Look Closer…Psycho, 1998
Hopefully this ‘look closer…’ thing will become a nice series of articles, as there are mountains of films that are either painfully underrated or overrated that you really need to rethink. Let’s start with an underrated one.
Really, since the deplorable Michael Bay and his company Platinum Dunes remade Tobe Hooper’s horror masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003; there has been a rather contentious uprising of horror movie remakes which, horror fan or not, is impossible to ignore. Directed by Marcus Nispal (who would later prove he can do nothing but poor rehashes), the 2003 ‘re-imagining’ of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a very superfluous film. While it didn't damage the original film; it certainly did nothing new or interesting with the material that was really rather rich with American cultural anxieties, fears and legends.
It may come as a surprise to some that the horror remake is not something that is exclusive to the early 2000s and beyond, but rather, many of the greatest horror films of all time are indeed themselves remakes of arguably lesser works. Such films include David Cronenberg’s grotesque interpretation of The Fly or John Carpenters paranoia ridden, The Thing. However, aside from a more talented director; what really separates such remakes from the abominations (that we are now swimming in) is that these films set out to do something different. They were 'ideas' movies, and filled to the brim with a need to express something that the original either missed, or that a new cultural climate had imbued within the material.
But I don’t want to talk about any of these films; these re-imagining’s, rethinking's, these fresh cuts off a stale body's flesh. Instead I would like to talk about a remake of a different sort. A film that more than almost any other is a remake in the truest sense of the term. A film that is by many, thought of as one of the most blasphemous films to the cinema Gods that the medium has ever seen, and yes, it is a film that I would consider to be one of the most important in the history of the medium. I am of course talking about that most hated of all remakes, so much to the point that many of us choose to pretend that it does not exists at all; Gus Van Sant’s 1998 film, Psycho.
Incorrectly thought of by some to be Hitchcock’s masterwork, the original 1960 film is still a very fine film; genre shaping, superbly crafted and to call it iconic is to grossly understate its penetration of the pop culture landscape of the 20th and 21st century. After the success of Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting 1997, the studios pretty much gave him cart blanch, and true to form, as one of modern cinemas laziest geniuses, Van Sant opted to remake Hitchcock’s black and white psychoanalytic thriller. But as we know by this time it was already the school of thought that if you were to remake a film, you must add something new, do something different; but Van Sant opted against this and demanded that if he were to do it, he must do a true remake. The film must be a shot-for-shot, score-for-score, moment by moment redoing of what Hitchcock did. His thinking was pretty much; who was he to change what was already perfect.
The question then becomes - "Why bother at all?" If you're changing nothing, then surely nothing new can be offered; no new understandings, ideas, insight or thrill. But ooh noo…Van Sant’s poorly acted, morally bankrupt and strangely flat film would prove to be one of the greatest cinematic experiments of all time. To sit and watch Psycho 1998 is to marvel at just how unremarkable it is; with all of its rather gorgeous coloration and Bernard Herman’s spine tingling score, the film is as about as seductive as a bag of flour. However in that lies the reason why you should actually give a shit about what is essentially a very flawed film. There is no real reason why the film should be flawed; it is for all intents and purposes Hitchcock’s Psycho thrown into the 90s in colour with very little changes (scarce a few fleeting seconds of Van Sant surrealism lasting scattered throughout). Logically, Van Sant should have delivered to us the same thrill, the same mood and the same meaning present in the 1960 film but he was not able to and this is not because he is a bad filmmaker it is simply because he is not Alfred Hitchcock.
Now I don’t mean that in a ‘he is not Alfred Hitchcock and that guy was the greatest’ way…what I am referring to is the fact that he is not the man/woman whose film it is; whose work is an extension of his/her identity. Say whatever you want about film-making being a collaborative medium, when it comes to a film like Psycho, what you are looking at may have the wonder of Janet Lee and Anthony Perkins and all others involved but what makes it what it is, is quite simply, the director. Imbued within a film like Psycho is literally the filmmaker’s heart and soul; sprawled out upon the screen you experience that persons understanding of reality, their hopes, fears, dreams, anxieties, ideologies, past and present. This is why Psycho 1998 is such a bizarre view, it is almost as if Van Sant – who is a vastly different kind of filmmaker and human being than Hitchcock – stepped into one of his rather rotund suits and strutted around in it for an hour and half, pretending it fit him.
Psycho 1998 is the single greatest cinematic argument for the veracity of the always hotly debated auteur theory; the theory that despite the massive collaborative nature of film, a single person (normally the director) is the true crafter of the work as it is an extension of the self. It is one of the strangest viewing experiences any person who has ever seen the original 1960s classic will ever have and it is an important one that achieves more in its failings than any of the horror movies remakes of the 21st century have with their re-imagining’s. If you have seen Hitchcock’s film and have avoided Van Sant’s, do so no longer. There are so many more pleasures to be found there than in the latest 80's remake now showing at your local theater.