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The Boston Phoenix Psycho Path

Van Sant stumbles over the master's footsteps

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  Had Gus Van Sant turned in Psycho as his senior thesis while a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, he probably would have gotten a B+. A more-or-less slavish reproduction of an archetypal film that has haunted the pop-cultural collective unconscious since its release in 1960, this remake is the consummate postmodernist artifact. A high-concept commentary on the illusion of authorship, a perverse example of Baudrillard's notion of the simulacrum, an obsessive Warholian artistic acquisition gone horribly awry, it still doesn't offer enough wit and wisdom to warrant its $20 million price tag.

The average filmgoer, however (and average filmgoers turned out last weekend to the tune of $10.5 million, putting Psycho in second place at the box office), probably isn't interested in such point-headed nonsense. What he or she will get is a well-crafted, suspenseless ritual, a cold rendering of the premier, and unsurpassed, slasher film, which has since spun out into countless variations, up to and including I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.

That the new film lacks anything resembling a soul is beside the point -- or perhaps it is the point. Not that the performances, with one key exception, are lacking. As Marion Crane, Anne Heche offers more depth and spirit than did Janet Leigh in her somewhat brittle portrayal. Van Sant accommodates her, too, by deviating from the original text in some scenes. During her hotel-room tryst with Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen, funkier and more redneck than John Gavin's pretty-boy original), Heche's post-coital badinage seems more wry and worldly and takes precedence over the aerodynamically designed foundation garments (her brassieres are even more baroque than Leigh's, and in full color). The fact that Sam is bare-assed when Marion reminds him to put on his shoes before leaving adds some extra frisson to the line. Later, back in the real-estate office where she works as a secretary, Marion's flirtation with the high-rolling hayseed who pays $400,000 in cash for his newlywed daughter's house is more extended, more off-color, and sassier, establishing her as a shrewd and sexy operator worthy of the post-feminist '90s.

Which makes one wonder at her naïveté in her long scene with Norman Bates, when she's surrounded by stuffed raptors in his "parlor" at the infamous motel. True, the film presupposes that this is a world in which the first Psycho never existed, or any of its dubious progeny, so Marion wouldn't have the cultural coding to clue her into the symptoms of the typical serial killer. But as Bates, the towering Vince Vaughn lacks any of Anthony Perkins's innocence and vulnerability, his mood swings and thinly veiled mania setting off alarms as he rambles on about his mother not being "herself" lately. Not only does the cartoonish performance make it hard to believe that Marion doesn't hit the road immediately (instead she resolves to return the purloined money in the morning), but it undermines the original film's most terrifying element, the idea that its most heinous character is also its most sympathetic. Van Sant doesn't help the cause by having Norman noisily masturbate after spying on the pre-shower Marion through a peephole. Neither does a later glimpse of his bedroom with its threadbare toys and porn magazines shed much light on his enigma.

Those are just a few of the deviations from the original text in a film that ultimately is most intriguing not for the similarities but for the differences. Marion and the other characters (Julianne Moore campily butch and pluckily resourceful as Marion's sister; William H. Macy sporting weird headgear as the private investigator) may not have seen the original Psycho, but the rest of us can't help watching this remake without making comparisons and pondering the meaning -- if any -- behind the changes.

What, for example, is meant by the bizarre insertions -- a stormy sky, a naked woman, a sheep -- flashing through the murder montages? Or the close-up of the fly sampling Marion's hotel-room repast at the beginning? Why the long crane shot of the police searching the swamp during the closing credits, which rewards the viewer's patience by revealing nothing in particular? Any explanation would probably be as perfunctory and anti-climactic as the Oedipal accounting that the psychiatrist -- here dutifully played by Robert Forster -- offers for Norman's behavior. The lights may be on in the Bates Motel in Van Sant's Psycho, but nobody is home.

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