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movie review by Crissa-Jean Chappell

"No one...BUT NO ONE..." was admitted after the start of each performance. The press called it melodrama. Critics claimed the plot hinged on a single surprise. People still wound around the block, waiting to sneak a peek at 1960’s first pop phenomenon. Nearly forty years later, multiple remakes have failed to surpass Hitchcock’s original "entente terrible."

"Psycho," the director said, was like taking the audience "through the haunted house at the fairground or the roller-coaster." He insisted on blocking his audience from screenings after the lights winked out. "At one moment, we play this note on them and get this reaction, and then we play that chord and they react that way."

Small-town California, not a distant ghost-infested countryside, destroyed the concept of cinematic "safe space." Psycho brought the horror home. Here’s an unmarried couple on their "lunch break," romping in a rented bed. The film’s most gruesome scene takes place—where else?—in a stark-white bathroom beheld with voyeuristic abandon. Never before had a motion picture paid much attention to the dirty details of flushing a toilet...or taking a shower.

Psycho destroyed the intimacy of everyday actions set in private places. The stabbing lasts under a minute but contains 78 separate shots. The shrieking violins assault a viewer’s eardrums. The blood-soaked image collapses into an eye-raping collage—crossing the boundaries between physical and imaginary harm.

Until the scene occurs, the audience has been so engrossed in the story, they can hardly believe it’s happening. Before the film was half-finished, Hitchcock killed off his leading lady. No longer could movie audiences trust in the hero’s salvation. Nothing was certain—especially the part about "being okay in the end."

Editing, eyeline matches, and shot patterns normally assured the audience of a movie’s topography. Post-Psycho films have secured the treachery of "unsafe space." Instead of passively engaging people in their seats, they suggest a more malignant, active approach to watching a film. Unsafe space (particularly of horror films) permits masochistic pleasure in identifying with a "female" victim and sadistic "male" delight in her demise. Psycho’s Oedipal themes unquestionably express this male fear of female sexuality.

Hitchcock based his film on a best-selling 1959 novel by Robert Bloch. The author, in search of a new story, heard about a real character who became Norman Bates. In Plainfield, Wisconsin, a farmer named Ed Gein skinned young girls and inspired stories, including 1974’s "Texas Chainsaw Massacre." The rights to the book were bought by Hitchcock. He left Warner Bros., moved to Paramount, and told reporters he was looking for a middle-aged actress to play Mrs. Bates. Instead of casting huge Hollywood stars in the main roles (as was typical for Hitchcock), he chose two lesser-known performers, Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh. (Leigh would receive a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for her performance.)

Gus Van Sant isn’t the only nouveau director to tackle a sequel. He’s simply the latest in a long line of imitators, starting 22 years after the original scraped our senses. What does this self-professed "homage" (as in shot-by-shot, line-by-line duplication) have that the original lacks? In short: color—so we get to see primary red puddling down the drain. This addition only proves how the human mind fills in the blanks. In black-and- white, the blood seems more authentic. It’s scarier because only we can imagine the perfect blood-hue. We might even mistakenly see it on the screen. Color tends to date an image, depending on the day’s taste and technology.

Study the new set design, apparently cloned from the old, and notice how the garish cinematography (following the same camera setups) exaggerates the period tone of a film that takes place (according to the title) in "December 1998." Why do these characters recite Joseph Stefano’s slang-laced script as if they’re revamping Shakespeare for a modern-day timeline? It proves how little Hollywood loves words when it believes 40-year-old dialogue will go unnoticed by sharp-tongued teens weaned on postmodern Screams.

All this stylistic aggressiveness can’t fix a clunky performance. Familiar actors flub their lines and pretend they’ve adapted some new dynamism. Vince Vaughn is the film’s most egregious error—a swaggering lummox with a malfunctioning giggle. Unhunky Perkins looked like a bird and moved like one as the Mama’s boy who made a hobby out of stuffing feathered friends. Heche, with her sleeked-back, gnawed-looking hair, lends ‘90s edge to a role reduced to mere prey. Quirky costuming (an umbrella and matching nail polish the shade of orange sherbet) appears clever or self-conscious depending on the circumstance. Julianne Moore is permanently plugged into her Walkman—making us wonder...what decade is this, anyway? William H. Macy can’t decide. His crackerjack detective sounds like an audition for another sequel—if one existed for L.A. Confidential.

The screams toggle between octaves. Danny Elfman’s re-vamped score works like audio Braille, indicating when to get scared. That’s a good thing. We wouldn’t know otherwise. Psycho’s latest sequel might possess one plus—it proves that a quintessential film, if copied to the frame, can never usurp (or even equal, in some cases) the mood of the original. A movie is more than the sum of its parts—a director, a cameraman, an actor quoting the screenwriter’s lines. Hitchcock was a great collaborator who always managed to find the right people for the job. Take this away from Psycho (along with the cultural context of its time) and we’re left with Van Sant’s boring experiment...a movie without an audience.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]