Could it be made today? is an occasional column where we look at a classic movie and consider how changes in technology and tastes would impact it if it were made today. This week’s topic: The 1960 classic—and the 1998 remake—of Psycho.
Director: Alfred HitchcockGus Van Sant
Stars: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles / Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore
Release date: June 16, 1960 / December 4, 1998
Synopsis: Marion Crane (Leigh/Heche), an employee of a real estate agent in Phoenix, makes the rash decision to steal a huge sum of money from one of her boss’ wealthy clients. She intends to use it to start a new life with her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin/Viggo Mortensen) but along the drive from Phoenix to her California home, she gets lost in the rain. She ends up at the Bates Motel, run by a nervous but hospitable young man named Norman Bates (Perkins/Vaughn), who lives in a house behind the hotel with his aging, invalid mother. When Marion goes missing, her sister Lila (Miles/Moore) and Sam show up at the Bates Motel looking for her, only to find that Norman Bates’ mother is more than anyone realizes.
Could it be made today?
Technically yes – but only with major changes. Someone did just that a few years ago, with the TV series Bates Motel. But this show, which was set in modern times, was mostly a prequel to the events of the psychology story. When he turned to adapting the original psychology novel (by Robert Bloch) and film in its final season, it had to make some really major changes to the script.
Sure, psychology has already been redone once, by Gus Van Sant in 1998. His psychology remains a fascinating experience, although mostly missed. While not quite a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s film, it is an extremely faithful update of it – even in places where some creative choices make the extremely anachronistic film, even in 1998. (Like suiting up Vince Vaughn’s Norman Bates in a corduroy blazer and pants, something nobody this age wore in the late 90s.) Van Sant’s psychology also features almost identical dialogue to Hitchcock’s, all the same characters (and no additional characters), plus a new recording of Bernard Herrmann’s classic score.
While Van Sant’s psychology was intended as a ‘modern’ update – the opening title cards set the date as December 11, 1998 – it is now 24 years old. When it came out, Hitchcock’s psychology was 38 years old. In those 38 years, society had changed, but not so much that it couldn’t replicate the same story in pretty much the same place with just a few cosmetic changes. (Marion Crane steals $400,000 from the remake, down from the original’s $40,000.) 24 years later, it seems nigh on impossible that you can remake psychology again – at least not like Van Sant did.
Many of the plot complications couldn’t exist in a world of cellphones – let alone smartphones. Marion disappears, then the private detective Arbogast does the same; in each case, Norman has the time he needs to hide his mother’s crimes because it takes hours or days for their friends or loved ones to realize they are missing. (Arbogast even has to find a public phone to check in with Lila and Sam.) In a world of texts and emails, Marion and Arbogast’s absences would have been detected much sooner – not to mention Norman would have needed to get rid of their phones if he didn’t want the cops to immediately find their bodies deep in the swamp behind the Bates Motel.
But many other details of the story would fall apart in a world of computers, the internet, and modern commerce. Could Marion rent a room under a false name and without a credit card? Maybe in a dump like the Bates Motel, but it’s unlikely. Would a cop let her go so quickly if he could check her license against a central computer database? Again, it’s possible, but much less plausible. Hell, the Bates Motel would probably get such poor ratings on Yelp (“The pressure in the showerhead was great, but the staff was beyond terrible!”) that Norman would run out of potential victims in a hurry.
All the psychological underpinnings of the relationship between Marion and Sam should also be changed. In the previous films, they have to meet in secret because of Sam’s divorce. In 2022, no one would care; Sam and Marion wouldn’t have to sneak out at lunchtime. The reception of Norman Bates dressing as his mother would certainly be taken very differently (and perhaps more controversially) than it was in 1960 and 1998 as well.
Then there’s the more practical matter of the film’s reception. A lot of psychologyThe impact of , at least in 1960, rested on the shock value of Marion Crane’s surprising fate and how the film upended audience expectations. This archival press reel shows efforts by Hitchcock and Paramount to keep Marion’s script from coming out too soon.
In the age of social media, it would be nearly impossible for the film to catch a secret beyond Thursday night before its Friday release. No amount of gleeful pleading from his manager would change that.