Psycho (1999) Review

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Bernard Hermann's strings shriek, Saul Bass' credits glide across the screen, and there goes Marion Crane, drawn through a desert rainstorm to the neon "motel" beacon. The room rates have gone up, and it's impish Anne Heche now checking in. Still, if it looks, sounds and feels like Psycho, then it is Psycho, isn't it?

Since it was announced that Gus Van Sant was to redo Hitchcock's 1960 classic, the film fanatics' outcry was immediate, critical knives were hastily sharpened and industry buzz yo-yoed from "absolutely dire" to "a magnificent coup". Van Sant, purists claimed, must be psycho himself to want to hack up this masterpiece, the only horror film Hitchcock made and arguably his most famous work. But as Van Sant retorted, he has gone for "replica" more than "remake". Quite why is another matter, but his rumoured obsession with replication - same script, same angles, same six week shooting schedule - has made Psycho '98 an intriguing proposition.

You probably know the set-up; insurance worker Marion Crane (Heche) goes on the lam with a bootload of loot, checks into a sleazy motel, gets stabbed - and a pursuing pack tries to fathom out the connection between the crime, motelier Norman Bates (here played by Vaughn) and his mysterious mother. But there are plenty who won't have seen it, which is why revamping a film decades later is no less sacrilegious than Hitchcock himself having a stab at it, redoing his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) in 1956.

That Hitchcock was deemed the only man worthy of remaking Hitchcock, though, is telling. Much imitated and with other rehashes - such as the recent A Perfect Murder -failing dismally, few have come close to replicating the Master's extraordinary ability to wring tension and black humour. But Van Sant, to his credit, pulls off the visuals, not exactly a shot-for-shot retread (there is extra information thrown in about Bates' domestic life, for example) but as near as dammit - he even throws in a nifty sight gag by replaying the original director's crossing-the-road cameo using a Hitchcock double.

But how Van Sant has underestimated Hitchcock's savvy casting. The original Psycho got away with the revolutionary concept of having its heroine exit in the first half because the aftermath became a compelling a game of intrigue, sustained by the brilliant Anthony Perkins. Psycho '98, by comparison, seems all downhill from its early bathroom crescendo. The sorry shower of entrants into the drama - the sister (Julianne Moore), the boyfriend (Viggo Mortensen) and, a bit more chipper, the gumshoe (William H. Macy) - seem insufficiently threatened by New Model Norman. It's not that Vince Vaughn doesn't pull off Perkins' creepy fidgets and stammers, he just seems too wholesome and beer boy to convince as a nerd still tied to Mother's apron strings.

Perhaps one addition in Psycho '98 - Vaughn masturbating while spying on Heche - says more about this update than anything else. The thrill of the original is seeing a black-and-white, one-foot-on-the-floor, no-sex-please Hays Code world suddenly explode into a slasher movie. Our loss of innocence has, simply, changed all the rules.