A side by side image of both Psycho films of 1960 and 1998 with Anthony Perkins and Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates

Who Wore It Better?

(Spoilers)

The original 1960 Psycho directed and produced by Alfred Hitchcock, was based on Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel of the same name. The book was loosely inspired by the case of convicted Wisconsin murderer and grave robber Ed Gein. The film centers on events surrounding a secretary, Marion Crane played by Janet Leigh (who is the mother of the scream queen, Jamie Lee Curtis), who ends up at a secluded motel after stealing money from her employer. She comes to meet the motel’s owner-manager Norman Bates, played by Anthony Perkins. The film would follow a set of circumstances leading to Marion’s death within the first 45 minutes of the film. Because of the shock of killing off the star early, Hitchcock told theaters to not let people in after the film had already started.

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The murder of Leigh’s character in the shower is the film’s pivotal scene and one of the best-known in all of cinema history. It has gone on to spawn numerous duplications in pop-culture, always paired with Bernard Herrmann’s soul piercing score. A set of screeching violins, violas, and cellos. One of the most light heated references to this scene is Garth pretending to stab his “donut-man” in Wayne’s World. The technique Hitchcock used to build this iconic scene was comprised on 50 cuts, mostly close ups. A silhouetted figure brandishes a knife towards the camera allowing the identity of the killer to only be assumed. While the knife is never shown actually piercing any flesh, the scene was viewed as extremely graphic at the time. This same technique would be used in films that would be referred to as extremely gory, like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, when in fact no actual violence was shown on screen.

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This famous shower murder scene is the beginning of what sets the 1960 Psycho a part from the 1998 Psycho. Although, director Gus Van Sant set out to remake Psycho in color and duplicate the film shot for shot, the film still has unintentional differences that don’t quite live up to Hitchcock’s work. As those of us know from watching the film, Norman Bates suffers from multiple personality disorder and is indeed dressed as his mother when he kills Marion Crane. The silhouette effect hides this twist in the film to viewers because of Anthony Perkins’ small physeek. In the 1998 version, Bates is played by Vince Vaughn early in his career. While his acting is outstanding in this film, his large body shape doesn’t hide his masculinity and thus, defeats the purpose of the silhouette effect.

From here on, Gus Van Sant’s rendition starts to feel more forced as he clearly tries to put too much focus on making the film exactly the same, opposed to making the film his own. During filming, he actually brought a DVD player onto set and played the original film as a reference. When he would spot a mistakes, like a door opening without a key, he would purposely put the same mistake into his film.

As strong as the actors in the remake are (Julianne Moore, Lila Crane, Viggo Mortensen, and William H. Macy), the direction comes across misguided and lacks any soul in the film. The only two people who put any real effort into making the film unique were Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn who both brought out new emotional motivation to the characters. When asked why he did a shot-for-shot, full color remake of Psycho, Gus Van Sant replied “So no one else would have to.” But why would anyone have to? What was so wrong with the original that it needed color and new faces? If you are going to remake a film, you need to make it something new. Instead we have what feels like an expensive fan film done as an assigned project in film school.

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Interestingly enough, the remake was met with disapproval as people could not imagine Psycho being as chilling in color, opposed to its use of shadow in black and white. I could not agree more as I’ve personally found that black and white allows for deeper shadow effects for the use of horror and emotion within motion pictures. The birth of Film Noir is a testament to this as it relies heavily on shadow effects.

With two fantastic performances, it’s difficult to compare the acting of Anthony Perkins and Vince Vaughn. Both performances were unique to themselves. However, I have to say that Anthony Perkins fits the overall film better, so his performance wins for Psycho as a whole.

Who do you think played a better Norman Bates? Let us know in the comments below.

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