Before Hitchcock and Gus Van Sant go head to head at Cigarette Burns Cinema's Psycho simul-bill, Anton Bitel explores the many faces of a horror classic.
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho opens with a fallen – or falling – woman. At a particular hour on a particular day, the camera tracks through the cityscape of Phoenix, Arizona, before peeking through a window to reveal Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) who is, to adopt a key metaphor from the film itself, a bird already stuffed.
On an extended lunchbreak wearing only a brassière, in a hotel room – nay bed – with her lover Sam Loomis (John Gavin), the unmarried but clearly sexually active Marion has been caught (by our leering, eavesdropping eyes) in breach of the moral standards and moribund Production Code of the day. Times were a-changing, and there could be no going back.
Shortly afterwards, back in the real estate office where she works, Marion will fall further. After an older, married client (Frank Albertson) hits on her, flashing his cash in an ostentatious manner that leaves little doubt what the nature of any relationship between them would be, Marion gives in to the temptation – not so much of his sexual overtures but of all that money. Fleeing with his $40,000 that she is supposed to be taking to the bank, Marion drives through the night, her conscience haunted by (audible) voices that make us wonder whether she might be the titular 'psycho', as the on-screen unraveling of her neurosis and paranoia becomes a tense study in mental – as well as moral – breakdown.
Trying to shake an inquisitive highway patrolman (Mort Mills), Marion finds herself caught in a heavy rain on a California backroad at night, and pulls in, reluctantly, at an isolated motel. After a conversation with the owner, mother's boy Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), about the "private traps" we all build for ourselves, Marion decides to escape hers before it is too late – to head back to Phoenix early the next morning, return the money, and make amends.
Yet as she steps into her motel room's shower, trying to wash away the taint of her previous indiscretions, this symbolic purification will be transformed by Hitchcock into an act of violent (multiple) penetration, in which Marion, though decidedly no longer a maiden, will still bleed, sending the film's supposed heroine, and our normative expectations of propriety (narrative and otherwise), down the drain.
Psycho, you see, with its bold gambit of premarital coupling, and its subsequent portrayal of sex and violence (typically conjoined), was traveling down by-roads that deviated considerably from the main highway, breaking grounds of taste and decorum along the way. Even the toilet down which Marion attempts to flush her scribbled calculations – but which still preserves the evidence of her hurried purgings after she herself is long gone – was an amenity till then rarely seen and never heard in America cinema. The floodgates were now open, and to watch Psycho was to be forever changed – and, as with sex, the first time was fundamental.
Hitchcock understood this all too well. In instructing his production assistant Peggy Robertson to buy up all existing copies of the 1959 Robert Bloch novel from which it was adapted, in forbidding his cast to do media interviews, in preventing any press screenings from taking place, and in imposing a well-publicised "no late admissions" policy at public screenings, Hitchcock was ensuring that his audience came to the film as innocents, unaware of the bumpy ride that he was about to give them, or of the twists and turns that would leave them so breathless. Once it was all over, and the viewer's cherished virtues, like Marion's, had been forever flushed away, it would be impossible to return to a virginal state.
This is a problem for anyone (apart from an entirely unacculturated child) who views Psycho today. You can still admire its immense craft, and recognise its wide influence, but you can only imagine what it would have been like to see it fresh in its initial release – before the film was canonised, before the Bates Motel, the shower scene, and Norman's Oedipal triangle all became iconic, and before everyone already knew how the film's first act would stop dead in its tracks and who the real psycho would turn out to be.
You would have to be over 70 to remember popping your film-going cherry to Psycho – for the rest of us, there neither was, nor is, nor can be a first time. Hitchcock's original sin is in the ancient past, and we are all already fallen, living in a post-Psycho, post-lapsarian age of gialli and slashers where Hitchcock's shocking innovations have become well-worn tropes. Even for those who have not yet actually seen the film with our own eyes, Psycho has already long since entered the consciousness from behind. Watching Psycho today we are all, like Marion in the shower, vainly trying to recover lost innocence too late.
So to feel like a virgin all over again, you need to look elsewhere, or differently. Though not without merit, the sequels – Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986) and the part-prequel telemovie Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990) – do come across as sloppy seconds, but in 1993 Douglas Gordon changed the way we see Hitchcock's original by transferring it from the theatre to the gallery, and projecting it at two frames per second, so that a film with a conventional feature length was stretched to last an entire day.
Gordon's installation 24 Hour Psycho appropriated and recontextualised Hitchock's imagery in ultra slow motion, allowing all the artistry of his framing and cutting to be anatomised in fetishistic detail, and turning our voyeurism into something neurotically obsessive. Indeed, by preserving all the lifelike features of Psycho apart from its natural mobility, Gordon was, much like Norman Bates, playing taxidermist.
In 1998, Gus van Sant took Hitchcock's raw materials and refashioned them into a (more or less) shot-for-shot remake. There are differences, some obvious, some less so. It is now shot in colour and now set in 1998. The $40,000 that Marion originally embezzled has been inflated to $400,000. Norman (Vince Vaughn) does not just spy on Marion (Anne Heche) in her motel room, but masturbates as he does so.
In the famous shower scene (with its equally famous editing), there are now cutaways to a storm outside, and the stair-top murder of Arbogast (William H Macy) features eve more bizarre cutaways (to a naked, blindfolded woman and an animal). In a self-conscious reflex, the sign outside Norman's establishment now reads, "Bates Motel – Newly Renovated". Yet amidst all these minor deviations, what is most striking about this remake – and what baffled many of its contemporary critics – is just how slavishly, even perversely, similar it is to its source.
What is more, van Sant wilfully orchestrates a clash of old and new, juxtaposing the outmoded (and absurdly outmoded-looking) back projection in Marion's driving scenes with the more naturalistic (and differently coloured) location shots from her rear-view mirror, or making Marion's sister Lila, as embodied by Julianne Moore, a far more aggressive and modern figure (with personal stereo) than she ever was in the 1960s version, and yet setting her alongside Arbogast, who is dressed like a noirish 'tec straight out of the '50s.
This is all knowingly postmodern – for the remake, though updated, is also trapped between two timezones, flaunting its own belatedness while also showing both how much and how little has changed since the original was made. Van Sant takes Hitchcock's winding ride and turns it into a campy transvestite's routine, with even the remake's knowing tagline – "Check in. Relax. Take a shower" – slyly acknowledging that we already know exactly where his impersonation is headed.
At one point Lila is actually seen to wink at Norman, and at us. Yet the film is also a true labour of love, an homage in such deliriously infatuated thrall to its inspiration that it seems more arthouse folly than studio cashcow – or, to cite the psychiatrist near the end of Psycho, "these were crime of passion, not profit."
Until recently, it has only been possible to see Hitchcock's and van Sant's films in series, but on Thursday the October 25, Cigarette Burns Cinema is presenting a unique London event in which both versions of the film will be screened in parallel, and in (visual) dialogue with each other. With the original projected onto the main screen of the Leicester Square Theatre, and the (shorter) remake carefully synchronised to play simultaneously on surrounding screens, Psycho vs Psycho will offer a typically Hitchcockian double take on the classic, and let us see this sullied vision afresh, both through van Sant's eyes and our own, reopened and ready to be defiled all over again.
Cigarette Burns Cinema presents: Psycho vs Psycho will take place 21:00 on Thursday October 25 at the Leicester Square Theatre. For more info go to leicestersquaretheatre.ticketsolve.com