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Son of Psycho

Van Sant pumps fresh blood into his tribute to the classic

First of all, if you're among the benighted who've never seen Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 shocker Psycho, stop reading at the end of this paragraph. A movie review, even one as incisive and elegant as this one, is no way to be introduced to Hitchcock's horror masterpiece. Your assignment is to rush right out and rent the video. Then, if you want to, you can go see Gus Van Sant's strangely conceived, full-color update/homage/remake. And then, no less important, you can finish this review.

Now, for everybody else: Van Sant's Psycho is funny and sort of creepy -- a not-bad little thriller with some peculiarly dated plot development. I suspect it wouldn't be much more than that to an audience member who had never seen the original but had seen several of the innumerable films that ripped it off. For the rest of us, however, including those who know the original so well we can mouth the lines along with the actors, the new film is fascinating, and it's fascinating mostly because it really is Gus Van Sant's Psycho, not Alfred Hitchcock's.

Yet this is not a case of someone trying to one-up an earlier director -- Van Sant clearly isn't implying that, yeah, old Hitch was on to something, but I can do it better. His approach is more like that of a rigorous thesis-writer who keeps the research up-front and allows himself any original expression only in the footnotes.

What's striking is how much these footnotes -- in this case, the design and costuming, the slight shifts in interpretation by the actors, the little curlicues added to the margins -- permeate the picture with Van Sant's idiosyncratic personality. This Psycho is an auteurist critic's wet dream. In the tug of war between the two visions, it need hardly be said that Hitchcock "wins." Van Sant may well be capable of greater emotional and philosophical depths than was Hitchcock, who generally couldn't be bothered with all that rubbish anyway, but Psycho, it's crucial to remember, was intended as comedy, a nasty Oedipal joke that plays on our aesthetic expectations like a Surprise Symphony with the left turn it takes at the famed shower scene.

Despite the psychological explanations we are offered in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner at the end of the film, Psycho was less about a tortured psyche than it was about manipulating the audience, and nobody could beat Hitchcock at that. Yet Van Sant's obsessive desire to dress up his film as the Mother of Modern Horror Pictures produces some fascinating variations.

For one thing, the story is now in bright, lurid color, shot by cinematographer Chris Doyle. Even Saul Bass's wonderful titles in the 1960 version are no longer black and white -- the bisecting line patterns are now a jolting green. Hitchcock had been fond of working in lush color himself since the forties, but the prospect of Technicolor blood in the original's shower scene made him squeamish. It was his last black-and-white film. The red of the gore in Van Sant's version does indeed leap out at us, in a way that movie blood rarely does anymore, though this is likely a reaction to addition of a new element to familiar images.

Van Sant has made the film's sexual subtext overt. In the opening scene, as two postcoital lovers (Anne Heche and Viggo Mortensen) converse in a fleabag Phoenix hotel, we can hear loud sex going on in a neighboring room. At many other points throughout the film, particularly those involving voyeurism, the sexual ante is upped, not that most viewers could have been in doubt as to their implications back in the sixties.

But Van Sant's approach to the film's brutality is different: The violent scenes seem less savage, somehow, than those in the original. It's in these brief but crucial sequences that Van Sant allows himself some latitude. Instead of following Hitchcock's model exactly, he uses one of his own favorite techniques -- the quick intercutting of incongruous, free-floating psychic imagery. This generates a twisted atmosphere rather than the all-out shock that Hitchcock gave us, probably because Van Sant knew very well he had no hope of reproducing the same effect.

The plot, obviously, is the same, and it's here that Van Sant's Psycho seems most eccentric. Once poor Marion Crane (Heche) arrives at the lonely Bates Motel and starts to interact with its nervous manager Norman (Vince Vaughn), who shares the Victorian heap at the top of the hill with his mother, the old lines play comfortably enough. But when the film moves out of horror-movie land, when it's in, so to speak, the real world, we realize how much has changed since Joseph Stefano penned his original adaptation of Robert Bloch's leering 1959 novel. There are many small changes -- the word Jell-O for aspic, the line "Let me get my Walkman" for "Let me get my coat" -- but these cosmetic touches don't hide the period nature of the material.

Marion, a young secretary from Phoenix, has swiped $400,000 in cash (in the original, it was $40,000) from her boss, and then has gone on the lam to give the money to her boyfriend, a small-town California hardware dealer who can't marry her until he's paid off his debts. This young unmarried couple -- who in the nineties go to the trouble to get a cheap room to hide their trysts -- seem weirder than Norman. So does Marion's office mate (Rita Wilson), when she keeps smugly reminding her co-worker that she is married. (Is that still a female status symbol?) On a sociological level, the long red-herring prologue may be the most intriguing portion of this Psycho; it tells us the most about the differences between now and then.

Van Sant has cast the film well, with one exception: The mumbling Mortensen, handsome though he is, hardly seems like someone for whom you'd steal 400,000 bucks. William H. Macy, a specialist at ineffectual losers, plays the hapless private detective Arbogast. In the film's wittiest bit of updating, Julianne Moore -- riffing on a mention in the old script that Marion's sister Lila works in a record store -- plays Lila as a tough, retroclad vinylhead.

Vaughn is excellent. Between this performance and the giggling sicko he gave us in the recent Clay Pigeons, he more than makes up for his post-Swingers sophomore slump in Return to Paradise. His Norman is more physically imposing -- and less callow and boyish -- than Anthony Perkins's in the original, and yet Vaughn's portrayal is also oddly sympathetic.

Best of all, though, is Heche, who has the most difficult role. Removed from the sixties' context of doing anything to get married, Marion's impulsive, plainly ruinous actions seem really nutty, and many of her lines come across as curiously over-ornate. Yet the actress is remarkably believable overcoming the period gap, notably when chatting with Norman in his parlor.

Van Sant has reportedly wanted to take a stab at Psycho for at least a decade, and the publicity machine at Universal, which owns the property, has dutifully played up the skepticism that he encountered. That way, if the film proves a triumph, they can hail Van Sant as their visionary genius and, if it's a dud, they're covered. But, really, how commercially daring a project is it? By big-studio standards, the film was inexpensive to make, and critics everywhere could be counted on to supply free publicity by elaborately asking who the heck Van Sant thinks he is.

The answer is that he's a superb filmmaker, even if his two weakest pictures, My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Good Will Hunting (1997), are the ones for which he's been most acclaimed. Maybe the best thing to come out of the overrated Good Will Hunting was the clout it gave Van Sant to indulge this bizarre whim. I really enjoyed watching this Psycho, although I don't know -- nor do I much care -- if it's because it's a good movie or just because it's an irresistible experiment.

I was disappointed the new version lost one whole scene and half of another featuring the skeptical sheriff (Philip Baker Hall) and his wife (Anne Haney). In Van Sant's version, Haney doesn't get to deliver one of the old Psycho's few sweetly poignant lines, when she hears a mention of "Mrs. Bates" and optimistically asks, "Norman took a wife?"

Psycho.
Rated R.
Directed by Gus Van Sant. With Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, Robert Forster, Philip Baker Hall and Anne Haney.

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