How Gus Van Sant’s Literal Remake of ‘Psycho’ Improves Upon Hitchcock’s Classic

And you thought I was crazy for actually publishing on the Internet for all eternity an article that argues that the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy is superior to the original trilogy! Maybe it’s not so much my sanity you should question but my will to live and the state of my wish for an early death. Yes, you read that title right. Gus Van Sant’s literal remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” contains some elements that are superior to the original.

Janet Leigh is very much an underrated actress. A closer perusal of the long list of diverse films on her resume reveals a versatility that may surprise those who dismiss Leigh as just a pretty face and great body. That said, Anne Heche is an innately better actress. Anyone who caught Heche’s tour de force performance on the soap opera “Another World” will likely nod their head in agreement with my contention that Heche reinvented the soap opera cliché of the good and evil twins. Heche’s movie career has rarely fulfilled the astonishing promise shown in that masterful, award-winning run on “Another World.”

A sure sign that those in charge of the Razzie Awards are prone to make their decision based on the public perception of quality rather than the actual content of the film itself can be found in the fact that Heche was nominated for Worst Actress for Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” remake. In fact, Heche delivers a performance as Marion Crane that easily surpasses Janet Leigh’s interpretation. Heche’s body language and vocal intonations subtly indicate a much more multifaceted emotional state of mind than the rather empty slate the audience is required to write upon themselves. Of course, this lack of emotional complexity could be more attributable to Hitchcock’s control than a failure on Leigh’s part.

Van Sant also gives freer rein to Vince Vaughn to flesh out Norman Bates than Hitchcock allowed Anthony Perkins. Yeah, I know: Perkins’s Norman Bates is one of the all time iconic horror movie psycho killers. That doesn’t mean it’s a particularly multifaceted performance. Vaughn has the distinct advantage of audiences coming into the movie already aware that Norman Bates is the titular cross-dressing murderer, so he acquired the latitude to allow Norman to be less normal and more creepily off-kilter right from the beginning.

The construct of the original was dependent upon audience ignorance of what takes place at the Bates Motel in order to achieve the first of its many shocking twists and revelations. As a result, Perkins is hindered in a way Vaughn is not. This disconnect contradicts the idea that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless and serves to point up another aspect of the remake that is superior to the original.

Hitchcock simply could not allow Perkins to play Norman Bates authentically because of his vital role in creating what can accurately be described as a false consciousness. In other words, Perkins’s Norman Bates is required to be a marketing ploy for most of the movie, whereas Vaughn is allowed to penetrate into and reveal more of the true nature of Norman right from the beginning. The difference here results in the “unoriginal” shot-by-shot remake paradoxically purifying the story of “Psycho” by breaking free from the game of manipulating audience expectations that Hitchcock chose to play.

The most important thing to forward when describing the difference between Van Sant’s shower scene and Hitchcock’s is that, despite the conventional description of this remake as an atypical shot-by-shot reconstruction, subtle differences are introduced precisely thanks to the lack of censorship constrictions enjoyed by Van Sant. Fortunately, Van Sant rejects the temptation to increase the terror by employing more explicit gore. Instead, by choosing to heighten the eroticism of Norman Bates’s voyeurism and subsequent psychopathic homicide, the remake manages to intensify the impact of the murder of Marion Crane.

What Hitchcock possessed that Van Sant does not is the power of surprise. And this differentiation is the vital component that explains quite easily what seems to be such a major problem with critics of the remake. Why do a literal, nearly shot-by-shot remake of a movie, especially a classic? Especially a classic so obviously hampered by censorship conditions?

I have no idea what was going through Van Sant’s mind, but I would be willing to bet the farm that his radical choice was made because he clearly saw “Psycho” is perhaps the most perfect movie of all to remake as faithfully as possible and still manage to imprint a social consciousness completely different from the original.

Hitchcock set up for himself a very interesting problem. He had to make a movie reliant on upsetting conventional expectations of an audience, shocking moments of revelation, and introducing characters who are not what they appear to be. Almost everyone familiar with Hollywood already knows the secrets of “Psycho” going in, but that was not the case when it was first released. The result is that “Psycho” prefigures the contemporary dominance of literary irony as the tone of choice for the overwhelming majority of films made today.

This foreknowledge of what to expect allowed Van Sant to remake “Psycho” almost exactly as Hitchcock did but defy contemporary conventions by eliminating the irony and creating a film that is actually rather radical in its emotional sincerity.

The sequence in the shower shot by Van Sant begins with Vince Vaughn’s Norman Bates peering at Anne Heche’s Marion Crane through that peephole, just as in the Hitchcock original, but the shot-by-shot element suddenly gets a monkey wrench in the crotch when this Norman is heard unzipping. The sequence implies he is engaging in an activity an audience could only imaginatively infer Hitchcock’s Norman was replicating. The consequence is that Norman Bates becomes much more human and seems less of a plot device intended to divert audience expectations.

The murder scene itself differs from Hitchcock’s brilliant original only by virtue of color and the insertion of random scenes of storm clouds. Until the end, that is.

Following her death and the exit of the killer we already know is Norman in a dress and wig, Marion slumps over the end of the tub. At this point, we exit the censorship world in which Hitchcock made the original “Psycho” most explicitly when we get an overhead shot of Marion’s completely nude body draped across the tub. Her legs are flayed and her buttocks are exposed with cheeks spread apart. Hitchcock obviously could not have shot the scene in this way, but what does Van Sant gain from doing so?

I think by exposing Marion’s newfound status as a still warm corpse in a such a degrading and humiliating fashion, Van Sant serves to increase the the horror of the murder scene much more effectively than could have been done by increasing the gore and making the entry of Norman’s blade entering into body more explicit. Whether intentionally or due to censorship restrictions, the way Hitchcock ends the shower scene positions Marion Crane once again as a plot mechanism rather than a real character with whom we can relate.

The shower scene as shot by Hitchcock is perfectly orchestrated for its intention. That intention, however, is keeping the film on track as an exercise in irony. As an exercise in attaching sincere emotional connectivity to the characters of “Psycho” and the horrors they face, Gus Sant’s minor alterations from the shot-byshot reputation of his remake are effective well beyond their expectations.