Watching Gus van Sant’s remake of the Hitchcock classic, I was reminded of a perfectly-timed observation my sister once made when we were watching the original one lazy Sunday afternoon. She suggested that when Marion Crane undresses to have her fateful shower, Hitchcock should have cut to a shot of her removing pink puffy rabbit-shaped slippers before slipping under the cold, murderous water courtesy of the Bates Motel and its sweet attendant, Norman. It was such a hilariously random observation that I remember bursting into hysterics with her as we imagined those pink rabbity slippers being thrashed to shreds and soaked to bursting point in their owner’s blood. Indeed, I still wonder to this day what my mother must have thought when she came into the living-room to discover her two eldest children laughing and pointing hysterically at the onscreen death of a poor, unfortunate Hollywood heart-throb. “We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” Gus van Sant’s remake is like a pink puffy rabbit-shaped slipper clinging desperately to the sweat and excess blood of the chilling original: he should have considered that not even Hitchcock can remake Hitchcock. His almost shot-for-shot colour rendition has so many inconsistencies and bizarre details that it is very hard to take Gus van Sant’s efforts seriously. I strongly doubt if that were even his intention
For a start, the casting is spectacularly wrong. Van Sant uses capable actors in roles that they either seem too uncomfortable or too mismatched (or simply too bored) to take to interesting levels. Why cast an actor as strange and versatile as Viggo Mortensen as Sam Loomis in a role that, to be fair, requires about as much acting as a piece of wet wood? In the original, John Gavin played Marion’s dim boyfriend as solid but also as thick as oak: here, Mortensen acts like the singing bush in The Three Amigos! He is strange, quivering, drawls Cowboy slang and has a rather irritating habit of raising his voice at the end of sentences, as if it will break into high-pitched song-and-dance at the most unexpected moments. Anne Heche seems bored and irritable as Marion Crane, who played by Janet Leigh seemed so sweet, self-effacing and genuinely nice (except when she was stealing money from her boss’s rich clients, who it must be said clearly seemed to deserve it). In her scenes, Heche exudes about as much sympathy as a smiling shark to a baby seal. This might have been an interesting trajectory for van Sant to pursue, since Heche’s Marion seems more ruthless and self-motivated than her black-and-white counterpart, and would therefore seem more likely to steal the $40k just for the sheer fun of it, rather than for ulterior motives. Yet since van Sant so doggedly pursues the structure of the Hitchcock original, which was purposefully built to induce our sympathy for guilt-ridden Marion Crane, Anne Heche is unable to develop her character in convincing ways. Her irritability and sharpness seems out-of-synch with the rest of the picture. I feel that if Julianne Moore (as Marion’s sister Lila) had swapped roles with Heche, perhaps the film could have improved. Likewise, if Mortensen had traded places with Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates, perhaps some credible chemistry could have arisen between these performers. Even the smaller roles are miscast, although I would say that van Sant achieves some kind of closeness to the original through the casting of James Remar, who makes an excellent highway patrolman.
Even if the casting were perfect however, the film’s production design is a very odd mix from start to finish. In such details as Marion’s fluorescent-green underwear, Sam Loomis’ 10-gallon hat and the overly-bright motel surroundings, van Sant demonstrates a profound lack of understatement that made the original so compelling. Even in the beginning when Hitchcock cuts to a shot of Marion’s cheese sandwiches drying in the Arizona heat, there is a gritty and sexually charged atmosphere (to the scene, not the sandwiches!) that recalls the tense social realist films of the late 1950s. Working on a shoe-string budget with his TV crew, Hitchcock created a cramped intimacy and claustrophobia to the early scenes in Psycho that really made Marion and Sam’s afternoon tryst seem urgent and desperate. In the remake however, unsubtle close-ups of buzzing flies and garish wallpaper disrupt the tone, and we are reminded that this film is not about real people, but about actors pretending to be actors pretending to be real people. Like an A-Level student drama production, every aspect of the production—from Danny Elfman’s insistence of setting each moment before a scare with Bernard Hermann’s infamously screeching violins to Amy Duddleston’s editing, which inserts odd shots of thunderstorms and cows in fields at crucial moments in the film—seem to be competing for the spotlight, for the odd audience member to shout out, “Wow! Isn’t that fantastic!” or “He used a 40k lamp there! Genius!”
And at the ready of this doomed expedition we have Gus van Sant, a talented filmmaker whose comfort zone until 1998 seemed to be in films dealing with disenfranchised drug addicts and guilt-ridden hipsters on the road to nowhere in particular. Van Sant is very much an actor’s director, and does not usually seem too bothered with the pyrotechnics of his camera, unlike Hitchcock, who was meticulous to the point of being obsessive. It is therefore more shocking that he fails in areas where he might have succeeded, and instead opts for a through-the-motions remake with the occasional bizarre, affected touch or detail that, whilst funny or inventive for the first few minutes, cannot carry the entire film. As van Sant shows Norman Bates masturbating to Marion Crane through his peephole, I could not help thinking that in that one moment I could not see Gus van Sant doing likewise to the original, but ultimately never succeeding to impress, excite… or entertain.