Be sure to check out the companion review of the 1960 original!

The first thing is to discard a misconception: Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho is not, in fact, a shot-by-shot remake, nor even a line-by-line remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho, one of the defining films of narrative cinema. It cleans away some of the more rickety dialogue, and replaces a dirty joke that the original film was obliged to censor ("Bed? Only playground that beats Las Vegas"). It is an extremely faithful remake, you understand, and if you didn't watch the two movies right in a row, as I did in preparation for this essay, I imagine you'd have a hard time pointing out any more than the two scenes where Van Sant obviously breaks with the original (the shower scene, and the reveal of Norman's little secret). Because the differences in framing and blocking are very often very subtle, and much of the film is shot-for-shot identical to the earlier film, with a different cast and sets and costumes, and in full color. What this means is not that Van Sant's film is utterly pointless, as is almost always said; but that things like the cast, sets, costumes, and color are the point.

I do, however, take it as given that Psycho '98 is basically "pointless" as a thing unto itself, and my suspicion is that Van Sant never intended it to be taken that way. The idea of coming to the film cold is virtually impossible for me to even conceive of; it is a film that exists almost entirely in respect to an early version of the same story told in very much the same way, and rather than trying to make a movie that works by itself, Van Sant made a movie that works (by which I mean the way it functions, not the way it succeeds; the concept of "success" is sort of immaterial to this exercise) because it calls upon the viewer's awareness of the 1960 film. Indeed, to a very distinct degree, what Van Sant's Psycho does, is to freshen up material that had long since grown too comfortable to shock us - after all, the mere fact that people who have not seen the original Psycho, and wouldn't bother with a black-and-white film anyway, still know that Marion Crane is killed violently in a shower, and that Norman Bates goes crazy and dresses as his mother, is all the proof we need that Hitchcock's film has been so thoroughly absorbed into culture that its groundbreaking technique and structure have lost most, if not all, of its taboo power. What Van Sant's film does, tremendously well, is make the material foreign again: the same lines, story beats, and images, only done with different people in sometimes very different performing styles, and especially done in color, become suddenly disorienting and new by virtue of being distractingly different. Van Sant, in essence, has made the material seem current and alive again, rather than safely couched away in classic cinema; it's like a really bold cover song or a terrific new staging of an old play, and I think it's because cinema is so unlike popular music (in that its audience typically has a greater understanding of the medium's history) or live theater (which cannot be reproduced) that the 1998 Psycho was received, at the time, with such disgust and horror. We have no framework for "covers" of movies, except in things like Quentin Tarantino's pastiches, which are different anyway (though it's surely no accident that this Psycho came out in the '90s, when pop-culture regurgitation was at its height).

The key difference between the two, I have indicated, is that Hitchcock's film was in black-and-white and Van Sant's is in color: this is the chief way that the later film completely shifts our understanding and appreciation of the original film, and if I airily assert that Hitchcock's film is "better" in this regard - which it fundamentally, absolutely is - that's missing the point to a degree; sure, the film's success as a genre work plummets from the change, particularly in the shower scene, which becomes garish, silly, and ineffective with the cherry-red stage blood (augmented by computers) that seems to coat the bottom of the tub: I would say that being shot in color is far more deleterious to the scene's effect than the odd use of slow-motion and the outlandishly dumb insert shots of thunderstorms. Anyway, there's something un-reproducible about the texture of late-'50s black-and-white stock, something that makes the whole project seem grimy and low (perhaps this is merely the critic's overwhelming attachment to the films noirs of the period coming out), and perfectly serving its story. Van Sant's candy-colored aesthetic, filtered through the oh-so-distinct sensibility of Wong Kar-Wai's cinematographer Christopher Doyle, is not conducive to a horror film, and thus Van Sant's Psycho proves to be a wholly unsurprising failure at horror.

On the other hand, because there's nothing in the film more obviously different from Hitchcock's film than the color palette, there's also nothing that creates that fascinating feeling of new vitality more effectively, double so since the film is so intoxicated with color: between Doyle's camera and Beatrix Aruna Pasztor's almost glowing costumes, Psycho is a dazzling spread of eye candy.

Did I not say that the cast, sets, costumes, and color, are the reason the film exists? And I hope I have done some little work to explain why I hold it so: those are the things, chiefly, that give the material a jolt in the arm, thereby making Van Sant's film seem alive and independent, even while also having the gratifying effect of reminding us what makes Hitchcock's film work so well by somehow managing to knock the familiarity out of it (in truth, it was hoping to find that this would be the case that I decided to watch the '98 film in preparation for reviewing the '60 version). And thus we come to the acting, which might not be as fundamental a difference between the two films as the color palette; but oh, is it ever a difference. And not entirely to the old film's benefit: Viggo Mortensen's Sam Loomis is a far more credible character, a laconic Texan with a lusty streak a mile wide, than John Gavin's, and if Julianne Moore's Lila Crane isn't necessarily better than Vera Miles's, it's certainly just valid a take on the character and much more '90s in its spiky anger and energy.

But nothing can show off just how much wonderful work Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh were doing in the original as comparing them to Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche in the key roles of Norman Bates and Marion Crane: they are magnificently terrible, Vaughn in more interesting ways than Heche, for his attempt to synthesise the cloddish Norman of the book (Vaughn is much closer to the physical character described by Bloch than Perkins) with the fragile, nervous Norman of the 1960 movie is a complete failure that nevertheless, by accident reveals quite a lot about how the character works as a character. Vaughn's great mistake is to play up the nervous energy, making a version of the character who is constantly tittering and laughing - it's impossible to imagine anybody thinking for even two minutes that he's sane - but listening to him flatlining on the same lines that Perkins made so sad and creepy actually serves to call attention not to Vaughn's weakness or Perkins's strength, but to the fact that Norman, himself, is a performance, an attempt to present to the world a facade of normalcy by somebody who doesn't quite get what normalcy is. Heche is less interesting because she is merely bad, doing that thing she always did in her brief stint as a leading lady, where she looks really pointy and alarmed and attempts to mimic human behavior without getting there; but the contrast between her own unpleasantly mannered, false acting and Vaughn's demonstrates just how good Leigh's own naturalism in the part was, and how essential to the movie's success.

If I have not made the case for Van Sant's Psycho as a movie by itself, that's because I honestly don't see that case exists to be made: everything it does well (except for the costumes and Mortensen), the original did better, sometimes vastly better, and the one thing the remake should have fixed, the psychiatrist scene, it only manages to shorten up to lessen the pain. But at the same time, it's too bright and attractive to discard it entirely, as everybody did in 1998, and it serves as a terrific palette cleanser - in fact, my response after watching it was not, "I'm glad they never did that again", but "I wish they'd do that again", make even more of these super-faithful, not-quite-shot-for-shot remakes of other classic, over-familiar films: for even if I still can't understand why Van Sant wanted to make this Psycho, I'm glad to have seen it, for the energy it provides the material is totally different and refreshing, and in truth, having seen this film makes me more excited about both it and its august predecessor than I had been for the original after years and years of watching and re-watching. The remake's appeal, paradoxically, is that of unbridled novelty, and that's something we could do with more of.