Psycho (1998)

Dec 9, 1998 at 12:00 am

A few years ago, in an article on Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs which traced the evolution of the killer from Psycho, via In Cold Blood and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, all the way to The Silence of the Lambs, the reviewer called Norman Bates "the Brando of killers." But in 1959, the people involved with the film's production didn't know they had a classic on their hands. As Marshall Schlom, the original script supervisor, recalls, "(Psycho) didn't cost much money. Mr. Hitchcock made it with his television film crew. It didn't seem to have the magnitude of Rear Window or North by Northwest. It was just a little picture."

The viewers' complicity in the characters' crimes achieved through the movement and position of the camera; the idea that evil can hide behind the nervous yet charming smile of a Norman Bates; the violence and the dark side of the characters' sexuality terrified audiences in 1960. The same disturbing qualities have haunted generations of cinephiles ever since. So why "do Brando" all over again? Why the remake?

Director Gus Van Sant has a perfectly noble explanation: "As cinema gets older, there is also an audience that is increasingly unpracticed at watching old films, silent films and black and white films. Psycho is perfect to refashion as a modern piece. Reflections are a major theme in the original, with mirrors everywhere, characters who reflect each other. This version holds up a mirror to the original; it's sort of its schizophrenic twin."

Despite Vince Vaughn's (Norman Bates) superb performance and Anne Heche's (Marion Crane) fragility, this schizo-Psycho will be remembered as nothing more than the remake of a classic. Here, however, we are faced with a new dilemma: Since the staging of a contemporary production of a classic text, while remaining true to the original, is the director's main goal, should we declare the final product a failure?

The shower scene contains two unexpected shots: one, an extreme close-up of Marion's eye in the depths of whose pupil the camera plunges with the insanity of a killer; the other, a shot of clouds chased across the immensity of a dark sky, breathless and menacing. Similar subliminal incidents accompany the detective's (William H. Macy) death scene. Together with the shocking intensity of the blood stains on the white tiles, and the intentionally loud and tasteless tones of the characters' costumes, these shots do end up rendering a fragmented, twisted, schizo-version of the original.

And if we weren't so utterly immune to the constant negotiation between the violence on the screen and that coming from the general direction of the viewing public, we might even find the new Psycho scary.

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