The dream factory: A paint-by-numbers `Psycho'

God knows there is nothing new about remakes in the film industry, so Gus Van Sant's decision to redo Psycho doesn't, on the surface, look like anything out of the ordinary. True, he could have picked a film with rather less searingly memorable images, a film with more obvious room for variation or improvement, but these are questions of taste and judgement that Hollywood has negotiated many times before. Looking at the current crop of Christmas movies in the United States, Psycho appears to fall right in line alongside Meet Joe Black, a heavily reworked version of the Fredric March comedy, Death Takes a Holiday, and the Tom Hanks- Meg Ryan vehicle, You've Got Mail, which is to some degree a remake within a remake: a rerun of the on-screen chemistry of Sleepless in Seattle, and also an Internet-era update of the Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner.

What makes Van Sant's film different, though, is that he hasn't reworked or updated Psycho. He has followed the original virtually shot by shot. The script is the same - give or take a few embellishments provided by the original screenwriter, Joseph Stefano. Bernard Herrmann's unforgettable jarring score has been retained, albeit with a technically improved new recording. Even Saul Bass's eerily dislocated opening credit sequence survives intact.

The only significant difference, in fact, is Van Sant's decision to shoot Psycho in colour. Otherwise, he has taken near-fetishistic pride in following Hitchcock to the letter. The film was made according to the same shooting schedule, on many of the same sets, and for a comparable amount of money. The car that the ill-fated Marion Crane (Janet Leigh in the original, Anne Heche now) buys in a hurry in Bakersfield has the same number plate as in the original, and the newspaper in which she wraps the money she has stolen carries the same headline. Even Hitchcock's refusal to hold advance screenings for critics was emulated when the film opened in the United States earlier this month. (It will be coming to Britain in January.)

All of which begs the question: if nothing has changed, why bother remaking Psycho at all? That was the question that executives at Universal Studios asked Van Sant when he first came up with the idea in 1989. To some extent, they are still asking it. The only reason that they allowed the film to be made was as a reward for Van Sant's work on last year's runaway box- office hit, Good Will Hunting. The price tag, $25m, seemed like a bargain even for a project they did not really understand. So what is the reason for making it? Van Sant has been infuriatingly enigmatic on this point. "Part of the answer to why is that we don't know the answer why," he said in a recent interview with the New York Times. "It's sort of like people asking, why did Columbus sail west?"

Such sentiments clearly aren't going to sell many tickets, so Universal has packaged the film as an opportunity for today's teen horror crowd to become acquainted with a classic shocker from an earlier generation. It hasn't been a very effective marketing strategy, since women slashed to death in showers are two-a-penny these days. Besides, Brian DePalma already provided the same service with his far more lurid Psycho-inspired thriller, Dressed To Kill, in 1978.

The Van Sant Psycho feels more like an art school joke, a piece of conceptual film-making in which the finished product is less important than the idea behind it. Watching it is like a parlour game, trying to spot the ways in which it differs from (and invariably falls short of) the original, and relishing the visual surprises afforded by colour, such as Marion Crane's bright orange brassiere.

Certainly, the plot offers no surprises. The actors have an impossible task, playing out a story that belongs to the early Sixties while pretending that they are really in 1998. Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn cannot begin to compete with the standards set by Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, though one can hardly blame them for looking rather out of place. Perhaps the best way to appreciate Van Sant's purpose is to imagine a cultural convention many centuries from now, in which a venerable archaeologist claims to have found a copy of Hitchcock's great lost masterpiece. "The print is badly faded and the credits are illegible," he says, "but the storyline and the editing techniques give every reason to believe that it is the genuine Psycho."

"Nonsense," cries a dissenting film historian. "Forensic evidence suggests this is not Hitchcock's black-and-white, but faded colour, and the heroine looks nothing like the portraits available to us of Janet Leigh. It is a fake!" At which point, no doubt, Van Sant would chuckle from beyond the grave. Whether he has produced something of interest to present- day audiences, though, is another matter.