Psychos

by Tyler Banks

illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

“I like stories with lots of psychology.” - Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho is a classic several times over, with more than a few iconic elements; the set design of the Bates Motel, the Bernard Herrmann score, the “gearshift” shock of The Shower Scene, Hitch’s infamous No-Late-Entries-Allowed marketing policy (a tactic borrowed from French director Henri-Georges Clouzot and his film Les Diaboliques), among others. As a pop-culture obsessed teenager, coming of age in the 90’s, I was aware of most of these elements well before I actually saw the film, via out-of-context references on television, in movies, or in the culture in general. I had seen the Bates Motel set on the Universal Studios Tour well before I ever felt compelled to pull a rental copy off the shelves at Seattle’s Rain City Video.

Given what I picked up purely through pop-culture osmosis, I felt like I knew what to anticipate from the film before I popped in the DVD to experience it if for myself. But the element that I didn’t fully anticipate—the one which has lodged itself in my brain in the years ever since that first viewing—is perhaps the movie’s most iconic feature: Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins’ conception of the character of Norman Bates. When I was growing up, “horror movies,” to my mind, were things like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday The 13th or Child’s Play, with supernatural killers like Freddy Kruger, Jason, and Chucky. While those movies' unstoppable forces, surreal imagery, and bloody kills could effectively deliver scares, it was always easy for me to eventually shake off the terror thanks to their fantastical elements. I knew that I wasn’t in danger of Freddy showing up in my dreams to murder me.

But I found Norman Bates not so easy to shake off.

Bates, for the most part, is hospitable (if meekly disconcerting) and affable (if strangely skittish) one moment—but willing to sink a knife into your chest and dump the body in a bog the next. I found this all the more unnerving because there actually are people like Norman out there—people who show one version of themselves to the world at large and keep another entirely hidden. Anthony Perkins fully embodies this duality. He injects a wounded, amiable quality to Norman in the early going that makes his dead-eyed stare at the end all the more chilling. For all its pulpy and larger-than-life elements, it’s this plausibly real-life element that I find most enduringly scary about Psycho. And it’s this same element that I find completely lacking in Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake.

“Our Psycho showed you can't really appropriate. Or you can, but it's not going to be the same thing." - Gus Van Sant

In one of the oddest Hollywood-Cache-Cash-In-Moments in film history, Van Sant traded in his industry goodwill from Good Will Hunting to make what was reported to be a shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock classic. He would oversee slight updates to the script, an adaptation of the score, and filming in color—but this was to be more re-staging than re-boot. Van Sant appears to have been drawn to the project simply because it seemed like a lark, which, when all’s said and done, seems a perfectly valid reason to take a Hollywood studio’s money. In 2003, Van Sant told the AV Club:

"There were two things [motivating the project]: One was just the experiment of seeing what would happen. There was nothing good or bad or right or wrong in the outcome. The other part was whether the studio could make money with it, and that part was okay. It wasn't a disaster. The project was designed in some ways to see what the studios would do if something like that made money. Would it be something they would occupy themselves doing, making shot-by-shot remakes of other movies? Which was sort of a prank, really."

Genius cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Chungking Express, In The Mood for Love, Hero), for whom the 1998 Psycho marked his first Hollywood project, told The Guardian in 2014 that he saw the film as “a $20m artwork...It's a reinterpretation of a black and white piece of art. Don't even worry about the film. It's the concept. It's fucking Duchamp." And while this post-modern, Dadaist approach is maybe the best way to appreciate the film, it also explains why it often feels so inert in the scares department.

Regardless of whether Van Sant’s version lives up to the thrills of original, there are plenty of interesting features to the remake — Julianne Moore and Viggo Mortensen have fun re-thinking Lila Crane and Sam Loomis as more aggressive and unrefined versions of the characters, while Bill Macy seems to enjoy doing an underplayed cover-version of Martin Balsam’s Detective Arbogast. As Van Sant later admitted, the “shot-for-shot” quality was overstated to create interest, so there are plenty of opportunities to note which elements have been tweaked, and how those changes might affect our viewing. But in the end, it’s hard to experience the movie as much more than a formal experiment.

One of the major reasons why the film can’t stand on it’s own? Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. Whereas Perkins’ take on the character made the threat of an evil that hides in plain view palatable, it’s hard to see anything other than “Vince Vaughn playing Norman Bates” in the remake. I like Vince Vaughn as an actor and an oversized movie-star personality but, to me, his persona robs the Bates role of the underlying everyman quality that so affected me in the original. Balancing the cordial neighbor with the killer inside is an essential component in Psycho and, without it, the remake struggles to scare.

“[Editing is] so unique...It’s endlessly fascinating what can be done editorially. You can create meaning where there was none, you can create feeling where there was none, you can create narrative where there was none.” - Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh hasn’t directed a film since the 2013 double shot of Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra, but the “retired” director has been anything but inactive since he stepped away from making feature films. He returned to the world of prestige television with The Knick, served as cinematographer and editor (a role he adores and finds highly enjoyable) for a sequel to one of his own films with Magic Mike XXL, and channeled a good portion of his energy into his website, extension765.com. At extension765 you can find Soderbergh movie memorabilia, high-end booze, and some of his own editing experiments, reworking classic films from unique angles.

One of these experiments is Psychos, in which Soderbergh edits together scenes from Hitchcock’s Psycho with Van Sant’s remake to form a single movie, sticking with the black & white presentation of the original (with a few notable exemptions). As formal experiments go, this sounded fun enough. What surprised me, though, was how Soderbergh’s approach to Psychos underlined and amplified the quality that scared me so much in the original: the duality between what people show to the outside world and what really lurks inside, crystallized in Bates.

But Soderbergh’s Psychos also made me consider how much all the other characters are playing around with public and private versions of the self. Marion Crane puts on certain appearances while she’s at work, while attempting to trade in her car, and when first chatting with Norman as she checks into the Bates Motel; she’s trying to appear run-of-the-mill, trying to hide the ways she’s scheming to make off with her boss’ clients’ cash and start a new life with Sam Loomis. When Detective Arbogast travels to the Bates Motel, investigating Marion’s disappearance and interrogating Norman, Arbogast puts up a front, playing coy about what he does and doesn’t know about the situation to better put pressure on Norman. But later, as he is calling in his report to Lila Crane from the phone booth, Arbogast is more forthcoming about what he really thinks is happening. Sam Loomis and Lila Crane present fake fronts too; they first travel to the Bates Motel posing as “Man and Wife,” but they are really looking for clues to help get to the bottom of Marion’s and Arbogast’s disappearances. All of Psycho’s characters are oscillating between public and private selves.

Soderbergh highlights these dualities in the footage he chooses to include in Psychos. He literally presents the two sides of the characters, using the different actors from the different films to distinguish between a character’s intentions in different scenes. He uses the footage from the Original Psycho (OP) for scenes where characters are putting up a false front, and uses footage from the Remake Psycho (RP) for scenes where characters are alone with their own thoughts.

Anne Heche and Janet Leigh takes turns representing Marion Crane, as the character wrestles with what she is willing to do to provide herself with the life she wants. As Sam Loomis positions himself either an upstanding hardware shopkeeper or a desperately indebted boyfriend, we see him as John Gavin or Viggo Mortensen, respectively. While Anthony Perkins’ Norman will prepare a light dinner for you in the Parlor, Vince Vaughn’s Norman will get his kicks watching you change through a peephole.

I think my favorite representative example of this dual lens is the way Soderbergh edits the sequence starting at 1:07:38. We first see RP Sam and Lila in the truck on their way to the Bates Motel, preparing to investigate and look for clues. As they pull up to the Motel, RP Norman (Vaughn) watches them arrive from inside the house, before we see him shift into Anthony Perkins’ OP “Inn Keeper.” At 1:08:12, as Sam and Lila step around the corner and meet “Norman the Inn Keeper”, they instantly shift into their phony roles of “Man and Wife” as the film shifts from RP footage to OP footage. As the characters toggle between the constructed personas they present to others and their more natural states, the footage toggles between versions, representing the characters’ mental gymnastics with a literal change of person.

Another interesting sequence is the denouement scene, where Norman’s pathology is explained by the psychiatrist via exposition dump. Soderbergh includes the OP footage here, complicating a scene that had previously been criticized for wrapping everything up in a nice little package. By presenting this scene with the OP footage, Psychos raises the question of whether the psychiatrist’s explanation is to be accepted at face value. Might the psychiatrist have an agenda of his own by appearing to be authoritative and tying things up quickly and definitively? Soderbergh injects Psychos’ ending with a nice slice of ambiguity, questioning our ability to truly understand an evil like Norman Bates and, amusingly enough, making the plot of 1983’s Psycho II (starring Anthony Perkins and directed by Child’s Play's Tom Holland) slightly less outlandish.

Psychos’ separation of OP and RP footage only breaks down during the three murder scenes and the final shots of Norman sitting alone in his cell, staring down the audience. In these scenes Soderbergh overlaps footage from the two films, including some splashes of color from the RP. The effect is psychedelically disorienting, warping impressions of space, imagery and impact. Violent screams are laid over slashing knives, short bursts of color bloody stark black-and-white notions of good and evil. The viewer’s bearings become as disoriented as the characters’. Despite all the effort the characters pour into putting on airs, notions of constructed identity slip away when they’re confronted with a visceral threat to their continued existence. You can pretend for only so long; your true self will be revealed. Your carefully constructed facade is no match for Mother’s butcher knife.

I love how Psychos serves as an exploration of the original film's themes through a fan edit; the cinematic mash-up comes off much more as a piece of film analysis than it does film criticism. It makes certain aesthetic decisions that nod to the original—like maintaining the black & white presentation and using Herrmann’s score—but it never dismisses the value of any of the remake’s scenes. Instead, it gives them a distinct purpose, helping to bring presentation and theme into alignment. And while Soderbergh’s Psychos is interesting from a technical standpoint, insightful as a piece of film analysis, and cool as a fun experiment, I also find the way it expands the creepy message of the original more than a little unnerving. Not only are dangerous psycho-killers out there hiding behind amicable exteriors — basically everyone you meet has something to hide.

And if nothing else, Soderbergh achieves something with Psychos that I had previously thought impossible: he creates a context where Vince Vaughn's Norman Bates totally creeps me out.


Tyler Banks is a husband, father and pop culture ex-pat. Born and raised in Seattle, Tyler lives overseas with his family, teaching by day and watching/listening/reading/writing by night.