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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why Van Sant Failed Where Hitchcock Succeeded: editing in Psycho

Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 Psycho fails to frighten for a reason you probably would never notice. But here are the shortcomings anyone would pick up on:

-Vince Vaughn is too giddy as Norman Bates
-"Mother" is too tall and manly
-"Mother's" wig looks like a wig in every scene
-1960s moral norms don't make sense in 1998 (why are Sam and Marion meeting in secret?)
-Arbogast's attire is totally anachronistic in 1998
-There is a well-lit aviary in the fruit celler, which shatters the climax's mood
-The cover gives away the shower scene to a young audience that missed the original

Those complaints aside, there are three horror scenes in the story: The Shower, where Marion is stabbed by "Mother," The Stairs, where Arbogast, the private detective, is attacked on the landing of the stairs and falls down, and The Cellar, where Lila discovers Mother's preserved body and Norman runs in, dressed as "Mother," only to be subdued by Sam.

In analyzing each scene, I provide the actual film time of each significant event, and zero out the first event (to 00:00) to provide a point of reference and demonstrate how much time elapses during each scene. Of utmost importance are the disparities between the two in regard to when and how the trademark shrieking musical score, written by Bernard Herrmann, is incorporated into the scene.

00:00 (00:47:21): Shot begins in which the bathroom door will open; inside shower
00:04 (00:47:25): Bathroom door opens
00:12 (00:47:37): "Mother" pulls back the shower curtain
Music begins, after sound of curtain opening
00:35 (00:48:00): "Mother" leaves the bathroom

00:00 (00:45:03): Shot begins in which the bathroom door will open; inside shower
00:05 (00:45:08): Bathroom door opens
00:17 (00:45:20): "Mother" pulls back the shower curtain
00:23 (00:45:26): Music beings
00:54 (00:45:57): "Mother" leaves the bathroom

Van Sant's scene fails in terms of brevity. In 1960, "Mother" was only in the bathroom for 31 seconds. In 1998, she stuck around for 49. This time is wasted on a few pointless additions, including footage of the thundering sky, a closeup of Marion's dilating eye mid-murder, and an extended curtain-reveal, where "Mother" pulls back the curtain, Marion gasps, Marion screams, "Mother" stabs once, and then the music begins to play.
In the original, the music is integral to the murder. It is the sound of the murder. A few incidental sound effects make it through the score. Contrast this with the remake, where the music is not introduced until the murder is well in progress, and it takes a backseat to the screaming, the sound of the shower, the loud squeaks of Marion's feet in the tub, and the sound of thunder from outside. These are all detractors from the impact of the music.

00:00 (1:17:02): Arbogast takes to the stairs
00:08 (1:17:10): The door to Mother's room opens at the top of the stairs
00:18 (1:17:20): Shot begins in which "Mother" will appear; overhead shot, landing
00:19 (1:17:21): Music begins, much faster tempo than The Shower
Mother appears, only slightly after the music starts

00:00 (1:13:27): Arbogast takes to the stairs
00:09 (1:13:36): The door to Mother's room opens at the top of the stairs
00:16 (1:13:43): Shot begins in which "Mother" will appear; overhead shot, landing
00:17 (1:13:44): Mother appears
00:18 (1:13:45): Music begins, same score as The Shower

First, the music in the 1960 version is nearly twice the tempo of that used in the first murder scene, while the 1998 version employs the same score throughout the film.
More importantly, in the original, the music precedes "Mother's" appearance in the doorway, if only by a hiccup. In the remake, she is already a full stride out onto the landing, a full second later, when the music cues.

00:00 (1:41:10): The chair holding Mother's corpse begins to turn and reveal her.
00:07 (1:41:17): Lila screams
00:10 (1:41:20): Music begins
00:12 (1:41:22): Norman runs into the room, dressed as "Mother"

00:00 (1:33:35): The chair holding Mother's corpse begins to turn and reveal her.
00:05 (1:33:40): Lila screams the first of several times
00:11 (1:33:46): Norman is shown already in the room, dressed as "Mother"
00:12 (1:33:47): Music begins

A serious misstep in the cellar scene is the conversion from a fruit cellar to a fairly well-lit aviary, where Norman keeps (or raises?) the live birds he taxidermizes. This seems like an obvious swipe from The Silence of the Lambs (1991), mirroring the entymologist's hell that Buffalo Bill makes of his basement. There is simply not enough time in this scene to process the implicaitons of the aviary. The additional lighting competes with the creepy atmosphere generated in the original by the single hanging lightbulb, and the bird noises are distracting, a sad departure from the breath-holding silence of the original.
Vaughn misplays his scene as Norman here, not even attempting Anthony Perkins's wild-eyed, openmouthed countenance, taking instead a dull stare as he advances on Lila.
Lila's multiple screams seem out of place, especially because she seems to lose her wits with terror, rather than surprise, before composing herself enough to give Norman a heroic kick as Sam is subduing him.
In terms of music again, the music in the original foretells "Mother's" appearance by two seconds, while in the remake, the music starts one second after Norman is revealed as "Mother," coinciding with his raising of the knife.

There is an important relationship between "Mother" and the music that accompanies her appearances throughout the 1960 film. They are introduced less than a second apart in the shower scene, so that the first note follows the sound of the shower curtain sliding back to reveal the killer. The murderer and the music, an infamously jarring piece entitled "The Knife," are synonymous, as suggested by the film.
For "Mother's" second appearance on the stairs, the music precedes her this time, by less than a second. In that fraction of a second, the music is heard, and the danger is already ascertained by the audience once she appears.
In the cellar, it has been firmly established that the music signals impending terror. When the cue happens in the cellar, two full seconds elapse showing the darkened doorway through which Norman will enter, dressed as the old woman and clutching the knife. But the audience has not seen "her" face. We know that this is the climax, we have been shown that no character, no matter how major a player, is safe from the knife, and we have two seconds to note that Lila is alone with a corpse in the fruit cellar as someone hurries down the steps to kill her.

Contrast this with the remake, in which the music is never given the respect it deserves. It is only the background to the violence, and is overpowered by other sounds and noises. In a very legitimate sense, the music in the original is the real villain, for it is able to race the hearts of the audience, independent of any character on the screen. In the remake, the music plays after Mother's appearance in every scene.

I still enjoyed the remake, because I love the story, independent of its execution, including the 1959 novel by Robert Bloch. I wonder how much better it could be with a few little tweaks to its editing.
My parents showed me the original in 1999, when I was 10 years old, and it scared me terribly. It's now my second favorite film, but these scenes are still potent enough to make my heart pound just taking notes for this post. This film always has the effect on me, unlike any of the other 385 horror films I've seen since.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)