Sunday, April 19, 2015

Psycho (1998)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock & Gus Van Sant                 Writer: Joseph Stephano
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann & Danny Elfman        Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Viggo Mortensen and Julianne Moore

This film was never going to be well received, and though it seemed as if it had the potential to be fascinating, poor execution doomed it to failure. Alfred Hitchcock, despite being snubbed by the Academy, was for twenty years was one of the most distinctive and popular directors in Hollywood. So much so that modern directors have been copying him for years. Brian de Palma is the most overt plagiarist, but there are many other more subtle copyists. Gus Van Sant simply took the phenomenon to its logical conclusion. Hitchcock’s Psycho was made on the cheap, as an independent production by the director who was trying to finish his contract at Paramount so he could move over to Universal. But it was not cheaply made. The master’s touch is everywhere in the film and some would argue that it’s his last truly great film. Van Sant’s remake of Psycho could have been, in more assured hands, a captivating clinic on how to update a classic film by remaking it shot-for-shot rather than reimagining it as remakes are primarily done. But Van Sant made missteps all along the way, resulting in a film that wasn’t just poorly done but one that audiences actually hated.

Joseph Stephano’s screenplay for the Hitchcock film is used once again. Viggo Mortensen and Anne Heche are seen at a hotel in downtown Phoenix getting dressed after a lunchtime rendezvous. Heche is a secretary at a realtor’s office in town while Mortensen runs a hardware store in California. Money, or rather the lack of it, is what keeps them apart. When Heche has the opportunity to steal four-hundred thousand dollars, she jumps at the chance and heads to California and Mortensen so they can be together. But she stops along the way at a motel run by Vince Vaughn and when his psychotic mother thinks she’s seducing her son she kills Heche in the hotel room shower. Vaughn cleans up in a panic and disposes of the body, but when Heche never turns up in California her sister, Julianne Moore heads there to see if she’s with Mortensen. Private detective William H. Macy shows up at the same time, hired by realtor Rance Howard to hunt her down and get the money back. When Macy’s investigation leads him to the hotel he suffers the same fate as Heche and his disappearance causes Moore and Mortensen to try and find out what is really going on at the Bates Motel.

While Stefano’s story is the same the execution by Van Sant is not, and the flaws are legion. The primary problem with the film, though, is the acting, an ironic circumstance considering the talent involved. It’s as if Van Sant told them all to do whatever they wanted with the characters and pay no attention to the original. The result, in almost every case, is that the comparisons with the original suffer tremendously. Heche is nowhere near as commanding, or frightened, on the screen as Janet Leigh, and John Gavin’s pillar of strength is replace with Mortensen’s faux-Elvis character, something that brings to mind Gil Bellows’ similarly corny performance in The Shawshank Redemption. And while Moore’s updating of Vera Miles’ character to petulant teenager is head scratching, Rita Wilson’s performance, which Pat Hitchcock made iconic in the original, is simply wrong, embarrassingly wrong. Vince Vaughn is the only one who seems to have studied his counterpart’s performance and makes the attempt to replicate Anthony Perkins’ mannerisms. But even with that the lack of direction shows. In the office scene with Heche he plays the scene too angry, and when he’s looking at her through the peephole the decision to have him masturbate changes the entire complexion of the original character, who would have been far too ashamed to give in to that temptation. William H. Macy, as the detective played by Martin Balsam is the only one who comes close to the original in terms of the ultimate effect.

Beyond the acting, however, there are lots of other issues. Color is one of them. Many fans of the original believe that the only reason for making the film was to pander to young audiences who don’t like black and white films. Fair enough, but the color palette Van Sant uses is horrible. Garish colors in both the wardrobe and the set dressing are a completely unnecessary distraction throughout the film. The film also doesn’t seem to know when it’s set. There are references to the fifties is Mortensen’s makeup, the sixties in Heche’s wardrobe, and the eighties in terms of car design and lack of electronics. Van Sant also takes liberties behind the camera, extending scenes and inserting shots of his own not in the film in a failed attempt to add “originality” to the production. Even with all of that, however, I can’t say it’s a bad film. There is something absolutely captivating in watching Van Sant emulate Hitchcock’s camera angles and movement. Another positive is that most of Bernard Herrmann’s score was kept intact, augmented and extended in creative ways by Danny Elfman. My only regret about the poor results in Psycho is that it has obviously prevented other directors from making similar attempts. I have to say that re-shoots of Casablanca or Citizen Kane, while an anathema to many, still seems and intriguing idea to me.

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