You're Old: Gus Van Sant's 'Psycho' Came Out 15 Years Ago This Week

You're Old: Gus Van Sant's 'Psycho' Came Out 15 Years Ago This Week

Dec 04, 2013

Remakes of beloved films and the outrage that always accompanies them are so common that they barely warrant attention anymore. But there was one so bafflingly wrong-headed that it will live forever in the cinematic annals of infamy: Gus Van Sant's Psycho, an almost shot-for-shot facsimile of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic. People rent their clothes and gnashed their teeth at the mere suggestion of it, and got even angrier once they actually saw it.

Perhaps most alarming in hindsight: it happened 15 years ago. Why do the wounds still feel so fresh? If you remember the release of Van Sant's Psycho on December 4, 1998, and how civilization collapsed and the Earth was plunged into a thousand years of darkness, I have even worse news: You're Old®.

I kid the people who get worked up over remakes (dude, it's not like they're burning all copies of the original), but Psycho was a particularly aggravating case. Nearly all remakes deviate from their source material in some way, large or small, whether it's changing elements of the plot, moving the setting to a different location, creating new dialogue, or just giving the characters different names. Van Sant set out to do the opposite, to not just make a new Psycho but to duplicate the original. The screenplay was 99 percent unchanged. He even used identical sets and camera angles for most scenes.

This raised a pertinent question: why? More specifically: why the hell? Why go to all that trouble just to make a Xerox copy of a movie that is already widely available and universally admired? If you're gonna do it, why not DO something with it?

Van Sant, fresh off the success of Good Will Hunting (released 364 days earlier), was in a position to do just about anything he wanted, and he'd established himself as an art-house tinkerer anyway. Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester were mainstream exceptions to a pattern that previously included Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho and would later feature meandering experiments like the Columbine-inspired Elephant and the is-this-movie-a-joke-what-is-going-on-here? Gerry.

From a cinema-nerd perspective, you can see he'd want to try an experiment like this. Can you replicate an older film's success merely by reproducing it? Is Psycho's brilliance woven into its DNA, such that faithful copies would also be brilliant? These are the kinds of philosophical and academic questions that some people find interesting, the way some baseball enthusiasts obsess over Sabermetrics.

The Psycho remake was definitely an experiment. Like many experiments, it failed. But its failures are interesting, especially if you watch it back-to-back with Hitchcock's version, as I recently did, so that the differences between the two are more readily apparent. (Please note: there is no other reason to do this.)

Van Sant changed almost nothing from the 1960 screenplay, and what he did choose to change is puzzling. A few slight alterations were made to reflect the changing times. The amount of money Marion steals was raised from $40,000 to $400,000. Dialogue where she expresses concern over not being married to the man she's sleeping with (scandalous!) was removed. A reference to an office in Phoenix not having air-conditioning was changed so it has AC and the boss just hasn't turned it on.

But Van Sant kept the line where Arbogast the private investigator asks Norman Bates how Marion paid for the hotel room -- "cash or check," as if credit cards still didn't exist. (They were new in 1960.) Is that a small detail? Yes. But so were the other things that Van Sant did update. Why, in that same conversation, a reference to "aspic" was updated to "Jell-O."

Details like this point us to the larger problem with the remake: it looks like 1998 but sounds and feels like 1960. People don't talk the same way now as they did then, in real life or in movies. Here's a small example:

NORMAN: You have something most girls never have.

MARION: I have?

Now we'd say "I do?" or "Do I?" "I have?" is old-fashioned and formal. It sounds perfectly natural coming out of Janet Leigh in a black-and-white movie from 1960, but coming from Anne Heche in 1998, it sounds stilted and mannered.

Or take the used-car dealer. In the 1960 version, his patter is folksy:

CAR DEALER: I'm in no mood for trouble!

MARION: What?

CAR DEALER: There's an old saying, "First customer of the day is always the most trouble!" But like I said, I'm in no mood for it, so I'm just going to treat you so fair and square you won't have one human reason to give me...

MARION: Can I trade in my car and take another?

CAR DEALER: You can do anything you've a mind to... and bein' a woman, you will!

Never mind the sexism, I can't get past "you can do anything you've a mind to." Who talks like that? People in the middle of the 20th century, that's who. The whole exchange (and it continues in that vein) is excruciating coming from a youthful, modern man in 1998.

I could go on and on. In fact, I will. The cop who wakes Marion up when she's sleeping in her car asks to see her license, then gives it back without checking it or running her plates -- plausible in 1960, unthinkable in 1998 (especially given how skittish she's acting). Marion trades in her vehicle, pays $3,000 cash and leaves in a new car without doing any paperwork, or without the dealership even checking the condition of her trade-in. Maybe you could do that in olden times, but it doesn't make any sense now.

Individually, none of these details matter much. But collectively, they're the reason the experiment fails. We discover that transporting a movie to a different time period isn't as easy as updating a handful of lines. You can't tell us it's the present when everyone talks and acts like it's the past.

P.S. It doesn't help that Vince Vaughn's performance as Norman Bates is hilariously bad. The end.

When Gus Van Sant's Psycho was released on December 4, 1998:

- It opened in second place behind A Bug's Life, still on top from the week before. Psycho was the only new wide release this weekend (were the other studios thinking it would be a hit?), but other films in multiplexes at the time included Enemy of the State, The Rugrats Movie, The Waterboy, Meet Joe Black, Babe: Pig in the City, Elizabeth, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer and Home Fries.

- On TV, The Powerpuff Girls had recently debuted on Cartoon Network, and CBS had Becker. Coincidentally, both shows would run until 2004.

- America Online had recently announced that it would acquire Netscape Communications, which was a big deal at the time and doesn't matter to anyone now. I'm not sure either of those companies is even around anymore. "America Online"? Doesn't sound familiar.

- Professional wrestler Jesse Ventura had just been elected governor of Minnesota, in what turned out to be real life and not a zany Dwayne Johnson comedy.

- In other political news, impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton were underway, on account of he lied about making sexy times with Monica Lewinsky. The was the first time a president had lied about something, so Congress figured they'd better nip it in the bud.

- Director Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men, Sophie's Choice) and comedian Flip Wilson had recently died. Norman Fell, from Three's Company, would go 10 days later, probably due to some wacky misunderstanding.

- If you listened to the radio on your way to the theater, you might have heard "I'm Your Angel" by R. Kelly and Celine Dion; "Lately" by Divine; "One Week" by Barenaked Ladies; "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" by Aerosmith; "The First Night" by Monica; "Doo Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill; "Because of You" by 98 Degrees; or "Iris" by Goo Goo Dolls. All things considered, maybe it's better if you didn't listen to the radio on your way to the theater.

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