Gus Van Sant’s Psycho remake is a bad film, but such talent went into the production that it’s a wonder. In terms of acting, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortenson and Julianne Moore would all develop into top tier leading actors in the 2010s. As it’s become clear that director Van Sant has maintained a level of quality in his work, many are looking back at this film as if the awfulness was the point all along. Although I doubt the actors signed onto a project based on that deception, it’s still an interesting case study on what makes a successful motion picture.
This was billed as a shot by shot remake of Psycho, but that’s only partially true. Yes the film follows the same shooting script but Van Sant toys with every scene. Foremost, the film is in color. The choice of black and white was deliberate for Hitchcock. By the mid fifties most of his film productions were in color, but he only went back to black and white for “The Wrong Man” in a nod to the burgeoning Italian neo-realism scene and with “Psycho” which he hoped to capture the spirit of his television series.
The Janet Leigh role here is played by Anne Heche, a curious substitution. Leigh was the biggest star in the original, while Heche was at the time enjoying some celebrity via a brief tabloid infatuation. There is a genuine shock when the top billed and most recognized actor in a production is killed off within the first third of the film. There’s a tension that stays with the audience throughout the film. For a more contemporary example, look at Gravity which succeeded at a similar trick, even going so far as to toy with the audience by suggesting the death didn’t occur at all.
Vince Vaughn remains a strange choice for Norman Bates. There would always be trouble with reviving a character so tied to an actor. Many potential remakes have been stymied over the years by the trouble in finding an actor who could inhabit such a role. Think Al Pacino’s Michael Corelone, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, or Lou Ferigno’s Incredible Hulk. Vaughn is as far from Anthony Perkins as one could get. He has an outgoing personality matched with a large frame, it’s not a stretch to imagine Vaughn in sports films. Yet the script stubbornly plays him to Anthony Perkins’s strengths. This is a Norman Bates that could physically overpower his prey.
If the film succeeds over the original it may be in the final shot: the swamp Bates used as a dumping ground for his victims. The camera lingers on the scene well after the police have removed the evidence, and well past the roll of the credits. In the distance, the interstate that cut off Norman and his mother from society looms. Cars speed through unconcerned with what has transpired during the film.
So what was the point of this exercise? Maybe this remake serves as a rejoinder to Hitchcock who often claimed that actors were interchangeable and that the bulk of their performances could be teased out through editting tricks. Maybe this was meant to underscore how much more bloodshed mainstream audiences expect from horror films.