughn, a fine virile fellow, just isn't Norman; he's far too tough and normal to give you the creeps, and his "mother's" derision of his manhood doesn't ring true. Anne Heche isn't nearly as attractive as Janet Leigh; nothing to stir Norman's weird depths there. William H. Macy, as the detective Arbogast, has none of the ominous presence Martin Balsam had in the original, which made his murder so shocking; Macy's face and voice are comically weak. Julianne Moore, as Marion's sister, is a more commanding actress than Vera Miles, but her very strength is a failing: when she snoops in the Bates house at the film's climax, it holds no terror for her. She's ready for anything. "I can handle a sick old woman," she says confidently, and you believe her.

Van Sant's PSYCHO seems to have been made for the sole purpose of demanding comparison with the original, but it's made in such a way as to ensure that the comparison will be unfavorable. If this had been the first and only PSYCHO, it might have been a good thriller, but it wouldn't have captured the imagination or supplied us with lasting archetypes. Even aping Hitchcock's every shot, Van Sant has managed to turn this masterpiece into one more banal slasher flick.

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This article originally appeared in the September 2002 edition of Sobran's: The Real News of the Month.

Copyright © 2010 by Joe Sobran and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved.

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