Since it was released in December 1998, Gus Van Sant’s remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho has been one of the most polarising films in recent times.
The psychological thriller boasts a colourful cast with faces Vince Vaughn, Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy and Anne Heche all starring. It also features some stellar cinematography. The one scene that always persists in my mind is the commanding opening shot of the skyline of modern-day Phoenix, Arizona, which confirmed in an instant that the film was to follow Hitchcock’s original closely, just with a more edgy and contemporary twist.
Before this shot, Pablo Ferro’s opening title sequence captures the original’s ominous atmosphere but transposes it for the ’90s audience, with the use of that slightly luminous green establishing that evil is about to take place. For many, the opening couple of minutes is where the film starts and ends, however, I’d argue that there are many brilliant parts of Van Sant’s film, it’s just that people are so heavily fixated with the original that they cannot look past it.
Interestingly, the film is a very close remake of Hitchcock’s 1960 film, following the same narrative where an embezzler, Marion Crane, goes on the run and arrives at a secluded motel run by the unsettling Norman Bates. The chain of events that ensues is chaotic, to say the least.
The main difference between the two versions is that Van Sant’s is in colour and that it is set in 1998, although many of the shots and editing were copied straight from the original, as was most of Joseph Stefano and Alma Reville’s script. Notably, one area where I’d argue Van Sant’s is better than the original is the murder sequences, which are intercut with surreal montages, creating a nightmare-like feeling.
Following on from this, Bernard Herrmann’s timeless score is reused, but in a stroke of genius, it was rearranged in stereo by Danny Elfman and Steve Bartek to create something refreshing and equally as chilling. The pair enacted some minor changes with the electronic technology at their disposal, but this was to show how much society had developed since 1960. Furthermore, the film clearly has some merit, as Quentin Tarantino has publicly stated that he prefers Van Sant’s version to Hitchcock’s.
Whilst we could spend all day drawing comparisons between both films, there is something else significant about the film: Vince Vaughn’s performance. Vaughn is primarily known as a funny man who has starred in classic 2000s comedies such as Old School, Wedding Crashers, The Break-Up and the remake of Starsky & Hutch, but as we’ve found over the last few years, he’s also an adept dramatic actor, just as capable of delivering serious performances as funny ones, as his roles in True Detective, Hacksaw Ridge, Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete display.
Reflecting his commitment to the film, even though some of his co-stars in Psycho – such as Macy, chose to stay true to the original – Vaughn, as well as Julianne Moore, interpreted the dialogue and scenes differently, which has subsequently allowed the film to exist in its own distinct space removed from the original.
Yes, you could criticise his performance of Norman Bates for being a little bit over the top at points, but as a whole, Vaughn deserves more credit for it, and his display is by far the most memorable in the film. He brings an intense Generation X style of unhinged to the character, leaning on the Freudian themes of Hitchcock’s version and Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name, but making them more terrifying with the spectre of the internet age and all its dark knowledge looming.
Given that the demeanour of Vaughn’s Bates espouses is much more affable than Anthony Perkins’, you also cannot help yourself from feeling sorry for him, which you barely do across all of Hitchcock’s original in what is another indication that Vaughn had managed to put his own slant on such an iconic character, which is a mean feat in itself.
We know that this was not the first time Vince Vaughn had acted in a drama, as that year’s Return to Paradise is also of note, but this was the role in which he started to truly make artistic strides and construct a more multi-faceted character than he’d ever done before. Through this performance, he effectively laid the foundations for the masterfully dramatic turns he’d give us over the 2010s.