In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock shocked the world with Psycho, his twisted take on the horror genre that generated acclaim and controversy in equal measure. The film outraged censors with its slasher violence, surprised the studio with its box office success, and changed the face of the industry forever.
In 1998, Gus Van Sant angered the world with Psycho, his near-exact shot-for-shot remake that drove critics into a furious rage and tarred his name in Hollywood for many years. But is there more to this story than simply a car crash remake gone wrong? Dig deeper into the whole affair and you’ll find a perfect storm of a disgruntled director facing off against a rinse and repeat industry based more and more on recycled ideas.
To begin to understand this most notorious chapter in Hollywood history, we need to start with Van Sant. He has always been a very tricky filmmaker to define, someone who is best known for his commercially successful mainstream vehicles like Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, and Milk but who cut his teeth on smaller independent projects like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho.
To further complicate things, in the early 2000s Van Sant increasingly strayed into experimental formats with his series of films known as the Death Trilogy, all featuring minimal dialogue and precariously traversing the border between fiction and non-fiction storytelling. So although Van Sant may appear at first glance to be a Hollywood-friendly filmmaker, his repeated forays into more unconventional styles tell a far more interesting story.
On Marc Maron’s WTF podcast in 2018, Van Sant addressed the Psycho fiasco and offered some insights about how the project came about. What quickly became clear was how frustrated Van Sant had become with the studio system. After the success of Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant found he was “all of a sudden meeting with the heads of studios because they knew that actors would work with me… so it was less about me than it was about the actors.” Van Sant clearly felt like he was being used by the studios to leverage high-profile actors into appearing in their films, scouting the director for his reputation rather than his talent.
To add to this frustration, he recounted a meeting with Universal in which he was told “‘in the library we have old films that you could remake, we have scripts that haven’t been made yet that you could make,’ and it just reminded me of that thing that they wanted to do, which is remake something.” Clearly the majority of interactions Van Sant had with major studios in this period were overwhelmingly negative, and this played a huge role in cementing his jaded view of the scene.
But it was not until the success of Good Will Hunting that Van Sant saw the true ruthless reality of Hollywood. Although he missed out on the Oscar for best director to James Cameron, Van Sant was immediately swamped by the studios, who were now extremely desperate to pin him down for a new project. He had previously pitched the shot-for-shot Psycho remake to Universal 10 years prior and had been told it was “silly, ridiculous, absurd,” but following his sudden jump into the spotlight, Universal told him “‘We think that’s a really brilliant idea.’” And suddenly, simply based on the fact that he had been Oscar nominated, Van Sant was given a staggering $60 million budget to replicate one of horror’s most notorious and revered classics.
The project was kept under lock and key by Universal until its release in December 1998 and there was a sense of nervous excitement about what this much-hyped director would turn to next. The result was, to put it lightly, a colossal disaster. It was panned by critics across the board as “completely unnecessary” and “pointless,” while Van Sant’s Oscar loss was further compounded by the Razzies awarding him “Worst Director.” Most importantly for Universal, the film also sank at the box office, earning just $37 million, just over half of its budget, which was in sharp contrast to Hitchcock’s original making roughly $32 million against a slim budget of only $800,000.
A lot has been said about the shot-for-shot, line-for-line structure of Van Sant’s project that makes it such an unusual anomaly in Hollywood’s remake culture and attracted so many baffled reactions. But what people have often failed to mention is that it is not actually a complete carbon copy.
Aside from the fact that there is obviously a different cast in Van Sant’s version and the time period has been bumped up to the late 90s, a number of additional touches were also made to Hitchcock’s original. These range from the minor, like quickening the pace of the first act, to the more intrusive, which includes the addition of strange unexplained images to the film’s slasher sequences like shots of a cloudy sky and a cow stranded on a road.
But by far the biggest break from the original comes in the sequence where Norman meets Marion, the pivotal part of Hitchcock’s film that displayed his incredible ability to control the audience as if they were helplessly perched right in the palm of his hand. In the original version, Anthony Perkins’ Norman spies through a hole in the wall as Marion (Janet Leigh) undresses in the room next door. It is shot from a side angle and zoomed in so we only see Norman’s eye squinting through the hole in almost pitch darkness, shrouding ever more mystery around his character and his ominous intentions for Marion.
In Van Sant’s version, matters certainly get a little more out of hand. We see Vince Vaughn’s Norman approach the wall and lean down towards it, with the same side shot of Norman’s eye peering at Marion (Anne Heche). Except this time it is accompanied by the disturbing sound of Norman masturbating. Besides the deep mental scarring that comes with seeing Vince Vaughn’s orgasm face, it is a horribly bad addition to the scene and quickly melts down all the intriguing layers of Norman’s relationship with Marion into plain lust. I can only imagine what Perkins’ reaction would’ve been had he been alive to see this scene.
There are stories that Hitchcock was interested in the possibilities of wiring up cinema seats to send electric shocks to audiences to further amp up the suspense, but this definitely wouldn’t have been needed for Van Sant’s remake, the cinematic equivalent of being tasered for an hour and 45 minutes. But what if the failure of the remake actually proved Van Sant was right in his criticisms of Hollywood?
Even though the director has himself since admitted that he hoped the film would be a commercial success, he has also spoken of his realisation while on set that, whether you replicate something shot for shot or try and improve it, “It’s still your own film. I’m not really the same type of person as Alfred Hitchcock, and you really need that thing that he was in order for Psycho to work in the way that it should.”
Van Sant viewed the whole project as a sort of “weird science experiment” to see “whether or not you could remake something and it would repeat the box office” and so perhaps its failure exposed far more important truths about the innate flaws that lay at the center of Hollywood’s obsession with remakes. Because the reality was that as soon as Van Sant decided to tackle one of Hitchcock’s greatest accomplishments, it was doomed to failure whether he tried to replicate it exactly or improve on it by rushing the film’s pacing or amping up the pulpy slasher violence. As Van Sant quickly discovered, it’s impossible to recapture the magic of the past.
Of course all of these theories are very much up for debate, and it is completely understandable if you refuse to accept any sort of reappraisal of this much despised project. But what makes the Psycho remake worth remembering, above all else, is the incredible bitterness and disappointment that flows through the whole thing. Van Sant was a rising filmmaker thrust suddenly into the light and his experiences in Hollywood clearly changed and shaped the rest of his career.
This is why I like to see his Psycho remake not just as a rip-off, but also as a major middle-finger to the studio system. Why else would someone cast Vince Vaughn as a masturbating killer other than to laugh in the face of a broken system? Within a few years of the remake’s release and after one more commercial success with Finding Forrester, Van Sant would take a solid 180 back into the world of independent filmmaking with his Death Trilogy and he has never fully returned to the world of big-budget studio projects. But Van Sant had made his mark in a big way and his Psycho remake would continue to haunt Universal for years to come. Stick it to the man, Gus.