Monday, July 26, 2010


So here we are, at both the final great Hitchcock film, and arguably the worst remake of one of his films. Yes, one could certainly argue that in just about every way Disturbia was more poorly made, but the Psycho remake manages the feat of having a great many talented actors, musicians, and a talented director, all doing some of the worst work of their careers, and all in service to a film that was fatally flawed at its core. But first, let’s get to why the original is so great!
I feel I must start with the musical score, since that’s one of the most memorable aspects of the film. It was Bernard Herrmann’s sixth collaboration with Hitch, and I think there can be little argument that it was their single greatest effort together. It endlessly drives the tension of the film upward towards the shower scene, where it explodes into a staccato nightmare, before wisely ending after the murder, and leaving us with just the aftermath noise of the water from the shower still running over the body. While his scores for all of their movies together were easily the best Hitchcock’s films had ever had (making their eventual falling out over Torn Curtain a little sad), this was where he really brought his A+ game, crafting one of the most memorable film scores in all of cinema.

The acting is also some of the best ever seen in a Hitchcock film. In my own estimation, Anthony Perkins, as Norman Bates, gives the single greatest performance in any of Hitch’s films, giving us a simultaneously loveable sap, a nervous wreck with a laughing tic, and a sinister figure that hints at darker origins. It’s worth the price of admission (or a rental nowadays, I guess) just to see him working, dancing right on the edge of maniacal self-parody without ever once stumbling. Janet Leigh is also wonderful, as a bank clerk on the run after stealing money from her work in the hopes of finding a new life with her married boyfriend, and winding up at the worst hiding place she could possibly have chosen.

Now, I’d feel bad about discussing and casually spoiling the plot, since the film does to an extent rely upon its two big shocks, except those two shocks have not only become such a major part of our cultural knowledge that everyone should know them by now, but Hitchcock himself cheerfully all but gives away the entire movie in the trailer (see below). Regardless, it’s admirable that a movie that does rely on the element of surprise is still so very effective even when you know the surprises going in, though the plot does manage to be interesting in another, completely film geek-centric way. It follows a then-unique structure, in that the film opens with one main character, following her around for close to half the movie before she is summarily dispatched in the shower, then quickly moving on to the private detective until he’s done away with, and then finally moving onward to our final two heroes, who end up saving the day. Modern audiences should easily recognize that as the structure of a slasher movie, with characters being introduced and then followed around until their murders, and then a new victim is found to follow, but in 1960 that sort of thing had never been done before. It’s justifiably considered possibly Hitchcock’s most influential film, because one could absolutely make the argument that without Norman Bates, we’d have no Michael Myers, no Freddy Krueger, no Jason Voorhees. Some snarky people might say we’d have been better off, but they are assholes and we don’t particularly care for them.

Now, if I can stop my endless suck fest of Hitchcock for a moment, I’d like to discuss what went horribly, horribly wrong with the remake. I should state that I have absolutely nothing against the idea of doing a remake, though the times I have seen a remake done well are pretty few and far between. It certainly appears to me that the best remakes have tended to be the ones that take the same general premise and then either put their own original spin on it or (in the case of The man Who Knew Too Much) take a film that was a bit on the short side and try to really flesh it out more. Neither of those things happened here, as director Gus Van Sant decided that, flush with success after making Good Will Hunting, he would just do a shot by shot remake of the film.

Those of you who haven’t seen it may be wondering what the point of such an effort is, and you wouldn’t be wrong. After all, if the original was so good, then such an imitative remake would be completely unnecessary, and if the original was something that could use a modern update, then any proper remake couldn’t function properly going shot by shot like this. It’s an idea that seems to have been designed from the very start to undermine every last bit of effort that went into the movie. And to be fair, a great deal of effort did indeed go into the film, it was just all spent on making sure the remake looked like the original rather than the much more vital task of managing to evoke the dark feel of the original. For a perfect example of getting it completely wrong like this, one need look no further than the score by Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek. They straight up took Herrmann’s original score and redid it the exact same way with the same instruments, to the point where any audience member would be properly curious as to why the film’s money went towards having them do such a thing instead of just reusing the original music outright.

The actors, being the ones most visible in the effort, have the worst time of it. It’s indeed asking too much for Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche to be as great as Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh were, but they’re not even really given a chance when so much of their efforts are spent on trying to mimic (poorly) their predecessors. Vaughn actually gets to enjoy the only notable addition to the film that wasn’t in the original, a shot of him masturbating while spying on Heche undressing. Right at a time when we need to be most creeped out, we get him wildly shaking and (I can only assume, having not seen it in theaters) making the audience burst out laughing. Even without the visual though, the sound effect of it happening is pretty laughable in itself. That addition does fit perfectly with the film, though. Not only does Vaughan play Bates as more seedy than creepy, but the film itself is just Gus Vant Sant himself jerking off to Hitch’s memory, so why not make that completely overt in the film itself?

The decision to switch from black and white to color was a good one, as now cinephiles have a perfect example to throw at people when they complain they don’t want to see anything in black and white. The epilogue, wherein a psychiatrist spends five minutes over-explaining Bates’ craziness and completely letting all the energy drain out of the film, is kept completely intact, despite being the only area where a clear and obvious improvement over the original film could be made. The only real bright spot in the film is William H. Macy as the private eye, who right from the start walks on scene as if he’s thoroughly disgusted with himself for signing on for this movie and is determined to make it show in every last shot. He plays his character like a parody of a detective, and wears his suit and hat like a fourteen year old forced to dress up for a wedding. In a film with so little actually going for it, I’d much rather have an actor recognizing the film’s flaws and not very subtly goofing on them than I would yet another actor awkwardly trying to imitate the performance of the guy from the original.

For whatever reason, the original wound up being the last great film Hitchcock would ever make. The films he would make after this would range from good but unspectacular (Family Plot) to formless and dull (Marnie, Torn Curtain, and Topaz) to wildly ambitious yet terrible (The Birds and Frenzy). I’ll still be reviewing a few more of them, but it does seem that he used up so much of himself making these last several films that he was simply unable to keep up such a high level of quality. Or perhaps (and this is just my own theory, mind you) he was given a glimpse into the future, saw the remake of this film, and was determined to never again make anything that would be considered good enough to justify a cold-blooded remake. After all, you’re never going to be likely to hear about someone doing a shot by shot remake of Torn Curtain, now are you?

Rating: 1960 - **** / 1998 - *

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