Check in, relax, take a shower... and the guy from
Swingers and Fred Clause will jerk it will while
I don't think I've ever had as much trouble trying to watch a film for a review as I did here (hell, I had an easier time tracking down that Bates Motel movie, which very few people even know about!) Most of the movies I review on here I own on DVD or Blu-Ray, making them readily available, but this was an instance where that wasn't the case, forcing me to find a way to watch it online. I eventually did but it was like pulling teeth, as my internet would act up and become slow as molasses when I would try to stream it and every version of it I found had a weird thing going on with them, with two soundtracks playing at the same time, one of which was several minutes ahead of the other. As a result, you would often get music and sound effects where there shouldn't be any, making for a very odd viewing experience. They were sometimes so loud that I could barely here the dialogue but, fortunately, I've seen the original so many times (I didn't even have to watch it before I reviewed it) that I knew what was being said. And as if that wasn't bad enough, the buffering on this site was pathetic, meaning that watching this 104-minute movie took much longer than it should have. All of that trouble in order to revisit a movie that I don't like in order to remind myself of just how bad it is.
One other reason Van Sant gives for doing this film, particularly in shooting it in color, was to appeal to younger audiences who don't care for black-and-white movies and also because he felt that Psycho had lost its impact with the new generation. I've heard that to emphasize this latter point, the special features on the DVD feature interviews with young people on the street who say that they don't know what Psycho is, which I find rather hard to believe. Maybe they haven't actually seen it but the idea that they've never even heard of such a legendary film that is a massive part of American culture, is the most well-known film of arguably the most famous filmmaker ever, basically gave birth to the slasher genre, and has been parodied to death, especially in regards to the shower scene, is ludicrous to me (never mind the fact that it also had three pretty high-profile sequels in the 80's and early 90's). If they were young kids, maybe, but not teenagers, especially if they're into the horror genre. As for the black-and-white issue, I've always found the notion of people refusing to watch a movie for that reason to be very shallow. If it's that big of a deal to them, then that's their problem. That doesn't mean you have to remake every classic black-and-white film in color to appease them, a pointless exercise anyway since, as we've been saying, it's not going to be the same film you're trying to turn them onto. I know I keep harping on that but I can't believe I have to make that point clear.
You know what's ironic about Gus Van Sant's main point for doing this film? It's not the exact same film, shot-for-shot. Scene-for-scene, it is, and as far as the dialogue goes, I would say it's 95% the same, but there are still a number of differences regardless. For starters, the film makes it known right off the bat that it takes place in 1998, with other adjustments made in the story to fit like Marion Crane now stealing $400,000, her new car costing $4,000, and a motel room cost over $35, as well as little details like Lila having a Walkman, more modern cars, clothing, and buildings, etc. Van Sant's intention was to try to make it, like I talked about up above, more accessible to modern audiences, which already goes against his little experiment behind the film. If he intended to see if a movie could have the same impact if it were recreated exactly, wouldn't a part of that involve setting it in 1960 as well? And if he wanted to make it appeal to younger, modern audiences, wouldn't doing it in color be enough, per what he found about them up above? In addition, a number of the shots are set up and executed differently. Many are virtually the same, like the angles on the Bates house and the motel, the blocking of the actors in many of the scenes, and the more notable camera positions like the overhead shots of the shower scene and Arbogast's death, but there are still a number of notable differences. For example, the opening shot is done with a long, moving shot through the city, leading right through the window of the hotel room where Marion and Sam Loomis are, rather than the original's slow pan across the cityscape and the couple of cuts to the shot of the window as the camera goes in. In fact, the way it's done here was how Alfred Hitchcock originally wanted it to look but the camera equipment and the method of doing helicopter shots weren't perfected enough at the time to do it. Van Sant changed it and other parts of the movie to accommodate for advances in technology, which I find to be another way the main purpose of the film is rendered pointless. Another difference comes in the scene in the hotel room. Disregarding the fact that Marion and Sam are in bed this time, there's a random close-up of a fly that's landed on the sandwich she never ate. And for one final example, when Arbogast first arrives at the Bates Motel, the camera is on Norman Bates and pans over to Arbogast's car as he pulls up, whereas Hitchcock kept the camera still and framed both Norman and the car as it drove up together. We'll get into more as we go but for now, I think you get the idea. Some portions of scenes are even dropped altogether, like when Marion tells Caroline she's going to go home and sleep off her headache, Sam and Lila first arriving at Sheriff Al Chambers' house, and portions of the psychiatrist's conclusions at the end, among others, making the film five minutes shorter than the original, even though it has ending credits. Speaking of the psychiatrist, they put in a shot of him walking into Norman's cell and sitting down to talk to him. These may seem like nitpicks but for me, if you're going to try this type of experiment, as pointless as it is, you'd better at least stick to it or else I'm going to question why you said you were going to do it that way to begin with.
Other changes were made to accommodate different attitudes about what was acceptable in movies. Obviously, since it's in color, the shower scene is much more explicitly violent, with the floor of the tub becoming filled with bright red blood, a splatter of it left on the wall, and an added overhead shot of Marion Crane's body completely falling over the rim of the tub to emphasize that she is indeed dead. That leads me to something else: the addition of more explicit sexual content and nudity, like a shot of Viggo Mortensen's bare butt in the opening scene (it's better than seeing his manhood full-on in Eastern Promises), the sounds of other people in the hotel having sex, Lila finding a pornographic magazine in Norman's bedroom in the house, and, most cringe-inducing of all, Norman masturbating while peeping at Marion undressing in her room. That last one has always felt unnecessary and gratuitous to me. I could honestly see Alfred Hitchcock having Norman do that in his film if he could have gotten away with it back then and I'll admit that it's not far-fetched to think of the character doing that (you could argue that was even more of an impetus for the "Mother" side of his mind to take over and kill Marion) but still, I would not have wanted to see Anthony Perkins doing that and I definitely don't want to see Vince Vaughn doing it. Some things are just more disturbing if they're left to the imagination, as in the original where you can just imagine what Norman's thinking while watching her. And finally, there are additions that are just art-housey and strange just because. While Marion is getting stabbed, the film is intercut with random shots of storm clouds gathering, and when Arbogast gets it later on, you see a quick shot of a naked woman wearing a black sleep-mask and what appears to be a thong when he first gets slashed and another of what looks like a sheep standing in the middle of the road during a rainstorm as he starts to fall. I can't begin to theorize what they're meant to symbolize; in fact, when I see them, the only impression I get is that Gus Van Sant threw them in there simply to be abstract for no reason. If that's the case, you might as well have had Terence Malick do the movie.
One thing Van Sant wanted to do in regards to the actors is to "flesh out" the supporting characters, who he felt were nothing more than means to advance the plot in the original. Fair enough, but it's a bit hard to do that when you're restricting your actors to speaking more or less the exact same dialogue and acting out the same scenes, with only a few additions and mainly subtractions. Some of the characters are certainly interpreted differently by the actors but I would hardly call them more fleshed out. If they wanted to do that, they should have at least put in a scene that was deleted from the original where Sam and Lila talk about their suspicions that Marion is probably dead and what losing her would mean for them. Even more stifling is the way I've heard Van Sant supposedly directed them. So intent was he on making this as much of a copy of the original as he could, he timed the dialogue scenes there with a stopwatch and then, whenever his actors went too long or too short in reenacting them, he would cut and make them do it again. Hitchcock was often said to be someone who cared less about acting and character motivations than the mechanics of the camera and editing but this method by Van Sant sounds so unnatural and soulless that it explains why some of the performances feel like the actors are rushing through the dialogue to get to the end of the scene and it hardly makes it easy for them to flesh out their characters more. In a weird way, it validates Van Sant's point about plays being endless remakes of the same story with the only differences being the actors and their nuances because that's the vibe I get when watching this: I'm seeing the same story being acted out by different actors who are speaking virtually the same dialogue but in stilted, unnatural deliveries that make it fall short of the earlier performance.
As iconic and close to perfection as Anthony Perkins' portrayal of Norman Bates was, I don't think it's entirely impossible for another actor to step in and successfully make the role his own, as I feel is the case with any iconic role, and there were a number of notable actors up for it, like Christian Bale, Joaquin Phoenix, and even Henry Thomas, eight years removed from playing the teenaged Norman in Psycho IV: The Beginning, any of whom I think could have pulled it off. But, for whatever reason, Gus Van Sant decided to cast Vince Vaughn, a decision that the world is still baffled by. Vaughn is not an actor I've ever had a major problem with (I like him in The Lost Word: Jurassic Park well enough) but he's hardly one I ever look forward to seeing and I don't find him to be that versatile. Plus, even back then, he was mainly known for comedies like Swingers and it was only around this time that he began doing edgier stuff like Return to Paradise and The Cell, so casting him as Norman was a big gamble, one that, unfortunately, didn't pay off at all. His performance as Norman is just awful and, for me, is on par with Jackie Earl Haley's portrayal as Freddy Krueger in the abysmal remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. The only difference is I feel that Haley was a good choice for that role but was hampered by a bad script and uninspired direction, whereas Vaughn is doing nothing but literally filling Perkins' shoes. When I see him, I don't see Norman Bates; I just see Vince Vaughn going through the motions and very badly trying to come across as a complex, disturbed character. Aside from seeing him masturbate, one of the biggest problems with Vaughn's portrayal is how uncomfortably awkward it is. Whereas Perkins came across as a really nice guy, albeit one who's very troubled and stuck in a bad situation, Vaughn acts weird and off-kilter from the beginning. His facial expressions (he often has a less than sincere half-smile), quirky movements, the rambling way in which he talks, and especially the uncomfortable, nerdy-sounding chuckle he often gives off, make him feel like someone who doesn't have much social interaction and is doing the best he can to be accommodating to this woman he's clearly nervously excited to have staying at the motel. It's so bad that it makes Marion Crane, who you can tell is a bit creeped out by him, look like an idiot for not getting the hell out of dodge right then and there. Norman is also more sinister at points than he should be, like when he smiles evilly right after sending Marion's car into the swamp or the overly threatening glare he gives Arbogast when he refuses to let his see his mother, making it hard to sympathize with him (the masturbation scene and everything else hurt him on that score long before, though). And he's not as smart as Perkins because, when he's getting rid of all traces of Marion in Cabin 1, he doesn't check any of the drawers!
|Oh, girlfriend, that look doesn't do a thing for ya!|
Another thing Vaughn definitely isn't is scary, with the biggest failing there being when you see him dressed up as his mother. Some may find Perkins hard to take seriously when he shows up in the basement at the end in that dress and wig but that crazed smile he gave when he locked eyes with Lila (which he recreated in Psycho III, where it was very unsettling) makes it work, whereas Vaughn... well, look at him! I don't care if he does have a big knife. How am I supposed to be scared of him when he slowly walks out of the shadows in that dress and blonde wig (why blonde?) with that silly, melodramatic expression on his face? In fact, I'd probably die from laughter before he even got a chance to slash at me. Plus, he gets kicked in the face by Lila and is easily subdued by Sam afterward. Yeah, that's a threatening killer. And his attempt recreate the supremely creepy final shot of Norman? Not even close, as you can see, and neither was the subliminal image this time around, which was Mrs. Bates' actual face rather than her skull. But where Vaughn's portrayal ultimately fails is how forced the whole thing he feels. I'm sure he tried to do something with the character but, when he's acting the way he is and speaking like he's trying to rush through a scene, as a lot of the actors do, it comes across like somebody who's phoning it in, which isn't fun to watch. So, yeah, it is like a different theatrical performance in that regard, just one where they didn't have the best leading man or the right supporting players for him to work off of.
If you've been following this blog for a while now, you'd know that I'm not a fan of Anne Heche and this movie is a big part of that. I don't mind her in certain movies, like Volcano, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and as the voice of Lois Lane in the animated Superman: Doomsday movie, but I don't think she's that great of an actor and I've always felt she was very out of her league stepping into a role that was originally played by Janet Leigh (she's also not nearly as pretty as Leigh was back in the day either but that's beside the point). After looking at the film for the first time in years, I'd say that my biggest problem with her isn't her acting itself but rather the way she portrays Marion Crane. Leigh came across as someone who was, at her core, a good person who simply wanted a better life for herself and made a really bad judgement call in trying to obtain it; Heche is much less innocent and often feels downright devious in her decision to take the money, with the shifty way she eyes it while packing and the more overt joy she gets from thinking about what they'll say when they realize what she's done. In addition, she's not as kind and tolerant as Leigh's version, looking rather exasperated with Caroline's rambling on, more irritated with the highway patrolman than scared, and has an overall more sarcastic and insincere feel to her. As a result, it's hard for me to buy her decision to go back to Phoenix and return the money as being genuine, as she really looks like she wants to get far away from the Bates Motel as soon as possible. Like I said earlier, she seems rather uncomfortable around Norman because of how strange and awkward he is, which makes it hard for me to believe that she genuinely feels for him when he's describing how unpleasant his relationship with his mother is. It feels more like she's simply biding time and trying to humor him. In the end, I really didn't care at all when she got stabbed to death in the shower. Heck, look at that expression on her face when she's dead. Even in death, she looks irritated, as if her last thoughts were, "Oh, shit! I'm going to die," rather than Leigh, who had an expression of sadness and shock, like she didn't know what hit her.
The actor I felt the most pity for was Robert Forster as the psychiatrist at the end. Forster is a good actor, which you'd know if you've ever seen Alligator, but his delivery of the explanation of Norman's psychosis, which is cut down a little bit here, is stilted and emotionless. He honestly looks like he couldn't care less about what he's telling them and his discovery of how disturbed of a person Norman is didn't affect him at all. According to a deleted bit from the Psycho Legacy documentary, Forster had to do this speech over fifty times because he kept falling short of the length of the original (which is confusing, because he doesn't say every single line, some of which were pretty important, in my opinion, like what exactly made Norman kill Marion) and so, he probably stopped caring and tried to get through it as fast as he could and it shows. In short: it's a far cry from the memorably passionate and energetic speech that Simon Oakland delivered nearly forty years earlier. Philip Baker Hall makes for a suitable enough stand-in for John McIntire as Sheriff Al Chambers, managing to capture the same type of easy authority and rational way of thinking, although his role is cut down, with his only major scene being when Sam and Lila go to see him. The same goes for Rance Howard, the father of Ron and Clint Howard, as Marion's employer, George Lowery. This film's version of Tom Cassidy (Chad Everett) is a much bigger lecher than his counterpart in the original, as there's nothing at all subtle about his hitting on Marion. For instance, when Cassidy says, "Tomorrow's the day, my sweet little girl," it's clear that he wasn't actually talking about Marion and that her getting the wrong idea maybe had an influence in making him flirt with her; here, he looks right at Marion when he says and his tone of voice makes his intentions clear, despite his insistence that he was talking about his daughter (he talks like that about his daughter?) That's to say nothing of the way he eyeballs Marion while talking to her (look at him; are those not bedroom eyes?), the smoothness of his voice, and the way he assures that he can keep his mouth shut if he needs to. And there's an added line where, after he tells Marion she needs a weekend in Las Vegas, "The playground of the world," and Marion says she's going to spend that weekend in bed, Cassidy comments, "Only playground to beat Las Vegas," which was in Joseph Stefano's original script but had to be cut because it was deemed too risqué back then. Seriously, could this guy be more obvious? I'll give him this, though: I can see it working for him better than Frank Albertson in the original.
Caroline (Rita Wilson), the other secretary working for Mr. Lowery and the character who was originally played by Pat Hitchcock, is notably much more of an airhead here. I don't know quite how to describe it but she feels very phony-baloney in the way she acts, like the kind of patronizing way she asks Marion if she has a headache and how, after Cassidy goes into Lowery's office, she melodramatically embraces one of mounds of money before telling Marion that he was flirting with her because, "I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring." The one actor who looks and feels almost exactly like his counterpart in the original is James Remar as the highway patrolman. When he's looking right at the camera with those sunglasses, it wouldn't be farfetched for you to think that what you're looking at is a colorized image from the 1960 film. He does a fair enough job acting-wise too, able to come across as unintentionally menacing as Mort Mills, although his voice is a bit too monotone for me. Finally I have to mention Charlie (James LeGros), the used car dealer who sells Marion a replacement car. This guy is really awful and has none of the fast-talking, energetic charisma John Anderson had, nor does he seem all that suspicious of Marion when she agrees to play the $4,000 in cash. It feels like a very phoned-in performance.
In case you haven't noticed it from the images you've seen so far, the film's color palette is not very pleasant to look at. The colors are vivid but the thing is they're very tacky-looking, with lots of bright whites, pinks, oranges, and greens, particularly in Marion's clothes, and it all looks pretty freaking ugly. Even the reds are really bright, with the blood in the shower scene sometimes looking pink or even orange (reminds of the problems with the blood in the original Dawn of the Dead), and there are a few environments built with ugly neon lights, particularly the Bates Motel itself, that add to this feeling of tackiness. It makes the movie feel very sleazy, much more so than the already seedy original, which, if that was the intent, then good job. But, otherwise, the use of color doesn't add anything to the film and actually detracts from the atmosphere the original had. In color, you don't get the deep shadows and levels of blackness that you do with black-and-white, making the scenes in and around the motel and the house less impactful. I mean, seriously, that shot of Norman watching the car sink into the swamp isn't nearly as ominous with that pretty, deep-blue nighttime sky behind him. And did seeing the crisscrossing bars during the opening titles in bright green add anything that the gray ones didn't? I doubt it. Even sadder than that, though, is that they used green screen in certain shots like Alfred Hitchcock did with rear-projection, such as Arbogast falling down the stairs and such, and here, they're even more noticeable because the film's in color and jarring because you expect a movie made in the 90's to be more refined in that department. Maybe this was another way Gus Van Sant tried to make it as close to the original as possible (for instance, William H. Macy wanted to fall more realistically than the way Martin Balsam did but Van Sant insisted on doing it the same way) but in the end, it makes it look amateurish more than anything else.
The production design is pretty decent overall. All of the environments look okay, like places you would see in everyday life, as was the case in the original, and I like some of the additions and modern updates, like how Sam's living space in the back of his hardware store has a beaded curtain, some deep blue lights, and a record player... that is, except for the Bates Motel and the house. I know there are motels nowadays that look like this but the way the sign looks is not at all ominous like the original sign and those big neon letters atop the motel look downright silly. And once again, there are lots of bright whites and pinks in the paint scheme, which make it look like a tacky brothel than a motel. But the biggest failing is the redesign of the house, which they built right in front of the actual house on the Universal backlot. I don't know why they didn't just use it because this thing they built doesn't have the same sinister feel that the one built for the Hitchcock movie, which is also iconic, does. As far as the interior goes, like Norman's room and his mother's bedroom, it looks alright and is more or less similar to the original interior (though not as creepy to me), save for the cellar, which is made much larger and looks more like some kind of workshop, with shelves filled with stuffed birds here and bottles of chemicals, as well as a big, glass case filled with living birds, reminiscent of an interior display you'd see at a zoo, which is Mrs. Bates' corpse is found sitting in front of. It highly suggests that this is where Norman does his taxidermy and that those birds are his readily available "materials." I'm not sure what to think of this addition. It is interesting to see and I like the expansion on Norman's hobby but, like so much in this movie, it defeats the main purpose for making this movie the way they did.
As much as I love the original Psycho and think that the shower scene is a great sequence that deserves its legendary status, I can't deny that, because it's been talked about so much and has been imitated so many times throughout the decades by numerous slasher movies, it has lost a lot of its shock value. I was fortunate enough to see the movie for the first time before I really got into the modern age of horror and the internet, so it still had impact on me, but, the thing is, if someone has seen a good majority of or even a few of the movies that inspired it before deciding to go into it, they've also more than likely heard and seen every little detail of it and so, they're not going to be hit that hard by it. A remake has it even worse because not only will you have to contend those jaded horror fans but you also have fans of the original who already know what's coming and are not going to be affected by your recreation of it, no matter how gory it is. But, all that said, it's still hard to believe how unimpressive this film's version of the shower scene is. It's pretty close in design to the original (although the buildup feels a bit longer) in that you never see the knife puncture the flesh but rather, all you get is a montage of the killer slashing and Marion reacting, and Gus Van Sant recreates all of the memorable camera angles, but it lacks the suddenness and the kinetic, frantic energy that, when it's over, leaves you wonder what just happened. The editing isn't nearly as fast, something that Van Sant tries to make up for by playing with the speed of the film, doing a slightly sped up push-in towards Marion's mouth as she screams and speeding the actual attack up to try to make it seem more chaotic, but it doesn't work and actually makes it feel like a very cheap movie. The slashing itself feels slower, like he's trying to get the feel and impact of each stab as the knife goes into her, which makes it all the more boring, and the random shots of storm clouds and a close-up of her eye dialing after the attack's over just feel overly arty for the sake of it. And lastly, shooting this in color and seeing the red blood fill the bottom of, as I said earlier, didn't add a thing to it. In fact, when you see the knife-wielding figure with his face blacked out standing there in that light pink gown (what is it with this movie and the color pink) and blonde wig, it's not even close to being as scary.
Arbogast's death is botched even worse than the shower scene. The buildup to it is still virtually the same but, like the shower scene, when the actual attack begins, it's not as fast-paced and sudden as the original, and those quick shots of that woman, which I still don't understand, are not only pretentious but lessen the impact as they keep it from being one long shot from his face getting slashed to his falling down the stairs like before (Van Sant actually had an opportunity for more of an impact than before here because he had Arbogast get slashed three times across the face; imagine how that would have looked if it were one shot of that happening to him in addition to the fall). His actual fall is a prime example of the bad green screen work in this film as it looks funky and it's really sad when a movie from 1960 looks more realistic, especially when it was deliberately stylized. And, following a quick POV shot from him of the killer walking down the stairs towards him, rather than letting out a disturbing scream of pain as he's stabbed to death at the bottom of the stairs, William H. Macy just grunts with each stab, which does not work nearly as well (Anne Heche's screams in the shower scene weren't as disturbing as Janet Leigh's, either).
Not surprisingly, the film completely reuses Bernard Herrmann's original score, although some of the pieces were re-orchestrated by Danny Elfman, who had done the music for Gus Van Sant's two previous films (and who also tried to warn him that this movie was a bad idea). Like Jerry Goldsmith's re-orchestration of the shower theme for the opening of Psycho II and the apparent re-orchestrations of both it and the main title theme for Psycho IV: The Beginning, the way the music is redone here makes it less effective in my opinion. A big reason why the shower scene here doesn't work that well is because the music isn't as loud and full as the original but rather, sounds hollow, with no echoing that makes the shrieking more impactful and it's slower as well. It definitely doesn't have the same power that it did in the original when it's reused for Arbogast's death. There it was sudden, loud, and had an echoing quality that made it sound nightmarish, whereas here, it sounds the same as it did in the shower scene, i.e. lackluster. The main title theme sounds better, though. It certainly sounds more akin to the original here than it did in Psycho IV, where it was slowed down, keeping the same fast rhythm and energy, although it's still not as effective because it has a more modern sound to the strings that actually sounds less clear. It's weird, nobody could ever play that main theme the way Herrmann did and somehow, it got replaced by a slower version on the official soundtracks, which I don't understand. The rest of the score sounds identical to the way it was before to me, meaning it wasn't re-orchestrated, although pieces are sometimes put in spots where there wasn't any music originally, like when Norman sends Marion's car off into the swamp and when the psychiatrist is explaining the depths of his psychosis at the end, and they're sometimes arranged around in different ways.
There are some songs on the soundtrack, although most of them I didn't pick up on when I re-watched the movie because of the weird way the film's audio was done on the website I watched it on. Apparently, Rob Zombie's Living Dead Girl can be heard playing when Marion stops at the car dealership but I didn't hear it, which irritated me because that's the only song by him I like (I only ever heard it because it's on the soundtrack for Bride of Chucky, which came out the same year). The ending credits feature an interesting piece of music called Weepy Doughnuts by Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz, which is an odd electronic, guitar-based arrangement that features a couple of recreations of Herrmann's main title theme. It's very odd and rather creepy-sounding at points and, to me, is actually one of the film's best aspects, as is the way the ending credits expand on the original's final shot of Marion's car being dragged out of the swamp, with the camera slowly moving upwards as the police wrap up their investigation of the crime scene and drive off, ending on a silent shot of the swamp with the highway in the background. That's very effective, reminding me of the actual beginning of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, and is something I think Alfred Hitchcock himself would've liked (too bad the rest of the movie is nothing more than a pointless copy of his film).
I'm really hoping that this is the title from this movie. It and
the original's are absolutely identical, making it hard to
determine which one you have while looking for images.