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*** 106 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, December 4, 1998
Directed by Gus Van Sant

Starring Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, William H. Macy & Julianne Moore


On the big screen this remake was a bold, if ill-advised, experiment. On the big screen I liked it for just that reason. On video, however, it's little more than a novelty. Why would you rent the 1998 "Psycho" over the original? No reason I can think of, unless you're getting both for a compare and contrast, which would certainly be entertaining for film buffs.

   VIDEO RELASE: 6/8/1999

Precision 'Psycho' reproduction a gutsy cinematic experiment

By Rob Blackwelder

In retrospect, I don't know why I was dubious about Gus Van Sant's reproduction of "Psycho."

I mean, forgetting "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," the guy has an excellent track record. I had no reason to doubt him, especially since his wholly original (for lack of a less ironic word) approach to this remake was to copy Alfred Hitchcock's classic nearly shot-for-shot. If you have a good cast, which this movie does, what's to screw up?

For all practical purposes, this "Psycho" is a color Xerox of Hitchcock's film, the granddaddy of all modern horror movies. Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting," "To Die For") wanted to copy nearly every line of dialogue and camera angle so precisely that he actually used video captures of the 1960 film as storyboards. He even duplicates The Master's cameo in the same scene, talking to a Hitchcock doppelganger, no less.

Vince Vaughn stars as a less androgynous, more subtly off-kilter Norman Bates, the hermit hotel manager with the Oedipus complex that leans toward necrophilia. His unblinking, unsettling grin and impish titter hint at a malignancy that is buried a little deeper than it was in Anthony Perkins' immortal portrayal.

Anne Heche plays a somewhat more savvy, although no less flighty, Marion Crane, the unfortunate marriage-minded embezzler who gets whacked in the famous shower scene -- reproduced here so faithfully it's scary (pardon the pun) -- after inadvertently rousing Norman's inner demons.

This gutsy cinematic experiment is more than just a curiosity. It's an intelligent homage (at times even a spoof) and still a bit of a hand-wringer, even though pop culture has spoiled all the surprises.

For those weaned on modern horror films, this "Psycho" serves as a lesson on how less can be more. Even in the '90s, Norman Bates doesn't need to slay a dorm full of nubile teenagers to get you on edge. This is not a movie dependent on adrenaline. It's a movie about the psychology of fear, which permeates every element of the story from Marion's nervous flight from Phoenix with $400,000 to Norman's equivocating in the face of questioning by a private detective (William H. Macy, in the Martin Balsam role).

For those who know the original "Psycho" well, there is much to admire here as the attention to detail (even the lighting is often reproduced exactly) forces flashbacks that make one marvel at Van Sant's precision. The director replicates everything from the title sequence to the blocking to the spiraling camerawork and flash editing that help make the shower scene a candidate for the most memorable sequence in cinema history. Even some of the costumes suggest the 1960s, although the film is set in December 1998.

The actors are allowed some freedom, and the reinterpreted performances are uniformly strong, as one would expect from the likes of Vaughn, Heche, Macy and Julianne Moore, who plays Marion's worried sister. But otherwise, Van Sant treats his inspiration like the Bible -- even commissioning Danny Elfman to unwaveringly recreate Bernard Herrmann's unforgettable score.

The "Psycho" redeaux is not a masterpiece, and it isn't meant to be. It does have its flaws, like the fact that Vaughn looks pretty damn silly in a dress and a wig. And in an age when we've been conditioned to expect a climactic showdown in all thrillers, the loquacious epilogue feels a bit anti-climactic.

But even if Van Sant hasn't equaled the accomplishment of the original (and in fairness, how could he?), he captures its spirit in the same way a good Broadway revival can.

Every director has dreamed of being Alfred Hitchcock. Van Sant found a way to do it. Bully for him.

The important thing for Hollywood to realize now is that the idea of the shot-for-shot remake was clever only once, and now it's been done.

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