One of the biggest questions asked in response to Gus Van Sant’s remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is simply “Why?” Why remake something that is almost inarguably perfect? Why tamper with one of the most iconic films of one of the most iconic directors in film history? It is impossible to explore these questions and examine Van Sant’s Psycho without comparing it and contrasting it to Hitchcock’s original. In doing so we can see the differences – both subtle and obvious – and determine what the significance of those differences are, if any. Once that can be made clear, it is then possible to find out why this project was undertaken by Van Sant, what its value is in terms of film history, and what it tells us about filmmaking and directing now as opposed to the 1960s when Psycho was originally released by Universal.
(Gus Van Sant - Psycho Killer?)
The major differences of the film are obvious ones of the use of color, cast, crew, director, wardrobe, and set (the Bates home is different!). Of these differences, the most significant are the change in director and the use of color. The fact that Van Sant, a respected director in his own right, is not adapting Hitchcock but recreating it almost shot for shot really forces us to examine which parts of the film are Hitchcock and which are Van Sant. Whether or not Van Sant’s own personal style or authorship can be conveyed through a paint-by-numbers type project of another director’s work is certainly an issue. If it is not conveyed, is there any point in recreating Psycho beyond Van Sant’s own artistic expression?
The use of color is one of the most immediate differences of the new Psycho. When we first see Marion’s room the brightness of the colors really catches the eye: a bright green bra, pink walls, blue covers, orange dress. In fact, it is Marion who is the most colorful in the film in her wardrobe, which is contrasted against the more pastel-like colors of the city and her workplace. Why she is so brightly dressed beyond being visually pleasing is not very clear until the use of color is utilized again when we see the bathroom in the motel room. It is a bleached white that shines under fluorescent lights and absorbs the paleness of Marion’s hair and skin. In her wardrobe Marion is noticeable and seems vivid through her dress, but when she is naked and in the shower she becomes less visually discernible, a symbol and indication of her impending death. The bright red blood that splatters during the shower scene then becomes much more of a visually stimulating scene when it is contrasted against the sterile whiteness of the bathroom, an effect that could not be attained in Hitchcock’s black and white original. Beyond these examples, however, it is difficult to see effective uses of color in the film and past the halfway point of the film it becomes questionable whether or not there is any benefit to the film being in color or not.
Some more subtle differences appear in Van Sant’s Psycho and are worth examining. A majority of these subtle differences are sexual in nature, which is interesting considering Van Sant’s status as a figure of the New Queer Cinema and as a gay male director. His films are often embedded with issues of sexuality, often non-straight, such as in Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho. When we first see Marion with her boyfriend Sam, it becomes curious to see what Van Sant would do with an intimate scene without the production codes Hitchcock had to skirt around. Instead of having Marion nude to go along with the sensuality displayed by the first Marion (Janet Leigh) in her bra, Van Sant opts to make Sam nude and have him exude all the sexuality in the scene. In the same bedroom scene we also here a couple having sex in the room next door, an audio track not in the original version. The choice to make the male character sexually attractive is not only a reversal from standard Hollywood films in which the female is the object of gaze, but it is also the first taste we get of Van Sant’s own style or ideology.
Another explicitly sexual moment in the film that is completely of Van Sant’s creation is the scene in which Norman watches Marion through the peephole in the parlor. In his version, Van Sant has Norman masturbate as he watches, making Norman’s creepiness and lustfulness that we feel in the original Psycho more obviously clear and explicitly shown. The explicitness of the scene in which the audience is forced to watch and hear Norman masturbate from the neck up is not unlike Van Sant’s tendency to deal with sexual issues or situations in his other films. Mike receiving a blow job in My Own Private Idaho and the camera staying on his face is quite similar. The effect of both of these scenes is a type of uneasiness in the audience in witnessing an extremely private and even disturbing moment.
More subtle sexual changes are seen through the characters of Lila and Sam. Though it is not said clearly in the film, certain hints – her aggressiveness, her outfit, her mannerisms – indicate that Lila is a lesbian. It is Lila’s aggressiveness which makes her to obvious leader of the Lila/Sam pair. This is also supported by the alteration of Sam’s character. Van Sant makes Sam a type of cowboy who wears tight pants. His interests in the film are almost always sexual: we see him writing a letter to Marion in which he hints that he wants to sleep with her, he looks at Marion’s sister in an almost lustful way (which is supported also by his earlier comment in the film in which he asks Marion if her sister looks like her), and the news of Marion’s disappearance does not seem to upset him nearly as much as it does Lila. The aggressiveness seen by Sam in the first Psycho is almost entirely displaced by his desire to sleep with Lila in Van Sant’s update. Again, these changes are consistent with Van Sant’s interest in sexuality and especially in a character’s sexual motivations.
Besides the sexually-themed changes, there are very peculiar inserts of Van Sant’s that do not appear in Hitchcock’s original at all. These are the images of storm clouds when Marion is being slashed to death and the images of a naked woman wearing a blindfold and a cow in a road when Arbogast is getting slashed. These images are very similar to the home movie-type mental images that flash in the head of Mike in My Own Private Idaho. Van Sant also makes use of a character’s internal thoughts through abstract images in Drugstore Cowboy through Bob. Though instantly characteristic of Van Sant’s style – wedging in odd images or montages in the middle of the narrative – these images in Psycho do not do much beyond making Van Sant’s presence in the film be felt. I would argue that their appearance in the film doesn’t really do anything to add to the film and stick out so obviously that they come off as almost gimmicky. When these stylistic inserts do not speak to or incorporate theme or form, it ultimately comes off as “doing it for the sake of doing it.”
It is left to wonder, then, if these mentioned changes are significant enough to validate Psycho’s reconstruction. I would argue that it does not. Ultimately, the majority of the changes mentioned are so subtle or implied that it becomes difficult to assume that they hold enough weight to make Psycho significant as a recreation. Actually, Van Sant’s faithfulness to shot recreation in itself is somewhat radical and ultimately says more than the changes do. Since Van Sant’s own personal style or signature is hard to determine for the average viewer, it becomes possible that his intentions lay elsewhere. I believe that the advertisement posters of the film are incredibly telling in this regard. The poster shows Marion’s hand against a shower curtain which is half-soaked in blood, emphasizing the “killer” aspect of the film to attract a generation of movie-goers who grew up on Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and the Scream movies. The fact that many young viewers of the general public had not seen the original Psycho or (God forbid) never heard of Alfred Hitchcock when Van Sant remade it would certainly be a reason to recreate and “update” the masterpiece in order to reintroduce it to a new generation. This new demographic of movie-goers ultimately plays a big part in this discussion because the art/craft of film that Van Sant is working with is geared towards a different audience under different guidelines than those of Hitchcock and the early ‘60s. I would argue that this “new audience” is a much more sensationalist one. Since movie-goers who would be in their teens or early twenties 1998 (when Van Sant’s Psycho was released) grew up on films that did not have the Hollywood production code Hitchcock had, they are used to seeing much more graphic scenes in films in terms of sex and violence. In order to attract them to see a movie like Psycho, it most definitely had to be in color, since black and white would remind them of their parent’s generation, and it most definitely had to emphasize the violence of the film, which the color poster certainly does. Van Sant’s Psycho can not stand alone to an audience already familiar with Hitchcock since comparisons are inevitable and the original would always be considered “better,” but to a fresh audience with no conceptions it can be viewed independent of its source.
In the end, it is clear that Van Sant’s own personal voice is not really loud enough in the film to consider it as his main reason for taking on such a project. Instead, it is quite possible that his motivation was in doing something new (a shot-for-shot recreation) and in reintroducing Hitchcock to a generation who may have never known him in a way that they can relate (red blood and slashing knives). This brave attempt of his, though revolting to most, certainly sets some kind of precedent in an art form that is still fairly young. The courageousness and audacity to attempt such a project is actually quite characteristic of Van Sant as a director and certainly deserves some merit, if not for its success (or lack of success), for its spirit of experimentation and its courageous/reckless/insane abandon.