Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Make vs. Remake: Psycho


It's been a while since I did one of these posts, and Macabre Republic wasn't around in 1998 when Gus Van Sant helmed the ostensible shot-for-shot remake, so I thought what the hell...

For any newcomers, the scoring for Make vs. Remake works on a 10-point-divvy system.  Think of 10 gold coins placed on the opposing arms of a scale (e.g., a "7-3" score would tilt the scales
toward the original, or a "2-8" would weigh in much more favorably for the remake).

So let's compare:

*The most obvious difference between the 1960 and 1998 versions is that the latter is filmed in color.  This choice gives the remake a more modern feel (the film is actually set in the year 1998), but simultaneously dilutes the atmosphere of Gothic horror and noir crime (two genres that wilfully lurk in the shadows).  On the positive side, color does allow Van Sant to accentuate the garishness of the Bates Motel.

*Vince Vaughn's turn as iconic psycho Norman Bates is one of the more underrated performances of the past quarter-century of cinema.  He adds plenty to the role, with his recurrent nervous giggle and his eccentric manner of chomping on his candy.  Vaughn cuts a more menacing figure than the effete Anthony Perkins, and those dark bags under his eyes give him a wonderfully haunted look. 

*Conversely, Anne Hecht is woefully miscast as Marion Crane.  She has very expressive eyes, but with her slender physique and chopped hairstyle, the actress lacks the feminine allure that Janet Leigh exuded.

*The shower scene.  Nothing will ever be able to match the original for sheer shock value; those shrill violin notes working in sync with the knife-stabs struck a primal chord in mid-20th Century filmgoers.  But Hitchcock took a very stylized approach, and if there is one negative that can be said about the scene, it is that Leigh's responses (vs. Hecht's) to the violent assault don't seem very natural.  The remake also enjoys a more striking contrast between the whiteness of the bathroom and the red blood splashed across it (one of the reasons Hitchcock allegedly chose to film in black-and-white was that he felt the shower scene would prove too gory otherwise).  And that white fright-wig that "Mrs. Bates" sports in the remake?  Disturbingly ghastly.

*The Arbogast slashing in the remake, though, fails to stand up to the original.  The splicing of random images (of a sprawling, masked woman and of a cow in the middle of a highway) proved more jarring and confusing than symbolic.  Here's an instance where Van Sant should have stuck more closely to the original's script.

*Finally, the climactic scene in which Mother's corpse is discovered and Norman appears in drag does unfold more realistically in the remake (vs. the tableau of a contorted Perkins silently shrieking as he's seized from behind).  The struggle to subdue Norman is more protracted--and more rewarding, when Julianne Moore (as Lila Crane) gets in a decisive, sister-avenging lick.  Bonus points for the bird-enclosing diorama that Mother sits facing (which adds a creepy, Silence-of-the-Lambs-type vibe) and that nasty spider scurrying across Mrs. Bates's face.

For the first time in the history of this feature, we have a split vote (or, more accurately: a double vote).  The original packed a series of startling surprises for its audience, and that fact alone sets it above anything that followed in its wake.  So I would give a 6-4 score in favor of the Hitchcock classic.  But for a younger generation seeing the Van Sant offering fresh, with no prior experience of the 1960 version, the remake is remarkably effective (and, in retrospect, a more polished piece of filmmaking).  With this in mind, I would also flip the the numbers and score 4-6 in slight favor of the '98 Psycho.

What are your thoughts on these two films?  Feel free to chime in below in the Comments section of this post.

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