Rated R - Running time: 1:48 - Released 12/4/98

It strikes me as strange and a little sad that movie producers are so bereft of ideas that they must pay the rent by making copies of classic films with no new creative input. Universal's new Psycho is not a re-interpretation. I'm talking carbon copy. At least this is not quite as flagrantly opportunistic as the recent practice of re-releasing the old goods in a new wrapper.

Luckily, a talented cast was chosen by producer/director Gus Van Sant (whose most notable project to date has been last year's Good Will Hunting). While his Psycho can't look like more than a reverent re-hash compared to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 version, it does adequately well with the original script by Joseph Stefano, based on the book by Robert Bloch. Van Sant's choice to use all the same camera angles, cinematic elements, and music, while not a gutsy move, is certainly respectful proof that Hitchcock's formula worked. The thing is, we don't need more proof, so why do it? The answer is obvious: The execs at Universal want new cars.

Since the script was exactly the same (with a few updates), we all know the story: Marion Crane (Anne Heche), entrusted with her boss's money (now $400,000) which she was supposed to deposit in the bank, skips town to join her boyfriend Sam (Viggo Mortensen). On the way she stops at a quiet motel run by Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn). Norman seems nice enough, but when Marion overhears his domineering mother in the house behind the motel, berating him for cozying up to the young woman, she senses something's wrong. She finds out she's right when she gets murdered in the shower by a mysterious woman with grey hair and a butcher knife.

When Marion's people back home start missing her, her sister Lila (Julianne Moore) sends a private investigator (William H. Macy) to find her. But then he disappears without a trace, so Lila and Sam go themselves. Finally they unravel the deep, dark, unsettling secrets surrounding Norman Bates and his mother. And incidentally, according to the date printed on the screen, it's all going to go down this weekend.

It's surprising to note that this film, mostly well-acted, is somewhat lacking on the technical side, which is what Hollywood usually does best these days. The famous shower scene, with the dilated pupil and blood circling the drain, is perhaps the least believable scene. The spinning close-up of Heche's eye is effective, but the blood looks much more fake than the chocolate syrup used in Hitchcock's black-and-white version. You can actually see particles floating around as it goes down the drain, like they used powdered tempera paint or something. And the moment where Marion is stabbed looks jerky, like stop-motion animation. Perhaps Van Sant intended this, to adhere to the constraints of 1960 special effects. But it just looks dumb.

While Heche and Vaughn worked well together in this summer's Return To Paradise, their chemistry seems a little off here. Maybe they were distracted by the ghost of Hitchcock looking over their shoulders. But generally, the acting is sufficient, especially by those two and Macy, who have the lion's share of the job.

Stylistically, Psycho is still scary and still engaging for the fan of murder mysteries, and Bernard Herrmann's tense musical score is just as effective as it was in 1960. But if you want the real thing, it's out there, at your local video rental store. Look for the one with the name "Hitchcock" on the cover. ***½

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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