In a real squeaker, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho enjoyed (enjoyed?) a last-minute surge in this week’s polling action to steal the title of Most Repelle-dundant Remake away for Marcus Nispel’s apparently quite reviled revisit to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Out of the 94 votes cast, Psycho (1998) received 45 votes (47%) over TCM’s 44 (46%). Only George Sluzier’s ill-advised trashing of his own movie, The Vanishing (featuring a ending that could only piss off those who appreciated the grim horror that capped the original) came anywhere close to challenging the top two—it managed 38 votes (40%). It was a sharp drop to the 17 votes (18%) picked up by Brian De Palma’s ugly take on Scarface, but Martin Scorsese’s uglier take on Cape Fear was close behind with 15 votes (15%). Michael Haneke’s carbon-copy redux of Funny Games garnered 13 votes (13%), and my favorite of the bunch, Paul Schrader’s remake (rethink) of Cat People, which looked like a favorite early on, petered out with only 11 votes (11%).
This poll coincided with Nathan Lee’s article in the new issue of Film Comment entitled “Let’s Do It Again: Horror Remakes from Psycho to Funny Games”. The link takes you only to Film Comment’s web page which does not feature the article online—you gotta buy the magazine to read it. But it’s a worthwhile read if the subject holds any fascination for you at all. Lee has done what I would previously have thought the impossible with his piece—he’s made me curious about Rob Zombie’s Halloween, which I avoided last summer (even though I had a revulsion/intellectual appreciation for The Devil’s Rejects), and he’s made me consider watching Van Sant’s Psycho again. I was one of the many who were put off by what I perceived as the indie director’s perverse performance-art joke, but in his article Lee, who isn’t sure himself if Psycho (1999) was worth doing, has at least made me aware of possible reasons why Van Sant might have felt it was a project worth the trouble of tackling it in the first place:
“Concentrated in Anne Heche’s entrancingly self-conscious turn as (Marion) Crane, Psycho gives off the queerest existential vibe this side of Kaspar Hauser. With its haunted mise-en-scene and awkward doppelgangers, each slotted in its predestined place and barely suppressing, it often seems, the uncanny cognizance of their reincarnated status, Psycho plays like the most expensive trance film ever made.
Remake as mindfuck, the horror film as ontological essay, both pseudo-Warholian gimmick and proto-Gerry conundrum, Psycho teases the brain with squirming semiotic minutiae. Why are the clothing styles less contemporary than the chic duds in Hitchcock’s version? Why follow the letter of the original so closely yet alter, ever so slightly, the letters of Marion’s license plate? What is Van Sant attempting to signify by opting for a prismatic shower curtain in place of the semi-transparent original? The movie fairly demands a companion volume to A Long Hard Look at Psycho, as Raymond Durgnat titled his exhaustive close reading of a text he once praised as ‘a prolonged practical joke in the worst possible taste.’”
An assessment, it sounds, which isn’t far from how many of us perceived the Psycho remake when it came out; practical joking (if a multi-million dollar joke can in any way be termed “practical”) even seems like a possible subtext for Lee’s own perceptions, that apparent pointless tweaking of the license plate being the only cited example out of many. I was entranced by Gerry’s gliding death march, fascinated and repelled by the vision Van Sant brought to Elephant, and drawn in by the half-heard murmuring at the doomed heart of Last Days (I have yet to see Paranoid Park); I wonder if an appreciation of these films will in any way shed light on the director’s motives behind Psycho (1999) and whether my receptivity to that moody triptych will make me more inclined to respond positively to this reviled remake if I should choose to see it again. Sounds like an interesting experiment…
P.S. Lee again, on Michael Haneke’s Americanized Funny Games, just because I think the writing is funny (I have yet to see the new version):
“Haneke’s facile stabs at the spectator (direct address, self-reflexive platitude) were tired in 1997; 10 years and much American atrocity later, we may well deserve a meta-cinematic kick in the nuts, but I’m not convinced Her Epater Glum, Ph.D., is the man for the job…
…Funny Games is Hostel for the NPR set, a prolonged practical joke in the best possible taste… (Nice fold-back on Durgnat! – DC)
…This frame-by-frame exercise generates none of the odd indeterminacy of Psycho, since Van Sant channeling Hitchcock, misguided as it may be, posits at minimum a montage of sensibilities, whereas Haneke doing Haneke is by definition an act of navel-gazing redundancy.”
Redundant. There's that word again.
UPDATE 3/24/08 4:27 p.m. Janet Leigh vs. Anne Heche-- who scrubs up best? I think we probably all know the answer to that question already, but in the spirit of supermarket taste testing, here's an opportunity to see the 1960 and 1998 Psycho shower scenes side by side. See for yourself the degree of Van Sant's fidelity to Hitchcock's seminal horror sequence, and maybe take note of a few more instances of "semiotic minutiae" that drove Nathan Lee crazy. The picture quality isn't the best, but YouTube poster "lewschoen" has put together a fascinating exercise in film study nonetheless.