It is a warm December day in Phoenix, Arizona and as it's lunchtime Marion Crane (Anne Heche) has taken the opportunity to spend the hour in bed with her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen). But after their break from the world, their conversation turns once again to money: they would like to take their relationship further, but simply cannot afford it, and Sam's protests that he can find the funds they need sound like hollow promises to Marion. Once she has returned to work, she is in the office chatting with her co-worker (Rita Wilson) when the boss enters the place with a client - a client who wants to entrust her with taking a $400,000 to the bank for him this afternoon. Tempting...
Even now, it is difficult to find anyone who would endorse Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho, the Alfred Hitchcock classic from 1960 that arguably changed cinema forever into what we recognise it as today. It was such a behemoth that just about everyone thought Van Sant had taken leave of his senses when this project was announced, though Hitch himself had remade one of his works in The Man Who Knew Too Much; the question was, would he have remade Psycho, in colour? Film buffs were up in arms, modern moviegoers in 1998 were not interested in a redo that preserved just about every shot without updating anything, and as a result the film crashed at the cinema to be one of its year's flops.
Now it looks even weirder, since it was made just before the point when a Psycho remake would have become impossible in the methods Van Sant envisaged, to whit: no mobile phones. The inclusion of that device would have made a mockery of the plot as dreamt up all those years ago by Robert Bloch, and naturally Joseph Stefano's screenplay was not going to include them in 1960, yet watching it now it comes across as from an era where Marion could have whipped out her phone at any time and cleared up any misunderstandings, leaving her fate as seen here unlikely thanks to that technology. This only adds to the artificiality, never mind the artifice, of a Psycho so close to the Millennium.
What was clearer, however, was that Van Sant was not approaching this as if he were Hitchcock somehow still around in the nineties, he was trying the same story from his more homosexual outlook, either ironic or apt in consideration of the villain's actual identity (crisis). So when we were in the hotel room at the start, Viggo treated us to a shot of his arse, and there were arty inserts into sequences of horror more reminiscent of the director's work in so-called queer cinema, in fact the whole thing was infused with that styling, plus Bates, well, 'bates. Which would be all very well, but another sticking point was in the casting, as Vince Vaughn playing motel owner Norman Bates in retrospect carried far too much baggage from his roster of bro comedies to be convincing as a social misfit spending his time isolated with only his mother to talk to.
Well, he could be a convincing social misfit, one supposed, there's more than one flavour, many more, Vaughn was just not a Norman Bates, and you kept expecting him to high five someone or chug back a beer or three. Not Van Sant's fault, but it was a stumbling block, particularly as his star's one step back interpretation had no feel for the character, doing everything but wink to the camera "What a weirdo, amirite?!" Marion's sister Lila, too, was an odd choice, no longer vulnerable yet dogged but a ball-busting harridan curiously overplayed by the usually reliable Julianne Moore, and Mortensen was evidently instructed to aim for "nice but dim". Perhaps from the era where sampling in music had truly taken hold the '98 Psycho was more of its time than anything in its source, you'd be thinking "I know this song", or its equivalent, even if you had not seen the Hitchcock original (Bernard Herrmann's score was reused as well). And yet, it was such a strange project that it resembled someone dreaming of Psycho after watching it immediately before bed, familiar but far from the real deal, its authenticity drained by what looked surreally false. That it was never going to succeed made it all the more bizarre.
Vaguely arty American director whose films rarely seem quite as satisfying as they should. Drugstore Cowboy remains his best effort, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues undoubtedly his worst. My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, Columbine shootings-based Elephant and Kurt Cobain-inspired Last Days have their fans, and Good Will Hunting was a big success, but the scene-for-scene Psycho remake must be his oddest venture. After a decade of experimentation, including desert trek oddity Gerry, he returned to the mainstream in 2008 with the award-winning biopic Milk then reverted to smaller projects once more, including biopic Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot.