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?

Born to be Bad (Ray, 1950)

“I love you so much I wish I liked you!”

Novelist and old flame Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan) shoots this zinger at the conniving Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine) and it’s just one of the great lines of dialogue in Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad. Visiting San Francisco from small town America, Christabel slowly and convincingly worms her way into a wealthy existence, planting the seeds of doubt in all involved. She’s quite a dame, a femme fatale working just outside the world of Noir but with the same destructive conviction. Nick and fellow victims Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott) and Donna Foster (Joan Leslie) feel the passive aggressive wrath of Christable, but don’t realize her serpentine approach until it’s too late. Ray uses a devilish female anti-hero for the first time, and Fontaine’s performance conveys a balanced and calculated attack of self-promotion and selfishness. Christabel’s glance is enough to send shivers down the the backs of those in the know, and it’s Ray’s great feat his characters believably ignore her treacherous signs. The scope of the film feels intimate, making the crackling dialogue all the more personal and forceful. Born to be Bad, gives it’s thesis in the title, and Fontaine lives up to the task in spades.

Manhunter (Mann, 1986)

Manhunter, like a cropped, beautifully shot nightmare, revels in both audio and visual overload, losing itself in the mania of it’s characters. Mann uses the images of mirrors, windows, chrome buildings, blue reflective light as if he were conducting a symphony of horrors in the head of multiple madmen, both good and evil. This is the turning point for Mann as a director, shifting from the genre amateur hour of Thief and The Keep to a the contained, polished quest for sanity in a world gone insane (later to come…Last of the Mohicans and Collateral in terms of this theme). Manhunter follows Will Graham (William Peterson long before CSI), an F.B.I. agent who has a knack for catching serial killers. He’s after the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan will scare the shit out of you!!), a predator targeting whole families. Mann uses his now familiar wide angle two shots in order to set up a seemingly shape-shifting world (we see the stasis of the final image and breath a sigh of relief). Manhunter also displays an off kilter attempt at parallel dream sequences, one by Will when he tries to “see” the POV of the killer and one by the killer himself when he witnesses a supposed girlfriend have an innocent interaction with another man. Both are heightened responses, but Will’s is a breakthrough and the Tooth Fairy’s can be seen as a way of life, an even more frightening indication of his psychosis. Mann’s emphasis on dreams, nightmares and the mythologies these experiences create (The Red Dragon, the tiger, the countless scenes of characters filmed in bed) makes up the key motif for Manhunter as a film. It’s a serial killer picture, but also a calculated tap dance between fractured personalities who happen to be on different sides of the law. And Brian Cox’s sleek Hannibal Lecktor (spelled wrong in the credits for some reason) has only a few scenes, but makes quite an impression. Interestingly, Mann never shows the actual bodies of the victims, except in photographs. It’s as if The Tooth Fairy and Graham, even though each represents very different mentalities, exist on a higher plane, the audience merely hoping to catch a glimpse of the horrific game of cat and mouse taking place before our eyes. One of the great psychological thrillers and a truly scary experience.

The Host (Bong, 2006)

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At first glance, The Host might seem like typical monster movie fare, easy to discount and define. However, Bong’s masterful film is not just about the physical beast that rises from the Han river slurping victims and dragging them back into the sewer, but also the monster inside modern day infrastructure and institutions which infect the public with misinformation and doubt. Throughout The Host, the police, hazard response, hospitals, the media, and the government, each fail in almost every respect responding to the beast’s appearance and rampage. Bong chooses to show this epic disaster through the eyes of the Park family, a middle class clan with three generations consisting of a grandfather, two sons and a daughter, and one adorable and brave granddaughter named Hyun-seo. When the youngest is taken by the beast, the rest set out to find her, often discovering their societal institutions standing in the way of any progress through the use of double speak and lies. It’s a stirring indictment geared at exposing the mistreatment of citizens on a mass level in favor of “politics as usual”, and The Host frames this discourse beautifully within the traditional monster movie genre. Unlike his American counterparts, Bong gives the viewer plenty of early looks at the beast, both up close and in fantastic wide shots, showing it’s range of motion and taste for human flesh. The blood and guts are complimented by personal devotion to a comedy of errors within the Park family, each suffering from the loss of human life but also through the indecision’s which have made them suffer before the beast appears. One moment in particular stands out, best signifying this impressive approach toward complex character development. In a moment of relief, the Park family return to their home (which is also a food stand on the bank of the Han) to eat, all but the missing Hyun-seo about to dig into cup of noodles. Bong dissolves to include Hyun-seo in the middle of the shot, a transcendent image of completeness and love missing from the portrait, the possibility she might not return filtering through the air. It’s a fantastic shot of a realistic and crucial human loss, and it exemplifies the ideas behind The Host‘s seemingly simple horror exterior. His film is brutal, funny, and has a genuine sense of humanity felt in the final, incredibly restrained sequence. Like Bong’s serial killer masterpiece Memories of Murder, The Host subverts genre in many refreshing ways, proving that his technical and visual skill equal his knowledge of film history. What an amazing thought – a mainstream director with palpable ideas and the clout to test them in the dangerous commercial waters of the West. American “autuers”, take note.

Europa ’51 (Rossellini, 1952)

In Europa ’51, Roberto Rossellini subverts his own neo-realism roots to indict the complacency and ignorance of the post-war elite, church, and bureaucracy. He uses stars, including his own wife Ingrid Bergman and the Italian star Giulietta Masina, yet still retains his potency toward expressing complex ideas. Rossellini’s protagonist, Irene (Bergman), lives a shallow and callow life with her rich husband, whiney kids, and lavish house. After a family tragedy, she’s forced out of her shell and into the harsh world beyond the jewels and dinner parties. Irene soon realizes the world offers more important chances at humanity than wealthy life affords her. She chooses to open her eyes toward the social ills plaguing post WWII Italy and puts herself into the lives of the common citizen. Irene sees first hand the societal reverberations of the war and attempts to help out in any ways she can. Rossellini does not paint the poor as helpless either, instead showing them as gracious of Irene’s attention and acknowledgment. Irene’s rich family doesn’t fare so well, and along with the church and the police, make up a trio of disjointed, selfish, and close-minded institutions that ultimately hinder Irene from exploring the outside world and making a difference. Europa ’51 is a character piece at heart and Bergman gives a subtle and tragic performance. But the Rossellini discourse always remains in Irene’s gaze, her eyes wondering why so many outsiders step in her way when all she’s trying to do is understand the disenfranchised majority. Inevitably, she becomes a martyr, but not in the traditional sense. Irene, trapped by the bars of the final image, smiles and waves at her last visitors, realizing she’s found guidance not through double talk and promises of her rich kin, but through the screams and laughter of the supposedly wretched poor.

Paisan (Rossellini, 1946)

The six short stories which make up Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan share one pressing motif. Each consists of a momentary friendship born from the circumstances and consequences of war, specifically the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy in 1942. These stories range from personal (the boy and the American soldier) to the epic (the final sequence of execution) and their impact is varied as well. Rossellini’s a director of such calculation, at least in the few films I’ve seen by him, that his stories scream for more attention than they are actually given. Paisan seems the perfect exemplification of Rossellini’s attention to human interaction (best seen in the segment with the monks and Army Chaplains). These short stories roll together through the use of voice-over narration as connective tissue, also using a cut away of a map charting the Allied advance into the different sections of the region. Rossellini’s mastery of situations between people in conflict, both physically, mentally and spiritually, is something to respect and herald, but Paisan doesn’t feel whole as a film. Maybe that’s Rossellini’s point, to show the meandering and wide reaching devastation of war on all fronts, but Paisan is a film I respect more than I actually enjoyed. A definite neo-realism masterwork, just not my cup of tea at the moment.

None Shall Escape (De Toth, 1944)

Obviously an Allied propaganda film, None Shall Escape embraces a fictional post war milieu set at the United Nations where Nazi’s are being tryed for crimes against humanity, even before WWII had ended in real life. The main subject is Wilhelm Grimm, a sadistic German living in Poland who gets exiled, then returns to rule over the small town he once resided in as a Nazi commandant. Wilhelm is confronted by three witnesses who’ve viewed different parts of his reign of terror, sharing the life’s work of this psycho and revealing his crimes for the court. The film is convincing in it’s condemnation of the Nazi regime by creating a truly awful villain, one who will stop at nothing, including killing off family, to save the master race. However, for all of it’s potent moments, None Shall Escape is very dry on the whole, ridiculously one note in it’s arc. On the positive side, the film does have moments of sheer heinousness shocking to be found in classical Hollywood cinema. I’m not familiar with De Toth’s work, but his westerns and some of his Noir look fascinating, so I’ll give those that are recommended a look in the near future.