The most surprising thing about the new "Psycho" is the fact that it took nearly 40 years for somebody to think of doing it. Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 low-budget slasher flick was a masterpiece of sex, violence, madness and heavy-duty shrinkspeak, one that ushered in a bold new era of cinematic horror. In the intervening years, the movies have not exactly wanted for colorful wackos with great big kitchen utensils. But there's never been another story like "Psycho." And there's never been a psycho like Norman Bates.
Before Norman, the evil something that jumped out of the dark to get you was very likely to be a thing -- a creature from the black lagoon, an alien invader or maybe a giant radioactive ant. And if you were going to be done in by a real person, he or she probably had a very good reason for wanting you dead -- because you were a bad daughter, because your wife wanted your insurance money, because you were a nosy neighbor. After Norman, moviegoers had to face the fact that, just like in real life, horrible things happen to innocent people. The difference between Norman and his plethora of motiveless successors, however, was that despite the number of bodies festering in his swamp, Norman was also still every inch the boy next door. That a maniac may hack you to death when you're naked and alone in the middle of the night is no longer a new idea for moviegoers to swallow. That he might first, with great gentleness and utter sincerity, invite you in for a glass of milk is still absolutely terrifying.
Gus Van Sant's stylish, shot-by-shot remake of what the film's trailers refer to as "the classic story of a boy and his mother" is in and of itself a brave experiment. Filmmakers have been borrowing heavily from the master of suspense for decades, but few have had the guts to actually go back and remake his movies. Hitchcock, after all, pretty much nailed it the first time. This may be why Van Sant has hardly altered the original -- it might require some updating here and there, but its spooky beauty is untouchable. Except for the characters' snazzy wardrobes and Julianne Moore's Walkman, this "Psycho" looks and sounds nearly identical to the original, from the sideways sliding opening credits to Bernard Herrmann's screaming violin score (lovingly tweaked by Danny Elfmann).
While the occasional references to stomach acid or tranquilizers are a little jarring, it's a tribute to Joseph Stefano's script and the lushness of Hitchcock's original direction that "Psycho" can still look so relatively fresh. Van Sant clearly knows that if it ain't broke, don't fix it, and his own smooth touch is neatly sympathetic with his predecessor's. There's probably no other director around who melds so well with Hitchcock's dreamy sense of menace, who slips wry humor so deftly into the midst of mayhem. Only a director who had River Phoenix repeatedly pass out in the middle of nowhere in "My Own Private Idaho" could present Marion Crane (Anne Heche) curled up in her car like a little kitten by the side of the road. Only Van Sant, who showed the workings of Nicole Kidman's bored mind as she tuned out her husband's logic in "To Die For," could ever hope to get inside Norman Bates' head.
The story line is a deceptively simple one -- Marion, an employee at an Arizona real estate agency, impulsively runs off with a fat wad of a client's cash after arguing with her lover (Viggo Mortensen) during a tawdry lunch-time assignation. He tells her they can't get married because he's too poor. Perhaps, she hopes, a cash infusion can convince him otherwise. But as she's bolting out of town to surprise him with her windfall, she stops for the night at a lonely, off-the-beaten-track motel. And it is there she meets a nebbishy proprietor who seems to a have few problems of his own -- starting with his meddling mama.
The world of horror film bad guys is a fairly tidy one, despite the increasingly visceral mess they leave behind. Killers are generally either brash "Heeeeere's Johnny!" showmen or supernatural entities, the better to die explosively at the end and still come back for six or seven sequels. As Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Hopkins chewed more scenery than victims, and this month's Norman himself, Vince Vaughn, was a yee-haw, stab-happy villain earlier this year in Clay Pigeons. Even one of the best horror films of recent decades, "Halloween," had to cheat at the end and turn Michael Meyers from a blank-faced boy with a really messed up idea of how to celebrate a holiday into the living embodiment of the bogeyman. Norman is different. He is sweet-faced and soft-spoken. And worst of all, it's not an act.
Though no one who's seen the original could ever get the indelible image of Anthony Perkins -- all lank brown hair and dark, darting eyes -- out of their heads, Vaughn does a terrific job of putting his own stamp on the character. For a guy who made his mark hyperactively jumping on tables and barking soon-to-be-unbearable clichés in "Swingers," he's blessedly restrained here. His Norman is edgier and more sexually aware (as he spies on Marion, the unmistakable slapping sounds from below leave no doubt he's a hands-on kind of voyeur), but he's also consistently and touchingly sad. The original twitchy weirdness is still there, just with more lonely desperation. When the profoundly preoccupied Marion arrives on his doorstep, he gazes at her as if Santa's arrived a few weeks early, bringing a treat just for him. And when she announces decisively that she's taking off early in the morning, one look on his crushed countenance tells you that Mother is going to be very, very unhappy about all of this. Too bad Marion's not in so much of a hurry she doesn't have time for a nice, hot shower.
When the first "Psycho" appeared, the idea of bumping off the hero less than halfway through the picture was unheard of, and remarkably, even after subsequent generations of innovative, in-your-face filmmaking, it still is. Her death here is only slightly gorier -- she now sprouts two wide red gashes on her back after tumbling from the tub -- and there's the addition of some ominous clouds intercut with all the slashing. It's the consequence of her death that remains jolting. With the central figure gone, the movie then forces us to shift our focus to the creepy guy who lives in the big house. (Imagine trying to do the same thing with Neve Campbell or Jennifer Love Hewitt. Goodbye, franchise!) And when the spotlight turns to Norman, we must accept that he is not a Freddy Krueger who can toss off clever lines while he eviscerates, nor that he will be ultimately pummeled to death by the righteous. He's a regular guy. He's Eddie O'Brien, the chubby kid who was convicted of stabbing a neighbor old enough to be his mother more than 90 times after allegedly spying on her from his home across the street. He's John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who, years after his execution, still may have bodies stashed on his property. He's the quintessential quiet, nice boy who shocked the town. And because he is so real, he is infinitely more disturbing than a hook-wielding freak dressed up like the Gorton's fisherman.
Van Sant has said that he wanted to remake "Psycho" because he feared not enough people had seen the original simply because it was in black and white. The great irony of his thinking is that most movies in the horror genre now are so black and white: The guy with the big knife is a monster, the girl running away a virtuous heroine. The story of "Psycho" says it's not that easy. The girl running away may be an afternoon tryster who's just run off with a few grand. She may, by her admission, be stepping into a trap of her own making. And the guy about to carve her up just may have used that same knife to fix her a sandwich.