Carnival of Souls (1998)

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  • Year: 1998
  • Director: Adam Grossman & Ian Kessner
  • Starring: Bobbie Phillips, Larry Miller, Shawneee Smith

I’m finishing up my series on horror remakes with a remake of one of the biggest cult classics of them all. In 1962, with just a budget of $33,000, Herk Harvey wrote, produced and directed Carnival of Souls, a psychological horror film about a traumatized woman who sees visions and feels oddly attracted to a local carnival.

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With unknown actors (many of them locals), no budget, and a first-time filmmaker, it has all the elements to be so-bad-it’s good in the vein of Troll 2 or Robot Monster. However, against all odds, it’s so good-it’s-good. It doesn’t rely on special effects like so many disastrous low budget films, and the lead performance by Candace Hilligloss is fantastic. The other performances are undeniably hit-or-miss, but even some of the bad ones just add to the overall weirdness factor.

The 1962 film starts with Mary Henry (Hilligloss) walking away from a car accident where two of her friends die, but the end shows her dead body in the car with them.

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Whether she was dead all along and the whole film was her dying dream, or she somehow slipped out of The Grim Reaper’s clutches for a while is left ambiguous. Regardless, it’s a fascinating film, and the ambiguity adds to it rather than hurts it. The remake is very loosely inspired by the original, but it really runs with the “dead all along from a car accident” thing.

I need to offer up a warning to anyone reading this and especially to anyone thinking of watching this film. In less than 90 minutes, the 1998 remake of Carnival of Souls contains two scenes of rape, one scene of attempted rape, and another of implied child molestation (It cuts away.). The original film features absolutely none of this save for a creepy neighbor. There are plenty of films that deal with themes like this in a nuanced and even poignant way without being exploitative. This is not one of those films.

The film starts with young Alex Grant witnessing the rape and murder of her mother at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend Louis Seagram (Larry Miller). Twenty years later, Louis is released from prison and holds Alex at gunpoint, forcing her to drive to an abandoned carnival so he can murder her, planning to attack her sister next. I will admit that Louis popping up in her car is an interesting twist on the original. In the original film, Mary kept seeing visions of a creepy man, often in her car. Fans of the original are probably expecting that again here, so knowing that this is actually Louis mixes it up a bit.

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However, Alex drives the car off the pier in an attempt to kill both herself and Louis. She then wakes up, leaving us to wonder if this was a dream or something one or both of them lived through. There are long dream sequences, other ambiguous situations that feel like dreams, and a whole lot of confusion as to what’s real and what’s not.

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Like in the original, the ending reveals that Alex’s body is in the wrecked car, thankfully along with Louis’s.

I know dream sequences are cliched, but there is a way to do this sort of thing and make it work. The original Carnival of Souls did this to a lesser extent, and it worked very effectively. However, there’s another film that this remake resembles as much if not more than the original Carnival of Souls, and that’s the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder. Unlike the film I’m reviewing today, I highly recommend seeking out Jacob’s Ladder, a weird psychological thrill ride with incredibly memorable performances and imagery. At the end (spoiler), it’s revealed that Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) died in Vietnam after an experimental drug was tested on his unit, and the entire film (including the future he imagined for himself) has been his dying dream.

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It full-on embraces the weirdness factor, and it’s very effective. Carnival of Souls, despite being about a literal carnival, never gets weird enough.

Recapping the plot would be pointless, because it happens out of sequence and everything is ambiguous, but I’ll do a quick rundown. Twenty years after her mother’s death, and after she believes she has killed Louis, Alex Graham (Bobbie Phillips) and her sister Sandra (Shawnee Smith) run a bar across the water from the abandoned carnival where her mother met Louis.

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Sure, the original film was about running away and starting a new life, but whatever. Alex begins to suspect that Louis is trying to weasel his way back into her life, but everyone else thinks she’s just going crazy. Meanwhile, the mysterious carnival across the water is beginning to open up again. On these grounds, she meets Michael, a wooden board played to perfection by Paul Johansson.

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There’s a weird tension between them, but it’s not really sexual, as SEE IF YOU CAN GUESS WHAT THE CHARACTER CALLED MICHAEL WHO ROWS A BOAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE. ISN’T IT SUBTLE? They think they’re so clever with a good character named Michael and an evil character named Louis, but none of the other characters have biblical names, so it doesn’t really land. You know who else did this? Jacob’s Ladder! The only difference in that one was that every main character had a biblical name.

The Michael character also makes no sense, because the weird tension (again, not really sexual) leads to them having sex. He’s clearly made himself out to be an angel who doesn’t indulge in human vices (refusing alcohol at one point), so why do they have sex? As it goes on, it’s revealed that Alex is being raped by Louis. While I suppose you could argue that the opening scene adds something to the overall narrative, this adds absolutely nothing except a cheap scare. Hey, here’s an idea. Don’t use rape as a cheap jump scare.

Also, was Michael the same character as Louis the whole time? I’m not even sure what they’re trying to imply here? Is it all a dream here too? Who cares at this point? This movie is terrible.

I understand that Carnival of Souls is trying to be about facing your demons from a traumatic past. Fine. There are plenty of movies that do that well. The backstory here just doesn’t work. Alex and Sandra were raised by a single mother who apparently fell for a clown at a carnival, despite the fact that he is dressed like Raggedy Ann Richard Karn.

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Then, sometime later, she leaves her daughter alone with creepy clown man. The mother is barely on screen, but she is not a believable character.

Despite a private investigator showing Alex that Louis is dead (in photos later revealed to be from her car crash)…

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He doesn’t leave her alone, and she decides to go to the carnival. She enters an attraction that turns out to be her childhood bedroom, where Louis again tries to rape her, but this time she fires a gun and kills him. Then, she’s back in the car drowning, followed by a cut to her driving off the pier, killing them both.

I could say more about it, but why? This film is simultaneously repulsive and pointless. It doesn’t serve any purpose as a remake, and it’s cheap and exploitative. What is Wes Craven’s name doing above the title? Watch the original. Watch it twice if you want. Don’t watch this garbage.

CAST

No one really adds anything here. Larry Miller doesn’t play the role seriously enough for it to work, but to be fair, no one has anything to work with. Some of the acting in the original was weird, but it kind of worked there. This is just bland.

STORY

It takes a weird, psychological story and turns it into a rip-off of Jacob’s Ladder that isn’t very good.

EXPERIENCE

If they wanted the movie to be more about the carnival, they should have made it weirder and more disorienting. The carnival in the original isn’t even open, and it is way more effective.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The worst remake I’ve watched this year by far, and there have been some bad ones. There is nothing redeeming about this film.

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Nosferatu the Vampyre

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  • Year: 1979
  • Director: Werner Herzog
  • Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabella Adjani, Bruno Ganz

Sure, there are a million adaptations of Dracula out there, but in 1979, Werner Herzog went out of his way to remake the silent horror classic Nosferatu. F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu is by far the most acclaimed the version of the Dracula story, so remaking that was a way gutsier decision than just another forgettable adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel. Most surprisingly of all, against all odds, it worked.

Of all of the original films in this series, Nosferatu is my favorite (with Psycho a close second), and before seeing this, I would have called it the only truly great Dracula adaptation.

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I used to love Coppola’s 1992 version, but the more I see it, the more ridiculous I find it. Nosferatu felt like the only version that really capitalized on the horror of the original novel, making Count Dracula (called Orlok in the film) a monster instead of the debonair vampire he is in other adaptations. It also is a relatively loose adaptation, minimizing and cutting out some characters, and changing a single character being cursed with vampirism to a whole village dying of a plague.

Like the original Nosferatu, the setting is changed from London to a small German village. The cinematography is breathtaking, and in just a few shots, we get the close-knit feel of the community that will later be ravaged by the plague.

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One minor thing I wish Herzog hadn’t changed is the names of the characters. This will be a little confusing, so hold tight. In the original book, we have Jonathan Harker going to visit Count Dracula while Harker’s fiancee Mina stays behind with her friend Lucy. Nosferatu changed all of the character names (although, being a silent film, some reissues reinstate the Dracula names), with Jonathan Harker being Thomas Hutter, Count Dracula becoming Count Orlok, Mina becoming Thomas’s wife Ellen Hutter, and the Lucy character becoming a very minor player. In Herzog’s version, the characters of Jonathan Harker and Count Dracula go back to their book counterparts, but Jonathan’s wife is Lucy while Mina is a minor character. Got that? I just don’t get why he wouldn’t use the names from the original Nosferatu. The vampire makeup is directly inspired by the original film, so when I see this…

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I think Count Orlok, not Count Dracula. I get that it’s a non-issue at the end of the day, but it was just a choice I didn’t really understand.

The most interesting part of almost every Dracula adaptation is the Count himself, and it should be. However, the most boring part of pretty much every Dracula adaptation that I have seen is Jonathan Harker. Gustav von Wangenheim is OK in the original Nosferatu, but once he gets back from Transylvania, he’s pretty much just set dressing, as his wife takes over the role of hero. The 1931 Dracula is pretty boring overall, but it does even less with Harker (David Manners), as it’s Renfield who goes to Transylvania instead. Manners himself was very unhappy with the film, agreeing that his character was bland, never even watching the finished product. 1958’s Horror of Dracula kills off Harker in the first act, so he never really makes an impression, and the Coppola version gave us… Keanu Reeves.

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However, Herzog’s film is the first to give us a truly interesting Jonathan Harker, played here by Bruno Ganz. To be fair, he gets a lot more to do, as after his return from Transylvania, he gradually succumbs to vampirism himself.

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That aside, he’s still engaging in the early scenes as he travels from his small village to Transylvania, stopping off before he gets to the castle and talking with villagers.

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These scenes give a slow, tense buildup to the reveal of Dracula, and they’re incredibly atmospheric. I was reminded of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon which went into meticulous detail to make sure every frame looked like a gorgeous painting. In fact, it was such a beautiful film that I worried that the horror wouldn’t be horrifying enough, but Klaus Kinski is so effective as Dracula that my worries were quickly quashed.

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His portrayal of the character is so unseemly and creepy (Read about his life and you’ll find he may not have been acting), yet there’s a sadness to him that most other versions don’t bring out. It’s not an over-the-top tragic element like the Coppola film (OK, everything in that was over-the-top save Keanu), but a subtle, usually unspoken loneliness. The 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, where F.W. Murnau casts a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) in the role of Count Orlok plays this up even more, and it was definitely inspired by this version.

Like in the original Nosferatu, the Renfield character has gone from a patient in a mental institution to Jonathan’s employer. but he is eventually put in an institution in this one. Here, he’s played by author Roland Topor, who is exceedingly creepy in the role, although this one scene of him and Dracula looks like something out of a sitcom.

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I think it’s mainly the way in which they’re standing right in front of the camera, mixed with Dracula’s rather blase reactions. Like any criticism of this film, it’s incredibly minor, and it might even be intentional dark comedy (there’s plenty of that to go around here).

What really got me about this version of Nosferatu is how dreamlike it was. At first, I was a bit put-off by the somewhat offbeat line delivery, but I figured it was just the fact that these were native German speakers speaking English (It was shot in both languages, and Herzog claims the German is more authentic. It’s really my fault for watching the English version.). However, this ultimately just adds to the uneasiness, like we’re watching something out of a fever dream. There are long sequences of no dialogue and just music, sometimes the ethereal score by Popol Vuh, other times music from Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. The buildup to meeting Dracula is particularly dreamlike, but after Dracula kills the entire crew of the ship and moves into the small town where the Harkers live, it goes full nightmare. Lucy (Isabelle Adjani) finds herself surrounded by caskets being carried through the streets as she tries in vain to explain to them that Dracula is behind the deaths.

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It’s not a dream, but it has that feeling of the dream where you keep trying to speak but no one can hear you.

As Jonathan continues to succumb to vampirism, Lucy discovers that the way to defeat Dracula is to let him attack her until daylight, at which point he will die. When she steps outside, she sees people dancing in the streets with some very creepy wordless vocals playing in the background.

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She then sees rats everywhere, surrounding a table where people are eating their “last supper,” knowing they’ve caught the plague and will die soon.

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Suddenly, the people are gone, and only the rats remain. It’s not a quick cut or a jump scare, but just a creepy emptiness that we feel on seeing everyone gone.

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These scenes that could either be dreams or reality, but are nevertheless dreamlike. It’s such an atmospheric film, and these scenes really give it a unique identity in comparison to the original.

As the film draws to a close, Lucy willingly gives herself to Dracula, sacrificing her life to save Jonathan and the whole town. When daylight comes, it kills Dracula, just like in the original.

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Surprisingly, the film does not recreate the iconic shot from Nosferatu of Orlok’s shadow climbing the stairs, but I think this is for the best. It would just feel like a copy or an inferior version.

After Dracula’s death, though, things take a turn. Van Helsing (a relatively minor character) stakes Dracula to vanquish his life force permanently. However, Jonathan Harker remains a vampire and has Van Helsing arrested for murdering a royal.

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Since there aren’t any police or prison guards left, he’s arrested by a citizen who doesn’t quite know what to do with him. It’s a darkly comedic scene, almost like something out of Monty Python, and yet somehow it works. It manages to successfully balance the comedy with the horror and tragedy of a town where barely anyone is left alive. I can absolutely understand someone not liking this ending, as most versions of Dracula have at least a bittersweet ending, but I love it. Let’s take a look at how it compares to the original.

CAST

I suppose it’s hard to say if silent performances are better than speaking performances, but I’ll try my best. Kinski does a great job as the vampire, adding a layer of tragedy not in the original, and he’s almost as great as Max Schreck. That said, there’s just something so creepy about the original that can never be duplicated. Bruno Ganz and Isabelle Adjani bring a lot to the roles of Jonathan and Lucy, making sure there is never a dull moment on screen.

STORY

It takes points from the original Nosferatu and expands on them, having a very similar plot but doing things in different ways. The ending is also quite different, and I like it a lot.

EXPERIENCE

This is a stunningly gorgeous film, from the incredible wide shots to the heavenly music. It’s a full experience, and you really should experience it, especially if you’re a fan of the original film.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Nosferatu the Vampyre is a fantastic companion piece to the silent classic, and a great film in its own right. In fact, there’s sort of a thematic trilogy with the two Nosfeatu films and 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, and I can see myself watching all three over and over.

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Village of the Damned (1995)

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  • Year: 1995
  • Director: John Carpenter
  • Starring: Christopher Reeve, Kirstie Alley, Linda Kozlowski

For the second week in a row, I’m taking a look at a 1990s remake of a 1960 horror film. However, today’s movie is a lot more obscure than Psycho (albeit most films are), instead enjoying status as a cult classic. Directed by Wolf Rilla and based on The Midwich CuckoosVillage of the Damned is a charming little black-and-white horror that leaves a lot to the imagination.

One day, all of the residents of a small English village are knocked out cold, and anyone who tries to enter the town has the same happen. A few hours later, they all wake up, but not long after, it’s discovered that every woman of age has become pregnant. The embryos grow faster than normal, and when the children are born, they are clearly not normal. Not only do they learn faster than an average child, they also have a collective hive mind. The scariest part is that they can even read minds and control others’ minds. It could easily have been a cheesy b-movie premise, but it chooses instead to focus on Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) in both his relationship as a father to one of the children, and his meetings with the government about the children, who eventually are revealed to be aliens.

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Between the unfolding mystery of what exactly the children are, the performances of Sanders and Michael Gwynn (as his brother-in-law), and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, it’s a wonderful little movie.

Ever since the success of 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (a fantastic remake), Hollywood was looking for a way to remake Village of the Damned. It didn’t happen until 1995, but the choice of John Carpenter makes a lot of sense. Who better than Carpenter, the guy who brought us Michael Myers invading Haddonfield in Halloween, to bring us a story about a small town being infested with evil?

The setting is shifted from England to a coastal California town, and like in the original, we get the close-knit feel of the town right away.

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I wish we could have gotten a little bit more, but it’s an everybody-knows-everyone kind of place with some gorgeous scenery shots. In addition, the fact that the remake was made in 1995 allows the surprise pregnancies to be dealt with in more detail. In the original, they’re basically just a plot point, but here we at least have the potential to see the effect this could have on a small community like Midwich.

Christopher Reeve plays Dr. Alan Chaffee (because no one’s buying Gordon Zellaby as an American name), the kindly town doctor.

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Reeve was obviously a great actor, and he works with what he’s given here, but sadly it’s very little. Besides a few actors, it just feels like no one’s heart was really in this. Comments from Carpenter at the time seem positive on the surface, but make it clear this was pretty much just a contractual obligation (which he confirmed later). Reeve does fine, but he never lives up to the performance of George Sanders in the original, because there’s nothing to work around.

The other actors are a real mixed bag. The best performance comes from Linda Kozlowski as Jill McGowan, a happily married woman who is widowed at the beginning of the film, raising her new son David alone.

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Each of the children is supposed to be born with a partner, but since David’s is stillborn, he understands grief, while the others do not. Jill believes (correctly) that he is more human than the others, and is insistent on raising him as a normal child. Neither film ever goes all-in on the nature vs. nurture debate as much as they could, but this one at least does some interesting things with Jill and David. Unfortunately, what is gained through Jill’s character is lost in the protagonist. In the original, Gordon Zellaby hoped his son could be a normal child, but there’s none of that with Reeve’s character here. Instead, his daughter is basically the villainous leader of the kids. I kind of wonder what could have happened if Reeve’s and Kozlowski’s characters were married instead.

Kirstie Alley plays Dr. Susan Verner, the stand-in for the various government employees in the original. Alley doesn’t bring much to the role, but again, she doesn’t have much to do except relay exposition. I don’t know, she seems miscast, but it’s not entirely her fault.

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There’s also Mark Hamill as the town reverend, and he feels like he’s out of a different movie entirely. He’s very dramatic and serious, and it’s not a bad performance, but it kind of clashes with the others. He may be out of a different movie, but frankly I’d rather watch that one.

Ultimately, one thing about the film that just doesn’t work is the children themselves. In the original, there was something clearly off about these very pale, blonde children that stood out against the black-and-white cinematography.

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Their hair was slightly off, and their voices were a bit robotic, sort of like aliens trying to imitate human life (which is exactly what they are). In color it just doesn’t work.

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The wigs (or hairstyles, but I doubt it) look ridiculously fake, and the eyes glow different colors which is silly.

Let’s compare a scene of the children “killing” someone in the original with the same scene in the remake. In the original film, a motorist almost hits one of the children who walks out into the road, but he hits the brakes in time.

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He gets out to apologize, and is unsettled when the children just stare, one with glowing eyes. Almost immediately, he crashes the car into a brick wall and dies.

It’s a chilling scene, but it’s a subtle one. It’s definitely a precursor to The Omen, where the deaths could have a natural explanation or could be caused by creepy children. As both movies go on, it’s clear the children are to blame, and we the audience are pretty sure by this point into Damned that they are, but the townspeople don’t know. Of course a motorist who almost kills a child with his car could be rattled enough to get in a wreck almost immediately.

In the remake, one of the girls goes out of her way to step in front of this Orson Welles lookalike.

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The children’s eyes all glow, and he is clearly in a trance when he gets back into his truck. He drives off the road and right into an oil tank which just happened to be sitting right there! How convenient.

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You know, just being more over-the-top and ridiculous doesn’t make it scarier. It just makes it edge even closer to the comedic, and in this film’s climax, it crosses the line so far into the comedic that it’s not even funny… or it is… I don’t know. We’ll get back to that.

Since the horror doesn’t work at all, how about the drama? This one does go out of its way to make Alan more tragic, as the children (including his own “daughter”) kill his wife (Karen Kahn). It should be a heart-wrenching moment, and yet the execution (no pun intended) is horrible. First, they get her to boil her hand in hot water, and she goes to the hospital. Fine, no problem. Then, they get her to go outside and commit suicide by… looking down at some rocks and stepping slightly out of frame.

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Her husband runs outside shouting her name, but after this, his grief is barely touched on again. There’s a scene between Alan and David at a cemetery where they bond over grief, but that’s it! Why was this included at all? Were the scenes of her jumping and her husband grieving cut for time? Why would you cut the protagonist’s character arc for time? Cut something else. Trust me, there’s plenty to work with. Did nobody want to make this movie?

The expanded supporting cast only leads to more ridiculous, over-the-top deaths. The town reverend tries to pick off the children from a distance, but they make him turn the gun on himself. The creepy school janitor (a cliche that felt old even in 1995) goes as far as jumping off a roof and impaling himself with own broom.

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Again, going more over-the-top doesn’t inherently make it more scary. The deaths just get more ridiculous as it goes on, as the reverend’s wife, who has taken to leading an angry mob, self-immolates. In another death that is grotesque merely for the sake of it, Dr. Verner is forced to stab herself open.

Like in the original, Dr. Chaffee agrees to educate the children himself. Ultimately, he decides to plant a bomb in his suitcase to destroy them, but he knows he can only do it with an empty, unreadable mind. However, as he is preparing for this, the police arrive in town.

Look, this remake of Village of the Damned has very little to offer, so let’s be thankful it does give us one of the most hilarious sequences ever in a horror movie. Two policemen show up, but the children walk out and cause the one to shoot the other. Then, a parade of police cars (and a helicopter!) roll in, and the remaining officer starts firing on them!

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The children start controlling different officers, and it turns into hilarious chaos. Cars start running over officers, the helicopter falls out the sky, the sheriff shows up, and then the army shows up. A bus of convicts rolls by, and everyone just starts shooting at it. It’s comedic gold, and I really wish Carpenter had just gone all out and put “Yakety Sax” over it. I mean, he had to know this was funny.

Dr. Chaffee’s plan succeeds, and the children are destroyed, save for David, who is clearly more human than the rest. Jill leaves town with him, driving away from the wreckage into a new life.

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He just blinks over and over, signifying that the signature death glare of the children is now gone. Despite everything else in the movie, I like this final moment. If the movie had been more focused on these two, it could at least have been an effective drama.

Let’s see how it compares to the original, beyond just saying “terribly.”

CAST

There are good actors in this. They don’t get a chance to really show it, except for Kozlowsky now and then, but they are there.

STORY

This is really the problem. No one is really committed to telling a good story. The deaths are absurd, the characters are poorly sketched, and even though the creators claimed they wanted to make it more about an alien invasion, all we see is an alien skeleton. Riveting.

EXPERIENCE

I do like the feel of the town, so there’s that, and it’s a John Carpenter movie, so the music does an alright job. It just doesn’t have that creepy vibe the original did

FINAL THOUGHTS

This is what happens when you suck all the life out a good story. It’s pretty clear that no one cared about making an interesting movie here. Just watch the original again.

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Psycho (1998)

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  • Year: 1998
  • Director: Gus van Sant
  • Starring: Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore

Psycho is only of the single-most important events in the entire history of film, so of course someone decided to remake it. There had already been a stream of progressively worse sequels in the ’80s and ’90s, and now director Gus van Sant decided it was time for a remake. So what did he do? Follow closer to the book-version of Norman Bates who is more obviously a middle-aged, overweight creep? Try to see what a Norman Bates character would look like updated for the ’90s? Take a wildly different direction with the story?

NOPE. It’s a near-identical remake. It’s often misidentified as a shot-for-shot remake which isn’t true (There’s at least one small scene not even recreated), but it’s incredibly similar. It is probably the most similar remake of any film ever shot, and if it isn’t, please let me know what is. Only a few lines are updated for the present day, and the use of the 38-year-old script almost word-for-word is what usually catches the most flak, causing viewers to write it off as pointless.

For me, change of script isn’t the issue. I know at first it seems strange, but if you think of it as a different performance of a play, it might make a bit more sense. Think about how wildly different two adaptations of Hamlet can be, despite the fact that they’re using essentially the exact same script. Certain lines can have a different inflection, or even a whole different meaning if they’re written ambiguously enough. In fact, I could see how taking on dialogue so iconic and putting a new spin on it could be incredibly enticing for an actor. In fact, a lot of them do put different spins on their characters, and we’ll get to them. The big problem for me, besides one major performance flaw, is that the visuals are the same. Sure, it’s in color, and sure a few random changes are made, but why would you try to emulate Hitchcock’s exact shots?

There’s no point in recapping the plot, because it’s exactly the same. See the original Psycho if you haven’t. I don’t think I need to tell you that. However, right off the bat, the remake gets one thing right the original didn’t.

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Hitchcock wanted the opening shot to be a long take that spanned the Phoenix skyline, smoothly zooming on Sam Loomis and Marion Crane in their hotel room. However, he couldn’t get the shot to work, so it was done with a few cuts instead. Van Sant did have the technology to do the shot, and I’ll be honest, it looks great. I think Hitchcock would approve.

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We zoom-in Marion Crane (Anne Heche) and Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen) as they’re finishing up an afternoon tryst before Marion has to get back to work.

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Obviously a scene of two unmarried lovers talking candidly about sex isn’t risque like it was in 1960, so there’s a random shot of Viggo’s naked butt. Thanks, that was necessary.

That said, both Mortensen and Heche offer new takes on their characters. Mortensen plays Sam Loomis as the kind of guy I’d actually believe would own a hardware store, as opposed to John Gavin in the original, who was just kind of there. Psycho is an indisputable classic and is perfect in nearly every way, but the character of Sam Loomis as played by John Gavin is relatively flat and looks more like a matinee idol than a guy who runs a small hardware store and travels to Phoenix for afternoon trysts with his girlfriend.

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Anne Heche’s performance was divisive when the remake came out, as will anyone’s who is reprising an iconic role, but I like what she does with the character. Her Marion Crane is more sarcastic and dismissive towards the creepy guy who flirts with her at her job, and she is clearly creeped out by Norman Bates, even laughing off the classic “A boy’s best friend is his mother” comment. I suppose this didn’t sit well with some viewers, but I guess they forgot that Norman is a murderer! She is right to be creeped out by him. Obviously both versions of Marion Crane are out of their element, and while Janet Leigh is great in the original, I don’t think you could believably play the character that naive in a modern film. Even if you could, you just know people would have complained it was too similar.

1998

For some reason, Marion’s co-worker who only appears in one scene seems to come out of a parody film. Rita Wilson, who is obviously a fine actress, reads her line so melodramatically that I’m convinced that she either A) Was mocking the project itself or B) Was told she was in a Zucker Brothers-style parody.

rita
I have… no idea.

The money that Marion steals is upped from $40,000 to $400,000 in this version, which is fine, because at least it’s not $10,000 to $1,000,000 like in House on Haunted Hill.

I don’t know why Gus van Sant felt the need to recreate all of Hitchcock’s famous shots, and it makes this scene with the cop particularly strange.

I mean, why didn’t he go all out and put a terrible green screen effect behind Marion’s driving scenes? Also, you can still see the eyes in the color shot! You can’t in black-and-white.

Once she gets to the Bates Motel, we get to the inevitable make-or-break point of the movie—Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates.

vaughn

I don’t know who thought casting Vince Vaughn as the iconic villain was a good idea, but even putting my own personal disdain for Vaughn aside, this is objectively a bad performance. He’s sorta-kinda going for an impression of Perkins, but he’s just so creepy that it doesn’t work. Perkins played the character as the awkward boy next door type, but Vaughn plays it as that creepy neighbor you try to never make contact with. In addition, while this may sound like a strange criticism, but he’s just too tall. Perkins appeared unimposing, and you can see why Marion pitied him in the original version, but Vaughn towers over Heche and we get why she makes fun of him instead. This film has a very talented cast, but Vaughn is undeniably the weak link, which really drags the film down. After this, he would of course go on to be typecast as “The guy in comedies who isn’t funny but also isn’t the straight man,” but if anyone wonders why his dramatic roles didn’t take off, just watch this.

One thing the film does change is the scene where Norman creeps on Marion through the peephole. Remember how in the original it was unsettling seeing him watch Marion undress, but also essentially like a little boy who never learned the first thing about sex?

peep

Well yeah in this one he masturbates. The only reference to masturbation that should ever be in a Psycho film is if Norman hires a butler who insists on calling him “Master Bates,” and even that would get old. This is just ridiculous. You make a handful of changes to a screenplay, but you make sure to include this. Also, the lighting in the office makes Vince Vaughn looks like he has a creepy John Waters mustache, which is just distracting.

waters

The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the most shocking, horrifying, and most influential scenes in cinematic history. Not only does it kill off its presumed protagonist early in the film, it suggests nudity and violence without really showing anything (the knife never even goes in), rather putting us right in Marion’s frantic position through a serious of cuts.

shower

Of course, Van Sant recreates the scene almost identically, save for some random shots of clouds.

clouds
There’s some irony here in that the stock footage is some of the only original stuff in the movie.

I was trying to think of a way for this scene to be shocking, perhaps even a fraction as shocking as the original 1960 film was in its time. Obviously upping the violence or the gore wouldn’t do it, because no amount of violence could produce the same shock this scene did in 1960 (save for perhaps Norman bombing the motel from a helicopter, but that would just be bad writing). I mean, in the book Norman beheads her, but I still don’t think that would be enough. There is a conclusion I’ve arrived that which would be as shocking as the original film—Marion fights back and kills him. Who knows where the film could have gone after that, but can you imagine the shock? Marion is smarter in this version as it is, so it would make sense that she’d be prepared. Sure, it would be a wildly different movie, and I have to judge the movie at hand, but if Gus van Sant really wanted to recreate the word-of-mouth shock value of the original, this would have done it.

Instead the movie plays out exactly like the original, as we watch Vince Vaughn clean up after the murder in what seems to take forever. It goes on for the same length as the scenes in the original, but in the original you’re both recovering from the shock, trying to figure out how much Norman knows, and genuinely engaged by Perkins’ performance. Here… yeah it’s none of that.

After this, we’re introduced to Julianne Moore as Marion’s sister Lila (originally played by Vera Miles) and William H. Macy as Detective Milton Arbogast (originally played by Martin Balsam), and they’re probably the two best things about the movie.

macy

Macy is very similar to Martin Balsam in the original, but not in a way that feels like he’s going for an impression or imitation. He just has the same kind of easygoing likability and intelligence that made the original character work so well. On the flip side of things, Julianne Moore takes her character in a slightly different direction. In both versions, Lila Crane wants to know what happened to her sister, but in the original she seems to let Loomis and Arbogast take the lead a bit. Here she is determined and will stop at nothing to make sure her sister is found, and once again, her determination makes sense because her sister is dead. She’s not overreacting. The performances of these two actors (along with Heche) really made me think that working with the same shooting script could potentially work if the other problems were fixed.

The buildup to Arbogast’s death in the original is brilliantly tense, but the falling effect itself looks silly, even for the time. We let it go, because it’s a classic and the rest of the film is great, but here there’s no excuse. Why wouldn’t you make this effect better today? You updated the one-take in the opening scene! Also, as he’s falling we get even more random imagery, like a woman in bondage and a cow on a wet road.

cow road
See the cow is Norman, the rain is Mother… I give up.

The rest of the film plays exactly like the original, again with the exception that Lila is a bit more assertive. In fact, I think they should have gone further with it and made her interrogate Norman instead of Sam, but Mortensen does a good job too. If there’s one good thing I can say about the ending of this movie, it’s that at least the psychiatrist scene doesn’t go as long. In the original, a psychiatrist takes five whole minutes to diagnose Norman Bates’ condition, and it drags. The actor is very over-the-top, and it just comes off as silly these days (and probably did then too). Here, a low-key Robert Forster takes only two minutes, and it’s a much more realistic and concise take on the scene. In a weird way, the beginning and the end improve on the original, but by that I only mean the opening scene and the last long scene.

It might seem silly to compare this to the original, but let’s do it anyway.

CAST

I like what a lot of the supporting actors do with their characters, but Vince Vaughn is just awful. Nothing can save it.

STORY

It is the same.

EXPERIENCE

The opening scene looks good, but that’s really it. I wish Gus van Sant had done something unique with it instead… but not like those random shots of cows and clouds.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I may be in the minority of people who actually think this could have worked, but it ultimately doesn’t. I mostly blame Vaughn and van Sant, because at least the other actors seem to be invested in this. With a different Norman Bates, I do think this would have been better received. Ultimately, it’s still a strange choice that has understandably been forgotten.

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