When Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho in June 1960, he had little idea how influential his low-budget “B-movie” would become. His experiment in terror would lead the way for the slasher movie craze and redefine the horror genre in the process. Before Psycho, audiences had never seen as suspenseful a sequence as the infamous shower scene, as chilling a score as Bernard Herrmann’s slashing strings, as mild-mannered and seemingly unassuming a villain as Norman Bates, as unexpected a plot twist as the lead actress being killed off halfway through the film and, even, a toilet flushing on-screen (Psycho was the first American film to do so). Almost 50 years later, the story of a young woman (Janet Leigh) with a suitcase of stolen money staying the night at a run-down motel operated by a troubled, mother-obsessed loner (Anthony Perkins), is still remarkably fresh and bone chilling.
This all makes one wonder what Gus Van Sant was thinking when, in 1998, he directed a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s classic. Using Joseph Stefano’s original script, the updated Psycho stars Anne Heche as Marion Crane and Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates, both woefully miscast. Anthony Perkins, the original Norman Bates, had a natural, boy-next-door quality, which made the twist ending that much more surprising and rewarding. The looming, neurotic Vaughn seems off his rocker as soon as he speaks in the remake, which makes the film significantly less creepy.
Perhaps Van Sant’s biggest blunder in remaking Psycho was shooting the film in color, robbing it of much of the atmospheric power of the black and white original. Ironically, that shower scene isn’t nearly as scary when it’s in blood red rather than stark grey. There are a few other instances where Van Sant’s attempted modernization falls flat, including an unintentionally funny version of a scene in the original, where Bates spies on Crane undressing through a hole in the wall. In the remake, Bates isn’t merely spying but engaging in a bit of self-gratification. A scene like that would have never made it past the censors in 1960, but the original movie’s notion of keeping Bates’ sexual desires repressed is much more interesting and thought-provoking than Van Sant’s over-the-top interpretation.
While the Psycho remake might have made for an interesting film school project, as a big-budget Hollywood reimagining by one of independent cinema’s most respected minds, it still begs the question, “Why bother?” The original Psycho has all the suspense and chills viewers could hope for.