If Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s widely celebrated thriller Psycho (1960) is not one of the most unfairly maligned features of its decade, then it must surely one of the least-well understood. I was an enthused fan of Sant’s film when it was released to cinemas, and have continued to defend it against naysayers for almost a quarter-century running. It is a fascinating, wonderfully playful experiment.
Feature film remakes have been around since at least 1918, when Cecil B. DeMille re-produced his four year-old film The Squaw Man with a longer length and larger budget. For well over a century now Hollywood in particular has remade films both famous and obscure, either cashing in on a lucrative piece of intellectual property or taking advantage of a good preexisting idea to inspire new work. Movie remakes are most often dismissed as terrible, although in defence of the practice most original movies are also commonly terrible. Remakes simply fail with a higher profile. Remakes are most often judged over how they are updated to cater for a fresh audience – but what if the new film hardly updated anything at all? This question sits at the heart of the 1998 Psycho, which takes a bold and rather theatrical approach to the idea of film.
Think about sequential productions of a theatrical play: say, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The playscript is by-and-large sacrosanct: no matter when the play is staged, or where, the exact same events will occur to the exact same characters. The dialogue does not change. The setting does not change. The performances and the direction may vary, but for the playgoer part of the appeal of seeing a production of a famous play is seeing the same thing happen via a fresh take. Successive feature films based on the same story never, as a rule, do this. New films generally come with new screenplays and revised characters. Storylines may be modified or even changed quite radically. William A. Wellman’s A Star is Born has been remade three times (four if you include an early television play), and yet each version is a different film with a different style and purpose.
Gus Van Sant’s Psycho takes the more theatrical approach. It maintains Joseph Stefano’s 1960 screenplay, and either copies or alludes to all of Alfred Hitchcock’s original shot choices. Apart from updating it for stereo sound, Danny Elfman does little adjustment to Bernard Hermann’s classic movie score. While the setting has changed from 1960 to 1998, the remake does not just follow the same story: it actively duplicates it. Apart from being made in colour, this is not a remake so much as a deliberate duplication.
Would you watch Psycho (1998) instead of Psycho (1960)? Of course not. You could, and honestly should, however, watch the 1998 version along with Hitchcock’s classic. The joy of Sant’s version is in the subtleties: the change in tone caused by a colour presentation, or the small differences in how dialogue is delivered by each actor. It is a great early showcase for Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates, who became progressively trapped in comedy as his career developed. Anne Heche provides Marian Crane with a more pronounced sexuality than Janet Leigh offered in 1960. William H. Macy plays private investigator Arbogast almost as tribute to original actor Martin Balsam, while Julianne Moore gives Lila Crane a fresh, contemporary hardness.
You would not want to see all film remakes be staged in this fashion, but as an experiment in adaptation Psycho is an intriguing and entertaining one-off. It deserves a re-appraisal.