Tuesday, October 4, 2011

October 3rd: Psycho (1998)

Trapped in a dead-end existence in Phoenix, Arizona, lonely secretary Marion Crane (Anne Heche) desires a fuller relationship with lover Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen). But with Sam living in the back of his hardware store in Fairvale, California, and still paying alimony to his ex-wife, the chances of a future together are slim. When her employer Mr. Lowery (Rance Howard) asks her to put a $400,000 deposit from sleazy client Tom Cassidy (Chad Everett) in the bank, Marion decides to take the money and run to Fairvale to be with Sam.
Having second thoughts about her actions, Marion stops to spend the night at the Bates Motel, where she meets the kindly innkeeper Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn). Over dinner, Marion learns that Norman is all alone, his only company being his elderly mother, a cruel, domineering woman who belittles Norman and makes him feel like nothing. Though Norman claims to have accepted the trap he's fallen into, Marion is inspired to return to Phoenix and give the money back, but is butchered later in the night by Mother and Norman cleans up the mess.
A week later, Sam learns of Marion's disappearance from her sister Lila (Julianne Moore) and private investigator Milton Arbogast (William H. Macy), both of whom suspect Sam is involved. Visiting all the hotels in the area, Arbogast comes to the Bates Motel, but leaves unsatisfied with Norman's answers, as well as his refusal to let Arbogast see his Mother. When Arbogast doesn't show up the next day, Sam and Lila make their way to the Bates Motel to confront Norman, find Marion and learn the truth about "Mother."
Like sequels, Hollywood has learned that remakes are a quick way to make money. Step 1: Pick a movie with name value. Step 2: Get a screenwriter to update the film and throw a few twists in in the story, whether it be new characters or new plot points. Step 3: Hire a cast and crew to put it together. Step 4: Release the movie. Step 5: Rake in the dough. The remake trend is a cash machine that Hollywood has learned to milk for all its worth.
This trend has become particularly popular in the last twenty years and, given the success of John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly, it's no surprise that the horror genre has seen more remakes than any other genre. Whether it be slasher films (Friday The 13th, When A Stranger Calls and Prom Night), obscure cult films (The Vanishing, Manhunter and The Hitcher) or foreign films (REC, Let The Right One In and Ring), the horror genre has become a breeding ground for remakes of all varieties and, while a handful have been surprisingly good (Let Me In, Dawn of The Dead and Fright Night), the overwhelming majority have ranged from disastrous (Day of The Dead) to downright sacrilige (Rob Zombie's Halloween).
Of all these remakes, it is Gus Van Sant's Psycho that has incurred the most hatred and venom from the horror community and believe me; it deserves every single criticism thrown at it. The original Psycho, made in 1960, is that rare perfect film. Based off a successful book by Robert Bloch, Psycho remains one of the scariest films of all time and is arguably the greatest masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock, the horror maestro responsible for such great films as The Birds, Vertigo and North By Northwest. Psycho was even followed up by three worthy sequels; Richard Franklin's near-perfect Psycho II, Anthony Perkin's surreal Psycho III and Mick Garris' prequel Psycho IV: The Beginning.
Given the film's enduring legacy, it's easy to understand why Universal would remake it. Psycho IV had brought the series to a satisfying end, with Norman burning his childhood home down and, in effect, destroying Mother's influence over him. Furthermore, Anthony Perkins, the actor who had perfectly embodied Norman in all four films, had passed away six years ago and, with Sony remaking Ishiro Honda's Kaiju classic Gojira the same year, it seemed perfectly fair to take Hitchcock's nearly 40-year-old film and update it for the modern age.
What makes absolutely no sense is why Gus Van Sant made the incredibly poor decision to do virtually nothing different with his version. Other than being in color and featuring different actors, Van Sant's Psycho is an exact replica of Hitchcock's Psycho. The camera angles are the same, the script is the same, the music is the same, even the dialogue is the same. And what few things were changed or added in make no sense. Why change the look of the Bates Motel sign? Why make Norman's iconic house look different? Why is Sam a cowboy? Why does Norman's mother have blond hair?
Take a look at the few good remakes out there and you'll notice they all follow one of two schools of thought. The first being that the remake takes the original film's basic premise and does something totally different with it. Take for example, The Fly. Other than the title and the main character being a scientist who cells are merged with a fly, Cronenberg's gruesome version bears no similarities to Kurt Neumann's 1958 film. The second way to remake a film successfully is to blend original ideas and concepts with the best elements of the original film. Last year's Let Me In is a perfect example; it has many of its Swedish counterpart's iconic moments, but throws in an '80s aesthetic, a fantastic car chase and makes Oskar/Owen's relationship with Eli/Abby more poignant and touching.
It seems that Gus Van Sant thought if he did nothing different, it would be just as well accepted. His direction is exactly the same as Hitchcock's and the script is unchanged, beyond modernizing the technology, fashion and vehicles. In fact, the script is so similar that it's credited to original writer Joseph Stefano. Therein lies the problem; Van Sant is not making his own movie. He's not putting his own unique stamp on this story; he's just making a colorized version with more gore, a few surreal images and a masturbation scene.
From an acting perspective, Van Sant has gathered an impressive cast. Julianne Moore was fresh off an Oscar-nominated performance in Boogie Nights, Viggo Mortensen had been giving rock-solid performances in films like Carlito's Way and G.I. Jane and the supporting cast, particularly William H. Macy and Robert Forster, were successful character actors. Even bit players like Rita Wilson and Rance Howard were well-respected. However, being forced to work with Stefano's original 1960s era script, the cast is given no chance to do anything unique with their roles. Moore is unlikeable from the get go, Mortensen's cowboy attitude makes you long for John Gavin's everyman version and everyone else is completely forgettable, especially Anne Heche, who fails miserably in the role that made Janet Leigh iconic.
That being said, the worst performance easily goes to a hilariously miscast Vince Vaughn, taking on the role of Norman Bates. As played by Anthony Perkins in the original film and its three sequels, Norman was a fascinating individual. On one hand, Norman's boyish good looks and innocent naivete made you instantly fall in love with him, while you were also frightened of his twitchy facial movements and intense eyes yet above all, you felt sorry for what Mother had put him through and, in Psycho II especially, you desperately wanted him to recover and lead a normal life. To put it mildly, Vaughn is laughably bad as Norman. His imposing physical size is completely underused, his attempts to mimic Perkins are poorly played and, worst of all, he never conveys the tragic elements that make Norman so different from the Freddys and Jasons that would follow. He's just another run-of-the-mill killer with a mother complex.
As far as Van Sant's attempts to modernize the film go, Psycho  feels like a strange mixture of the '60s and '90s. The dialogue, crafted for 1960s audience, feels stilted and unbelievable coming from people in 1998, the costumes look out of place in the modern setting and the addition of gore fails to amp up the shock value. While Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek are credited for adapting the score, it sounds like they did virtually nothing to Bernard Hermann's score, save for the updated theme over the closing credits, which is actually a pretty good interpretation. By far the worst thing about the film is the way Van Sant botches the iconic scares. The finale takes place in a basement that looks way too cleanly (it even features a giant zoo-like cage for pet owls), the fight between Norman, Sam and Lila feels forced and, worst of all, the iconic shower scene is rendered absurd, especially with Mother's blond hair!
I give Psycho a 1 out of 5 Stars. As bad as this film is, I can't hate on most of the people involved. I genuinely believe everyone involved did the best they could and tried to be respectful to what Hitchchock did in 1960. Every single problem in this film can be traced back to Gus Van Sant. By doing a shot-for-shot remake as opposed to an original take or something in between the two approaches, Van Sant only succeeds in damning any chance the film has of succeeding and reminding the audience of just how brilliant Hithcock's film truly was, still is and forever will be. Psycho 1960 is one of the greatest films of all time and will always be remembered for changing the landscape of cinema forever. Psycho 1998 is one of the worst films of all time and has mercifully been forgotten, now thought of as nothing more than a textbook example of how not to remake a classic film.

Next Up: October 4th: Night of The Demons (1987)

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