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(Credit: Universal Pictures)

The strange case of Gus Van Sant's 'Psycho' remake

It would be wrong not to consider the fact that remakes, redesigns and reboots have been around from the dawn of time, not just the 1990s. Shakespeare borrowed the plot of Hamlet from his Elizabethan predecessors, and films of the silent era were updated with sound and colour throughout the 20th century. For cinema, it seems as though few films are truly sacred, with even the masterworks of Alfred Hitchcock are twisted and remade, from 1998s A Perfect Murder, based on Dial M for Murder, to Gus Van Sant’s strange remake of Psycho in the same year.

Though, whilst most remakes merely take the essence and basic plot points of the original story, Gus Van Sant took a more experimental approach with 1998s Psycho, remaking the film almost shot-for-shot. Several online comparisons show the similarities between the two films side-by-side, with Van Sant’s only considerable changes coming in the move away from monochrome, the new cast and an updated ’90s setting.

Closely copying Alfred Hitchcock’s camera movements and editing techniques, Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score is also recycled to punctuate the terror behind the mind of Norman Bates. It creates a truly strange feeling of déjà vu that becomes clear once you realise Gus Van Sant isn’t trying to create his own movie, he is directly emulating Hitchcock’s whilst adding his own moments of flair. As a result, the film was received poorly and was a critical and commercial failure, receiving awards for Worst Remake and Worst Director at the Golden Raspberry nominations, the antithesis of the Academy Awards.

Though, with the benefit of hindsight and with the knowledge of the changing commercialisation of Hollywood at the turn of the 21st century, Gus Van Sant’s blatant remake of Psycho becomes an altogether more interesting case study. During a recent appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast discussing his latest film Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, the director commented on his time on the Hitchcock remake, noting, “I think the process of doing it was the learning, it wasn’t necessarily the result”. 

“It wasn’t really about learning about Hitchcock, it was more that during the ’90s the joke about the executives was that they would rather make a sequel than they would an original piece, because there was less risk,” the director continued. It was during the production of 1989s Drugstore Cowboy that Van Sant discussed the possibility of a remake of an original property with Universal, wherein the director suggested Psycho. “The whole thing seemed experimental to me anyway so I thought why not, and they laughed, they thought it was silly, ridiculous, absurd, and they left—they said, ‘We won’t be doing that,'” he commented. 

The result is certainly an interesting one, copying Hitchock’s style and techniques with only occasional nods to Van Sant’s own fingerprints. With the same spirit and storyline of the original film, however, it is certainly not without merit, with even iconic director Quentin Tarantino even commenting that he prefers Van Sant’s version over Hitchock’s in an interview with Bret Easton Ellis. 

As a monument to the commercialisation of 21st-century filmmaking, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho is a fascinating experiment, with the director admitting, “So it didn’t work. But the idea was whether or not you could remake something and it would repeat the box office. That was the sort of weird science experiment”. Whilst Psycho was received with venomous rage in the late 1990s, its legacy stands more as an Avante Garde statement of absurdity, a middle-finger from Vant Sant to Hollywood, as opposed to the great British master of suspense.

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