That's the question everybody keeps asking about Gus Van Sant's scene-by-scene remake of Psycho. Actually, Van Sant prefers the word "replica." For, truth be told, his Psycho isn't just a scene-by-scene remake of Alfred Hitchcock's spine-tingling, bone-chilling, mind-boggling masterpiece, it's a shot-by-shot remake, nearly a frame-by-frame remake, although with subtle and not-so-subtle changes that 1) make no difference at all and 2) make all the difference in the world. So, what was he thinking? Did he think he was paying tribute to Hitchcock, even though Hitchcock needs another tribute about as much as Norman Bates needs another psychiatric examination? Did he think he was introducing the movie to a whole new generation, even though the movie--the "real" movie--has been available on video for years? Did he think he could make a quick buck off a title that long ago lodged itself in our collective unconscious, like a bloody butcher's knife? Or, in the far corners of Van Sant's mind, where his admiration for Hitchcock fuses with his own artistic ego, did he think he could bring the master of suspense back to life by murdering his own directorial impulses? Let's take a look at Van Sant's own explanation of what he's up to. "I guess I thought it would be fun," the director of such idiosyncratic films as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho recently told Newsweek--a nonexplanatory explanation worthy of Hitchcock himself. Elusively reserved, Hitchcock never liked to talk about the why of his movies, only the how--e.g., how he pulled off a difficult shot. About Psycho, a movie that would forever change the way we think about motels, showers and taxidermy, he had this to say: "It's a film made with quite a sense of amusement. It's a fun picture." There's that word again--fun. For Hitchcock, it was the fun of scaring the bejesus out of people. "You see, it's rather like taking them through the haunted house at the fairground," he once told an interviewer. But what about for Van Sant? What's the fun of taking us through that same haunted house again--a house that some of us know so well we could build it ourselves if we wanted to? Why did Van Sant want to? Over the years, there have been two Psycho sequels and any number of movies that were directly influenced by Psycho, from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Dressed to Kill all the way to Silence of the Lambs and Primal Fear. The slasher film, from Halloween to Scream, is also part of Psycho's murderous offspring. But a scene-by-scene remake? Isn't that redundant? Alternatively: Isn't it romantic? Isn't imitation the highest form of flattery? I'm going to argue that Van Sant knew exactly what he was doing, and that he's done exactly what he set out to do. Was it worth doing? That comes later. First, we need to sort through the what and the how to come up with the why.... The new Psycho is in color--a minor point, but some of us would argue that black-and-white is scarier than color, turning the whole world into a land of shadows wherein good and evil vie for supremacy. As Van Sant undoubtedly knows, Hitchcock went with black-and-white largely in order to save money, but what Van Sant doesn't seem to know is that Hitchcock turned this limitation into an advantage. Because it was done on the cheap, the movie reminded audiences of that weekly danse macabre on television, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Except Psycho was like an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" drenched in blood. For audiences, as for Marion Crane, the shower scene seemed to come out of nowhere. The new Psycho is set in 1998--a minor point, but it raises all sorts of nagging questions. First and foremost: Haven't the characters seen Psycho? Doesn't Anne Heche's Marion Crane know better than to steal a wad of cash (inflated from $40,000 to $400,000) from her boss, stop at a motel that's way off the main highway (was there no Holiday Inn?) and, you know, take a shower? In order to hold our attention, Van Sant has to up the sex-and-violence quotient, which he does by 1) showing us more butts and 2) showing us more cuts. At the end of the infamous shower scene, with Marion's head down on the floor, we're distracted by the sight of her rear end sticking up in the air. The new Psycho has a brand-new cast--a minor point, but...actually, it's a major point. Take Heche. She's a much better actress than Janet Leigh was, but Leigh's limitations worked for Marion, gave her a certain cold-fish quality that fit perfectly with the movie's repressive mood. Heche looks and sounds like Sandy Duncan. Now, take Vince Vaughn as Norman. It's a skillful performance, with a little giggle that genuinely gave me the creeps, but that enormous shadow over Vaughn's shoulder is being cast by Anthony Perkins, who may have forever established how a cross-dressing lunatic with a homicidal mother fixation would behave. "We all go a little mad sometimes," Norman says in both versions, but only Perkins shows us the mesmerizing ebb and flow of Norman's personality, the way he can be a harmless child one moment, a lonely teenager the next, a vengeful adult the next. Vaughn's Norman is always a little mad, and that's not as interesting. It reduces the movie to a Freudian case study--i.e., the one recited by the psychiatrist at the end of both films. Admittedly, Psycho has Freud up the wazoo, but that's not what makes the movie such a haunting experience. Perkins put the "psycho" back in "psychoanalysis," giving us a peek at a mind whose depths are unfathomable. Just as Hitchcock tried to penetrate Norman's mind, Van Sant tries to penetrate Hitchcock's mind, retracing the thought processes that resulted in one of the most terrifying movies of all time. I suspect Van Sant's Psycho won't work for those who've never seen the original; it's too retro, passé. Nor do I think it'll work for those who are helplessly devoted to the original, beside which this "replica" seems like the cinematic equivalent of an Elvis impersonator. But for those of us who enjoy standing at the crossroads of modernism and postmodernism, where a copy can mean as much as the real thing, the movie can have its dilettantish pleasures. There's the pleasure of figuring out what this Psycho "means" in relation to the original. Remake? Replica? Simulacrum? What exactly is Van Sant up to? It would be easy to fall into what literary critics call "the intentional fallacy" if Van Sant hadn't left clues all over the place. "This version holds up a mirror to [Hitchcock's]," he recently told Time. "It's sort of its schizophrenic twin." Of course, mirrors, those windows to the soul, are a major motif in Psycho. And Norman and Marion, whose names are practically anagrams, are sort of each other's schizophrenic twin. Does Van Sant want to be Hitchcock's schizophrenic twin, the window to his soul? If so, he's chosen a strange way of doing it, burying himself deep inside Hitchcock's directorial personality. For all its little additions and subtractions, Van Sant's Psycho is a pretty straightforward attempt to follow in Hitchcock's footsteps. Why would a director like Van Sant, who has his own distinctive way of walking, want to do that? How could he settle for being so...unoriginal? Once again, the director offers us a clue: "The biggest reason of all," he told Newsweek, "is that nobody's ever done it." Which is to say, nobody's ever been quite this unoriginal before, which, in a crazy, mixed-up way that maybe only Norman Bates could understand, makes it an original thing to do.
Ironically, by replicating Psycho Van Sant has established its uniqueness. For, somewhere in the replication process, that elusive quality we associate with Hitchcock--i.e., his directorial personality--has disappeared. Shock has degenerated into schlock. Of course, Hitchcock's Psycho hasn't always gotten the respect it deserves either. "The entire film is a prolonged practical joke in the worst of taste," critic Raymond Durgnat once wrote. Van Sant's Psycho may also be a prolonged practical joke, although not in the worst of taste. I can even imagine Hitchcock getting a kick out of it. Why'd Van Sant do it? Who knows? Perhaps Norman said it best: "We all go a little mad sometimes."