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ten reasons why the psycho remake failed
or, gus van can't

12.12.98


Well, by the time you read this, all the reviews will be in; and as I write this, the opening-weekend numbers for PSYCHO are just in: $10.5 million, coming in second after A BUG'S LIFE (in the latter's second week of release). That's not a catastrophe -- that $10.5 million probably accounts for curious viewers and Hitchcock fans who had to see it opening day just to say they're officially appalled -- but it's certainly not the success Universal hoped for, and with STAR TREK: INSURRECTION opening this weekend, I expect PSYCHO to dry up and blow away quickly. After all that hype, it may not even play into the new year.

So what happened? I do love my top-ten lists lately, don't I...

(1) HITCH WAS JUST KIDDING, VAN SANT ISN'T

Hitchcock's PSYCHO is a black comedy. This is especially obvious upon repeat viewings, when, as John Landis once pointed out, such lines as "A boy's best friend is his mother" are hilarious. The remake is more of a psychodrama (no pun intended). In certain scenes, Gus Van Sant seems to be pushing PSYCHO onto more solemn ground. An honorable impulse, except for one tiny detail: The story resists being treated as serious drama, and if you're going to Xerox the original's script and shots but not its essential playfulness, the result is a mess. Hitchcock was, by temperament, a sardonic and ghoulish prankster (as was Robert Bloch, who wrote the original novel); Van Sant isn't.

(2) 1998 IS A HELLUVA LOT DIFFERENT FROM 1960

For the life of me, I don't get why Van Sant didn't set the remake in 1960. Certain lines and attitudes, like the car dealer's line about Marion changing her mind ("Being a woman, you will"), stick out like a sexist sore thumb in a 1998 context. Ken Souza also noticed something I didn't: at the end, the whole exchange about Norman's not really being a transvestite has been dropped from the remake. Why?

(3) THERE'S A REASON IT HADN'T BEEN DONE BEFORE

Because there is essentially no point to a shot-by-shot remake, except to prove you can get similar shots and edit them together similarly. But, as Ken demands to know, why didn't Van Sant go all the way -- shoot it in black and white, and avoid such dumb touches as Norman spanking the monkey and the inexcusable action-flick update of the fruit-cellar climax?

(4) WHEN YOU GET RIGHT DOWN TO IT, THE SCRIPT AIN'T MUCH

Sorry. It really isn't. The script was an improvement on Bloch's original novel, wherein Norman Bates was a hefty, dislikable nerd instead of the sympathetic, nervous wallflower Joseph Stefano rewrote him as. Other than that, it's simply a string of situations on which Hitchcock worked his magic. If you ever wondered what PSYCHO would've been like if Hitchcock hadn't directed it ... well, it's no longer a parlor game; you now have Exhibit A, the remake, a devastating unintentional critique of the script. Every character except Norman is revealed to be utterly two-dimensional. Hitch made us forget that. Hitch could make us forget damn near anything.

(5) VAN SANT ALREADY MADE HIS HITCHCOCK FILM

Yes, and it was called TO DIE FOR. You may have seen it. It had murder and suspense and perversity and pitch-black wit. It was a movie Hitch himself would have enjoyed. It shows that Van Sant does have a Hitchcockian movie in him. Which doesn't mean he was qualified to remake PSYCHO. In fact, if I had to pick a director better suited to the task, it'd be Neil Jordan. His CRYING GAME contained the best mid-movie shocker since the shower scene, and his BUTCHER BOY was strongly Hitchcockian. Not to mention the command of film noir mood he's shown in all his films. Van Sant has a scruffier style that didn't fit well on Stefano's script, which demands to be filmed as Hitchcock filmed it: crisp, brisk, like a 1950s television drama. More on that later.

(6) WHY WASN'T THAT RUMOR TRUE?

As I said last week, if Van Sant had faithfully remade PSYCHO up until the shower scene, and then gone off in a whole other direction, it would've been brilliant. Then he wouldn't just be duplicating the film; he'd be duplicating its impact. Ken Souza says there was a brief moment when he thought Van Sant actually was going to do it: after the murder, during the clean-up, Norman picks up the newspaper and looks at it -- which he didn't do in the original. Ken thought Norman was about to open the paper and find the money inside -- which would've been the perfect point of departure. But no, Norman just tosses the paper into the car trunk as he did in the original, and Ken sank into his seat in frustration, knowing the rest of the movie would be the same old same old.

(7) TEENAGERS AREN'T AS STUPID AS STUDIOS THINK

The whole raison d'etre of the new PSYCHO, we were told again and again, was that teenagers don't watch old black-and-white films. So the new color remake would lure them. First of all, as many people have pointed out, color had been around for decades when Hitchcock chose to shoot PSYCHO in black and white. Why? Partly to mute the gore, but also, I think, to lull the audience into the comfort of watching a 1950s TV potboiler about a woman who steals some money -- the movie isn't flamboyant in the Hitch style until the shower scene.

But back to my point. When I was a teenager, I liked good movies, same as now, whether they were color or black-and-white or fuckin' silent. There's no reason to think today's teens are any different. Sure, there are dumb teens who don't care about movies except as something to do on Saturday night -- but you could say that about any age group. The reason for the studio wisdom that b&w movies don't make money is simple: Not many B&W movies are made today. It's like saying "Silent films don't make money today." As for the assertion that kids won't watch b&w movies, walk into any high school in America and take a poll of how many teens have seen CLERKS. Bring the results to a studio, and tell them they don't know fuck-all about the teen audience, whose intelligence they routinely insult with soulless slasher flicks and frat-boy jerk-offs like ARMAGEDDON.

(8) SPECIFICITY, NOT MULTIPLICITY

Movies are too specific to their own eras and styles to be copied with any degree of accuracy. Van Sant and others involved in the remake have said that nobody complains about plays being done over and over again. That's because theater is not the same as cinema. Plays are conceived to be performed and interpreted in a wide variety of ways through the years. Screenplays are filmed, etched in celluloid. The only possible way to do a remake worthy of its predecessor is to toss out the script and retain the basic idea -- a man turns into a fly, an alien threatens a remote military base, and so on. It is no more possible to make a completely faithful remake than it is possible to make a completely faithful adaptation of a book. It's the Heisenberg Law of Movies: The very act of making a movie will alter the story you're adapting/remaking. The most faithful thing to do is to leave the original material alone.

(9) DID VAN SANT REALLY WANT TO DO IT?

My gut feeling, after sifting through his many pre-release interviews, is that he didn't. After the fact, after he'd gotten the remake in the can and was trying to justify his effort to a parade of incredulous reporters, Van Sant made up one excuse after another: "I thought it might be fun," "Nobody's ever done it before," "The reason I did it is that there is no reason," etc. Tucked away in all these interviews was a telling backstory: Early in his career, Van Sant went to Universal, who wanted to assign him to remake an obscure B movie. To which he responded, "Why not remake a good movie -- like PSYCHO?" Back then, the studios laughed him off; after the success of GOOD WILL HUNTING, they called his bluff, and Van Sant found himself at the wheel of a $25 million remake he had, I think, pitched ironically. There are some clues in the remake that Van Sant wasn't happy doing it: The more I think about it, the more those inappropriate flashing images during the murder scenes (storm clouds? a nude woman? a sheep??) seem like a frustrated director's way of telling us he feels trapped and defeated. Those pretentious little flashes may be the only honest things in the movie.

(10) DO THE MATH

Say you've never seen PSYCHO. Incredible thought, but apparently a lot of people actually haven't seen it. These are your options: (A) Rent the original hallowed classic for four bucks; (B) Pay anywhere from five to eight bucks -- and that's if you're not married with kids -- to see a remake everyone thinks is a stupid idea. Ken Souza worries that the new PSYCHO will be some people's first exposure to the story, and will leave them with no desire to see the original. I am more optimistic in this case; I think very few people who didn't see the original will see the remake. Though a welcome by-product of the remake is that Robert Bloch's novel has gotten a new mass-market reprinting. From there, young readers might move on to THE SCARF or NIGHT OF THE RIPPER ... or PSYCHO II, Bloch's scathing satire of Hollywood disguised as a sequel to his best-known work. Now, if only Gus Van Sant had made that movie...


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