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Psycho Babble

Hitchcock redone, but definitely not outdone

I'm no movie buff, but if I were a director, I'd want to be Gus Van Sant. No one else in the industry creates images as gripping and memorable: River Phoenix drooling on asphalt in <I>My Own Private Idaho</I>; Illeana Douglas skating frosty circles in the final scene of <I>To Die For</I>. So why then, in updating <I>Psycho</I>, did Van Sant attempt to recreate the film exactly as it first appeared to its wide-eyed 1960 drive-in audiences? I read his explanation in a recent interview (homage to Hitchcock, respect for the story...), but I'm still somewhat perplexed. Seems to me, if it was that perfect and timeless to start with, you might as well leave it alone.

The opening credits, in stark green and black retro design, pumped up an audience already saturated with media hype. Is it my imagination or are Vince Vaughn and Ann Heche on the cover of every magazine this month? To be honest, the casting works. Those who couldn't quite picture the slick-talking <I>Swingers</I> star playing homely Norman Bates will be surprised by his convincing pervert act -- he's no Anthony Perkins, but he brings a different and more sexual creepiness to the role. And Ann Heche has the combined physical grace and rabbity eyes to pull off Janet Leigh, or at least a decent mockery of Hitchcock's greedy-good-girl-who-gets-it.

The problem is that, unlike Van Sant's earlier work, the only thing exceptional about this film is how faithful it is to its predecessor. Not that it isn't good. See it. You'll like it. But then ask yourself if it's the modern version that you like or just your well-preserved memories of the original. To place it in context and out of the shadow of its big name daddy, <I>Psycho</I> junior is fun but flat. No way is saucy urbanite Marion Crane (Ann Heche) interested in oafish Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen). And the use of big name stars like William H. Macy and Julianne Moore is just distracting since the roles aren't meaty enough to require such capable actors -- it's like seeing Meryl Streep do a toothpaste commercial.

The shocking climax of the film is a lot less shocking in the wake of modern thrillers like <I>Silence of the Lambs</I>, in which the bad guy peels people's skin off and prances around in women's clothes. And when Robert Forster appears out of nowhere as a psychiatrist who explains Norman's inner workings, modern psycho-savvy viewers have to roll their eyes. Much better is the new, more grisly shower scene, and the "dialogues" between Bates and his bitchy old mom. Those recapture the stomach-churning energy 60's audiences must have felt.

The sixteen-year-old I saw <I>Psycho</I> with never saw the original (didn't even know the ending) and I waited eagerly to see what he thought. "That was kinda weird," he said as we left AMC 1000. And he was right -- it was kinda weird but not nearly as shocking and brilliant as the original.


Rated R
1 hour 49 minutes

Anne Heche
Vince Vaughn
Viggo Mortensen
Julianne Moore
William H. Macy
Robert Forster
Rita Wilson