Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960) vs. Psycho (Van Sant, 1998): Past Destroys Present

“We all go a little mad sometimes. Don’t you?”- Norman Bates  

Why? I guess that’s the first question one has to ask when considering Psycho and it’s remake. Why would someone as talented as Gus Van Sant attempt such a task? Easy. The ego of Hollywood has always been worn squarely on the sleeve (they’re remaking The Wild Bunch for god’s sake), and this particular instance has been widely maligned. What’s more interesting remains the reason why (so many questions!) a particular film, namely Hitchcock’s original, produces such dread and Van Sant’s remake such dreadful and unintentional comedy? Since Van Sant constructed his version almost shot for shot the same as Hitchcock’s, it’s important to look beyond camera or plot and obvious insult to film history. The main reason Hitchcock’s Pyscho works is it’s originality (no duh!), but it’s life force stems from performance, specifically Anthony Perkins’ ticking time bomb. Van Sant’s film fails because of it’s performances, all dull, cliched, and over exaggerated. This is nothing short of past vs. present, old school Hollywood magic vs. new school Hollywood and it’s bottom line, arrogance and lack of creativity. Now we have a discussion.The first time we see Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, his smile compliments the lanky frame, a shy figure eager to chat, but just a little off, seen primarily through the twitch of his cheek. Hitchcock frames Bates between stuffed birds, in the darkness, in cramped spaces like the peep hole, but always with a sense of his character in mind. Bates is a man child, a psychological powder keg waiting to explode, but to the average person he is nothing more than a passing conversation. Perkins never tips his hand, or Hitchcock never lets him, either way his seeming innocence lays the groundwork for the horror to come. Perkins’ performance revels in the uncertainty of a split personality, innocently compensating for the evil deeds his “mother” has committed. In short, his stare is lost, a gaze of blankness so monotonous, it’s easy to mistake for slow or disabled. Bates, unlike Marion Crane or her sister Lila, sees the world in a way the viewer can never understand, a place full of voices, hissing, screaming, and guilt. Hitchcock’s use of subjective voice-over gives the viewer a peak into this nightmare, wetting our taste-buds with the thrill and fright in trying to understand a madman. On the flip-side, Vince Vaughn’s Norman Bates laughs, slices, meanders, and exists much like every other Vince Vaughn variation, from Clay Pigeons to Swingers. Unlike Anthony Perkins, Vince Vaughn is a performer, not an actor. The main problem has to be Vaughn’s size. He’s so much bigger than Perkins, his presence instantly more ominous and in turn less interesting. These problems filter down to every other aspect of the film, whether it be the other stars playing bit parts, like William H. Macy’s lackadaisical turn as the Private Detective, or Christopher Doyle’s flashy and colorful images. Van Sant’s strategy to copy Hitchcock down to the smallest minutia rightfully failed, because for among many other reasons, you can’t duplicate unique, moments of spontaneity and craftsmanship, like Perkins’ memorable glance into the camera at the end of the film, or Hitchcock’s great pacing throughout. Psycho as an original, takes you into the mind of a special, haunting lost soul battling himself for supremacy. Trying to recapture such a landmark piece of art, and the context with which it was released, well you’d have to be mad to even try. Right Hollywood?

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