Cinema: Say it with showers

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Psycho (15)

Confronted with Gus Van Sant's scene-by-scene and mostly shot- by-shot remake of Psycho, a critic has two mutually incompatible options. He can write about it as though it were just one new movie among others, trading off its virtues and blemishes, praising or dispraising its performances, divulging enough of its corkscrewy narrative to whet the reader's appetite but not so much as to risk spoiling it. Or else, proceeding on the assumption that most of his readers will already be familiar with Marion Crane's misadventure at the Bates Motel, he can treat Van Sant's facsimile as a reductio ad absurdum of what might be called "filmed cinema" (as we say "filmed theatre"), comparing and contrasting it with the Hitchcock without troubling to tiptoe around its pivotal twist, the exact nature of Norman Bates's relationship with his mother.

This will be the latter type of review. I'm absolutely not competent to judge whether the new version "works" for audiences who aren't as acquainted as I am with the original. It certainly didn't come close to scaring the pants off me, but that's probably because I kept wondering not what was going to happen next but how Van Sant would film what was going to happen next. So if what you're after is basically advice as to whether you ought to go see it, this article isn't for you.

There is of course nothing new about remakes: the environmentally friendly film industry has been recycling old storylines for as long as it has existed. Van Sant's Psycho, though, is an extreme case, as close as we're ever likely to get to a cinematic equivalent of Dolly the sheep. The principle of the project, by the director's admission, was one of near- maniacal fidelity to not just the spirit but the letter of Hitchcock's masterpiece. Van Sant himself has likened the concept to "staging a contemporary production of a classic play while remaining true to the original". His intention was that the remake would be literally - and I mean "literally" literally - the same work as Hitchcock's, with the same Joseph Stefano script, the same Bernard Herrmann soundtrack score, even the same Saul Bass credit-titles. The only difference is that it would be in colour instead of black-and-white and, naturally, have a completely new cast. These two changes, alas, are precisely the main source of the movie's problems.

Consider colour. It's easy to forget, practically four decades after the event, that in 1960, the year Hitchcock shot Psycho in slightly grubby black-and-white, colour was already the Hollywood norm. Indeed, Hitch himself had made an uninterrupted series of glossy Technicolor features (Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, etc) and, if he'd wanted to made Psycho in colour as well, he'd certainly have had the clout to do so. Its monochromatic cinematography therefore can't be dismissed as an unavoidable sensual impoverishment which has since become correctable with the wider availability of colour stock. It was a decision taken on exclusively aesthetic grounds. Which means that "colouring" Psycho is not so very different from "colorising" it. It's an act of cultural vandalism comparable, toutes proportions gardees, to colorising Picasso's equally monochromatic Guernica.

But there's more. The shower murder is what we all remember most vividly from Psycho and Van Sant's version replicates every last crossed "t" and dotted "i" of Hitchcock's unforgettable staging. Except, again, for that damned colour. Anne Heche's blood, as it eddies down the plughole, is a gaudy, gory red, the cliched red so wearily reminiscent of a hundred el-cheapo horror movies. Janet Leigh's blood, on the other hand, was in black-and-white - or, rather, in black - which somehow contrived to invest it with a curiously ethereal, almost abstract quality. The sight of it being spilt was shocking, to be sure, but it was also weirdly ungory, unvisceral, undisgusting, perhaps because blood in black-and-white resembles the printed word "blood" more than it does the thing itself.

Then there are the actors, the one element of the original that couldn't be cloned. Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates was one of the most astounding tours de force in film history, and to say that Vince Vaughn's performance doesn't quite capture Perkins's unique crossbreeding of cutely callow puppyishness and wittily sinister malevolence is like saying that a wine gum doesn't quite have the pungency of a vintage claret. He also looks ridiculously unfrightening in a fright wig. If it had to be done at all, it might have been more intriguing to cast some ageing cherub of the Brat Pack generation, a Matthew Broderick or Ralph Macchio.

As for Anne Heche, she's just awful, drab and inexpressive, and the opening half-hour, which her character dominates, is the movie's feeblest by far. It's simply impossible to care that, in one of the most notorious of Psycho's shock tactics, she's killed off so early in the running time. (About that tactic, however, of which maybe too much has been made: in 1960, not only was Janet Leigh no longer a top-flight star but, given her special credit, "And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane", it was obvious to anyone sensitive to the pecking-order nuances and niceties of Hollywood credit-titles that she wasn't going to be on screen for too long. As someone who saw the movie on its initial release, I can testify that the shock of her premature disappearance was never that traumatic.) Only the infallibly wonderful William H Macy, as the detective Arbogast, rises to the occasion.

A pointless exercise, then, save as a vindication of the auteur theory. As a vindication, too, of a proverb which I've just this minute coined: If at first you do succeed, don't try again.