Psycho 1960 vs. Psycho 1998

When it comes to defining a genre, I’m inclined to say, “Finders keepers.”

For all those considering seeing the Newly Revised Version of the classic thriller Psycho (1998) (whose moral of the story was, “Never trust a taxidermist”), I recommend renting the original 1960 version and then going to the theater. If absolutely nothing else, you’ll be amused by the amazing similarities. Let’s list them:

Similarities

  • Everything

Well, ok, not quite everything. But all the major shots, camera angles, lighting, dialog — they were all restored. Directed by Gus Van Sant, whose only other good (original) film was Good Will Hunting, I can only guess that this was some sort of brazen academic dare Gus dreamed up to see if he could duplicate the maestro. As for Hitchcock… well, I don’t need to give any background for the master of suspense.

Talk about retro. Supposedly set in 1998, most of the wardrobe is stuck in mid-70s attire, minus the gentlemen wearing derbies and dress hats as if it were still 1950. It’s as if poor Gus put a little too much effort into replicating every nuance. Right down to odd obscurities and anachronistic details, such as picking up a phone and having an operator make a connection. Or what about everybody getting out of their cars on the right side? If you’ll remember, all the drivers in the original Psycho crawled through to the other side to exit their cars. Why they did this, I have no idea; I wasn’t born yet. The advent of bucket seats certainly makes the practice impractical. Nevertheless, Gus’ people do it too.

Even the really fake car scenes have been preserved, where the actors are “driving” but you can tell the car isn’t swaying with the road and the driver is sitting perfectly still (obviously shot with a screen). It’s a technicality evident of 60s film effects, not 90s movie magic. But again, that wasn’t what Gus intended. Still, it’s all this exactness that makes an almost distracting effect.

Gus even had fun with the Hitchcock cameo (the personal trademark of the latter’s films). There is a slightly round man we see outside Marion’s office in the place Alfred was standing in the original. Was it Alfred’s ghost? No, I doubt he’d want anything to do with the picture.

When it comes to the art of defining a genre, I’m inclined to say, “Finders keepers.” Hitchcock was certainly one of the finest directors of our century, given the far-reaching influence he’s had on the industry. So with regards to thrillers, it stands that all the good shots, lighting, and moody music have been taken. Every critic out there will bemoan a new thriller’s use of a Hitchcockian cinematic device. But really, what do you expect? At some point, it’s all going to trace back to the master. Gus’ mere duplication leaves us with the loss of purpose in the new version though.

Differences

  • Red Hot Chili Peppers’ band members
  • Color
  • 1990s inflation
  • Amount of blood

Except for minor screenplay adjustments (apparently, Gus was anticipating a dumber audience this time around), the only significant differences are the characters and the violence. These people are pretty grimy. Their 60s counterparts were rather upper-class, dignified but harboring some latent criminal mentality. It was an oft Hitchcockian theme. We saw it in many of his films: the well-off student socialites in Rope who toy with the notion of murder; the jealous ex-pro-tennis-player husband of a rich trophy wife in Dial M for Murder. (Incidentally Viggo Mortensen, who plays Sam Loomis in Psycho, was also in A Perfect Murder, the recent Hitchcock remake of Dial M.)

In the updated version, Gus’ characters are fairly corrupt to begin with. I would fully expect these people to be as depraved as they turn out to be. There isn’t any surprise of what they might be capable. Everything is a bit more edgy, more gritty. Marion and Sam rendezvous in a dirtier sleaze hotel for sex. Norman’s sexual fantasies are, um, a tad more lurid. And of course the violence is a lot more graphic. Gus doesn’t exactly show any more than Alfred did; he just drips a lot more blood. He doesn’t let the squealing violins drown out the cleaving; we get to hear it all.

What’s so puzzling about all of this is why Gus did it. The purpose of art revival is reinterpretation — taking a fresh new look at an older film, play, musical, etc. But here, Gus limits his effectiveness by remaining so riveted in the past. Been there, done that.

All I know is if it’s ok for Gus to do Psycho, why not remake other classics, scene by scene? For instance, a modernized version of It’s a Wonderful Life with Harrison Ford as George Bailey would probably sell. Or how about Sean Connery as Citizen Kane? The xeroxed remakes could go on and on.

2 Replies to “Psycho 1960 vs. Psycho 1998”

  1. Why try to copy an excellent film. No one could duplicate the excellence of the original. I give it no stars whatsoever. ❓

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