Does the world need another "Psycho"? Probably not, but an extra one doesn't hurt.
In one of this year's most talked-about cinematic experiments, underground-to-indie-to-mainstream director Gus Van Sant has orchestrated a shot-by-shot re-creation of Alfred Hitchcock's horror classic.
With a young, fresh cast and an equally vibrant look, the new "Psycho" will no doubt prove groundbreaking to teen-agers who think this stuff started with "Scream." Hitchcock buffs with absolutely nothing better to do than to satisfy their curiosity won't be offended by Van Sant's tribute to the master, which has been given added verve by cinematographer Christopher Doyle's vivid photography.
Indeed, Doyle gets things off to a suitably exhilarating start with a glorious crane shot looking over downtown Phoenix, then swooping into a seedy hotel room, where a secretary named, oddly enough, Marion Crane (played in the original by Janet Leigh and here by Anne Heche) consorts with her lover (Viggo Mortenson). Pillow talk reveals that the only thing standing in the way of their being together is money; when Marion returns to work and her boss gives her $400,000 in cash to deposit, the poor girl's heart gets in the way of her head.
On the lam, Marion nearly has a breakdown dodging a suspicious sheriff, until she finally finds shelter at the Bates Motel. There, proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins then, Vince Vaughn now) provides sandwiches, a few scintillating anecdotes about taxidermy and, yes, a nice hot shower. For the benefit of newbies, let the synopsis mercifully end here.
Van Sant has assembled a terrific cast to reprise the Hitchcock classic, most of whose cast members -- with the exception of Leigh and Perkins -- are now forgotten. William H. Macy rehabilitates his larcenous image from "Fargo" as a sweetly dogged private detective, and Julianne Moore has doffed her sweet image as a motherly porn star in "Boogie Nights" for Marion's tough cookie of a sister. Best is Vaughn, who doesn't have Perkins' lanky nervousness, but whose manic giggle (last seen in the forgettable "Clay Pigeons") comes in handy here, as does his command of Norman's fey, slightly slinky sensuality.
Much has been made of Van Sant's shot-by-shot faithfulness to Hitchcock's original vision, and this "Psycho" does seem on the money, although the director has bowed to this year's fashion dTC and inserted a masturbation scene, and Marion's sister cries, "Let me get my Walkman" before going to see the town sheriff. The real homage here isn't to Hitchcock so much as to composer Bernard Herrmann, whose masterful score of screeching violins has been adapted by Danny Elfman.
Was this experiment worth doing? Yes and no. If it introduces new audiences to Hitchcock, all the better. And if anything, the new "Psycho" testifies to just how revolutionary the original was when it was released in 1960.
But it's difficult to see what's in it for Van Sant. When a director tackles a play that's been done before, he is free to bring out emphases, meanings and details that might have been obscured in the earlier work. But there's no such expressive freedom in a shot-by-shot re-creation; after all, in movies, the shots are the text.
"Psycho" is fun, and its swamp of desires and dangerous impulses still steams with Freudian relevance. But upon seeing "Psycho," Van Sant's admirers will probably want to tell the director that play time's over. It's time to make a movie.
Starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Released by Universal Pictures
Rated R (violence, sexuality, nudity)
Running time: 105 minutes
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 12/05/98