Gus Van Sant has made some fine commercial films To Die For (1995) and Good Will Hunting (1997) and critically acclaimed hits like Milk (2008) but also balances these with films that are made with an eccentricity that seems to wilfully challenge an audiences patience the likes of My Own Private Idaho (1991) and the universally reviled Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993). The latter two were more of a challenge than most audiences and reviewers were prepared to tolerate and it seems that with Psycho, Gus Van Sant allowed his penchant for eccentricity to bite off more than he can chew.
In its favour, Psycho 1998 is never as ghastly a desecration of the original that other films like the campy King Kong (1976) or The Haunting (1999) remakes were, or one that messes with the effectiveness of the original in an attempt to be more upbeat like the remakes of The Vanishing (1993) and Diabolique (1996) did. The sense of desecration that exists is more in the conceit that someone has dared to touch one of the classics. Being a shot-for-shot remake, Psycho 1998 closely adheres to the original and cannot help but work in many of the places that the original did.
The remake makes a number of minor changes. The $40,000 that Marion Crane steals is inflation-adjusted to $400,000; Gus Van Sant is free to show more graphic blood-letting during the shower scene; and now a spider that crawls out of the mouth of the mummified remains of Mrs Bates. However, the addition of colour works against the film. It bleeds out the stark, atmospheric effectiveness the original had. The depiction of ordinary Arizona desert landscape here lacks any of the same alienating effectiveness that the black-and-white photography lent to the original. Similarly, the black-and-white made Alfred Hitchcocks low angle shots up on Norman Bates framed by his stuffed birds seem to eerily foreshadow something sinister but the colour robs the shots of any atmosphere. Without black-and-white, the Bates house up on the hill behind the motel loses its looming, foreboding Gothic ominousness.
The most radical changes Gus Van Sant makes are to bring out something much more overtly sexual in the material. We get a brief side glimpse of Anne Heches breast as she undresses for the shower and a brief labial shot as she keels over dead. There are sounds of panting from neighbouring rooms during the motel room tryst between Marion and Loomis that opens the film; the client whose money Marion steals is more overtly flirtatious with her; the visit to Normans room shows a stash of pornography. The most radical affront to purists is Gus Van Sants having Norman clearly heard to be masturbating as he peeps at Marion undressing in the shower.
The films publicity proudly quotes Alfred Hitchcocks daughter saying that remaking a film shot for shot is exactly something her father would do. (She seems unaware of the fact that Hitchcock did remake one of his own films The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) although not shot-for-shot). One thing Hitchcock would never have done though is cast Anne Heche. The petite and anorexically thin Anne Heche is far from a Hitchcock woman Hitchcock preferred well-rounded women, usually frosted blondes Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, Janet Leigh. You know exactly what Norman means here in his line when he says that Marion eats like a bird. It could be a line coined to describe Anne Heches performance she seems all twitchy, nervous energy. While she conveys that part well, there seems to be almost nothing else to the character.
However, she is far better than Vince Vaughns Norman Bates. Alas for Vaughn, Anthony Perkins was Norman Bates. It was a piece of casting that was a truly harmonious marriage of actor and the role at hand. Anthony Perkins nervous and twitchy, shy boy next door quality became so completely Norman that it ended up typecasting him for the rest of his career. While Vince Vaughn can be a good actor, what you end up watching here is his handsome good looks made down to an unnaturally pasty pallor and him merely imitating Anthony Perkinss shy twitchiness. It is like watching an impressionist imitate another actor. He maintains a certain twitch and a smile but it is an affectation more than it is a performance.
Far better are some of the supporting performances. William H. Macy makes for a surprisingly good Arbogast. Macy has developed a tendency toward laidback characters that seem as though they are genially ineffectual nuclear family patriarchs caught in a time warp from the 1950s mouthing boy scout euphemisms. He and Gus Van Sant do a good job of working with Macys amiable, ineffectual persona while showing a sharp intelligence hidden beneath the surface. Also extremely good is Viggo Mortensen one of the most underrated actors of the 1990s before his breakout in the 00s who makes Sam Loomis a solid, earthy smalltown working man.
Gus Van Sant would later return to the psycho genre with the interesting Elephant (2003) about a high-school shooting and Restless (2011), a love story between a terminal cancer patient and a boy with the ghost of a WWII kamikaze pilot as companion.
Elesewhere in the Psycho franchise, there were three sequels Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986) and the cable movie Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990). Bates Motel (1987) was a tv pilot for a never-sold anthology series starring Bud Cort as someone who inherits the Bates Motel after Normans death. There is also the tv series Bates Motel (2013-7) starring Freddie Highmore, a modernised version that tells the story of Norman Batess childhood. Hitchcock (2012) is a drama about Alfred Hitchcock and the making of the original.
(Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (William H. Macy) at this sites Best of 1998 Awards).