Fifteen years ago (December 4, 1998) an unusual movie was released, and roundly rejected: director Gus Van Sant's off-puttingly faithful remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Fresh off the critical and commercial success of Good Will Hunting, Van Sant could've tried for another feel-good hit or a high-profile for-hire gig. Instead, he cashed in all his mainstream chips to not only put his hands all over an untouchable classic, but to do it in the strangest way: He used the original script with only minor modifications, he re-recorded the same score, and, in many scenes, he even mimicked Hitchcock's compositions and camera moves, causing his Psycho to be labeled a "shot-for-shot remake," though that's an exaggeration.
Psycho '98 opened to poor reviews, though not as harsh as those of Van Sant's five-years-earlier Tom Robbins adaptation, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. While that fiasco has been largely forgotten, the Psycho remake's infamy continues to grow. I know from conversations with friends and movie fans on the Internet that the topic brings forth a violent bitterness normally reserved for discussion of Star Wars prequels. As recently as this year, Entertainment Weekly readers named it the No. 1 worst movie remake.
But they're wrong. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that Van Sant's Psycho works, but it absolutely is misunderstood. People look at it as a normal commercial movie with normal commercial motives. This is not Michael Bay's production company, Platinum Dunes, buying up Friday the 13th and The Amityville Horror as brand names to repackage for today's youth. This is an independent, outsider director, based in Portland, finding unexpected Hollywood success and using that window of opportunity to perform an experiment that 1) nobody else would be likely to do and 2) could only really be done with studio resources.
What it isn't
In the 15 years before Van Sant's Psycho, I count around eight remakes of beloved horror movies, including David Cronenberg's The Fly, Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead, and Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers. But in the 15 years since they've practically become a genre to themselves, with upwards of 35 remakes of horror classics (depending on how you define "classics"), including new versions of Black Christmas, Carrie, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, The Evil Dead, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Omen, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to name a few. Some of these are fun; most are stylish but dull, seemingly made by people with no clue what made their predecessors so powerful. All of them try to "reimagine" their stories to appeal to a new generation, making the monsters bigger or faster, giving the killers backstories of childhood heartbreak, putting cell phones in the victims' hands, sometimes adding contemporary music or removing thoughtful subtext.
Van Sant spends less time reinventing than re-creating, and he recruited an all-star team to do it. Original screenwriter Joseph Stefano was hired for the "rewrite" (things like changing the stolen $40,000 to $400,000 and the $10 hotel bill to $36.50). Pablo Ferro, famed title designer going back to Dr. Strangelove, "adapted" Saul Bass's original credits sequence, changing the names and tinting the bars green. Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek re-orchestrated Bernard Herrmann's unforgettable score. Avant garde composer Wayne Horvitz provided "additional sound design" and an end credits duet with guitarist Bill Frisell that riffs on Herrmann's themes. American Werewolf in London makeup genius Rick Baker is one of three names credited with designing the new Mother dummy. Even the kitchen knife, according to the credits, has a pedigree: It was provided by Hard Boiled director John Woo. The remaker given the most leeway must have been Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer revered for his work with director Wong Kar-wai. He had to copy some of the existing compositions, but at least he got to shoot them in garish color.
What it is
Going to such great lengths to duplicate a work of art that already exists may seem befuddling in the context of big-opening-weekend-equals-profit horror remakes. But Psycho '98 has more in common with an obscure projected called Flooding with Love for the Kid, in which actor Zachary Oberzan adapts the entire novel First Blood by David Morrell in his apartment with his camcorder and only himself to play every part, from John Rambo to the pack of bloodhounds that track him. Or maybe it's more similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, the backyard Spielberg remake by 12-year-olds. Or YouTube clips where enthusiastic fans remake their favorite movies with Legos or video game characters.
Of course, these homegrown projects have an underdog quality and amateurish charm that a $60 million Universal Studios production can't. Otherwise, though, they work in similar ways. They aren't trying to best or replace their source material, or make it palatable to young audiences. They instead work in relation to the original. Without having seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you couldn't appreciate the ingenuity of those kids replacing a Nazi-sympathizing monkey with somebody's wiener dog. And without a familiarity with the real Psycho, there's no point in seeing the counterfeit. These are companion pieces, part cover song, part new production of a play, part stunt, and part tribute.