Re-staging the Cinema: Psycho, Film Spectatorship and the Redundant New Remake

The press kit issued by Universal for Gus Van Sant’s controversial 1998 remake of  Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (USA 1960) points out that, “like many film-watchers of his generation, Van Sant first saw Hitchcock’s Psycho on television.”[1] D. N. Rodowick, another child of the generation for whom television programming and broadcasting practices played a central role in shaping and transforming film spectatorship, argues:

[M]y generation might owe a certain historical attitude to film to the functioning of broadcast television as a film museum. […] For many of us, television was our first repertory theatre, and to television we owe strategies of programming by genre and close analysis based on repetitive viewing.[2]

The television spectator is an especially important figure in relation to the original 1960 Psycho. The reverence in which Hitchcock’s Psycho is typically held as a ‘timeless,’ enduring classic obscures the fact that the film was made within the Hollywood studio system at a time when the ‘old’ Hollywood cinema was in crisis as a result of the rise of television and of independent film production in America. According to Stephen Rebello, because of Paramount Studio’s reluctance to finance Psycho, Hitchcock began to explore ways in which the film’s budget costs could be trimmed (Paramount merely distributed the final film). His solution: to return to black-and-white, to the studio shoot, to low-budget, scaled-down production values and shoot the film like “an expanded episode” of his TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.[3]

Hitchcock responded to the complex transitions underway in film production – which manifested as a crisis for the Hollywood studios and a crisis of funding for Hitchcock – by employing production techniques associated with the ‘threat’ itself.  As Rebello points out, Hitchcock financed the film himself and made it at television pace with multiple set-ups (between fourteen and eighteen a day) using some of his regular television collaborators and crew at MCA and Universal-International (26, 28, 84). He frequently used two cameras during production, and while this was a standard practice for television at the time, it was not for cinema. According to Bill Krohn, Hitchcock’s use of two cameras during production was a key reason for using a television crew to shoot Psycho.[4] Rebello points out that the original trailer for Psycho was even modelled on Hitchcock’s introductions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and scripted by James Allardice, who wrote the lead-ins for the television series (27-8). Robert Kapsis proposes that this would have led television audiences to believe that “Psycho would be in the tradition of Hitchcock’s macabre little teleplays.”[5]

For Laura Mulvey, Hitchcock’s decision to return to black-and-white, to low-budget production values and to the studio certainly draws on the emerging conventions of television production, but it also refers back to an earlier, more prosperous era of Hollywood.[6] In doing this, she writes, Hitchcock produces “a sense of the ‘new’ out of a rearrangement of the ‘old’”:

Psycho represents a moment of change in the history of the film industry. […] the crisis in the old Hollywood film industry, caught at a crossroads, faced with its own mortality, gave him the opportunity to write its epitaph, but also to transcend its conventions and create something startling and new (85).

The production techniques Hitchcock employed made Psycho appear like a teleplay but also and at the same time, like an old black-and-white Hollywood movie. At the time when Psycho was released in 1960, classical black-and-white Hollywood films still constituted a significant amount of the material broadcast on US television. The film’s use of black-and-white photography gestures both forwards and backwards, giving the film both the status of a relic from cinema’s past, already being recycled on television, and simultaneously the look of a fresh new competitor. In this way, Psycho was a response to the unique historical moment in which it was made that combined both the updated and the outdated. The film is marked by innovations that are also often anachronisms.

Significantly, Gus Van Sant’s approach to Psycho, does not signal these historical specificities and temporal dislocations at play in the original. His decision to film the remake in colour is perhaps the most obvious violation of the historical specificity of Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was, as we have seen, very deliberately filmed in black-and-white. Hitchcock had already made Dial M for Murder (USA 1954), Rear Window (USA 1954), North by Northwest (USA 1959) and Vertigo (USA 1958) in colour before he made Psycho. He had even already shot the 1956 remake of his film The Man Who Knew Too Much (USA 1934) in technicolour. However, in 1998, colour television sets having been selling in large numbers in the US since the late 1960s, the use of black-and-white had an entirely different meaning from that which it had four decades earlier. The frivolous, garish, rosy, bright “candy-box”[7] colour choices for Van Sant’s remake perhaps reference instead the subsequent reformulation of Psycho by the slasher movie.[8] Psycho is the major precursor to the genre, especially two of its seminal works, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (USA, 1974) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (USA, 1978).[9] In this, Psycho 98 reflects the changing status of the conventions Psycho pioneered and the new genres it subsequently inspired. The remake maintains the original’s narrative structure, but makes Psycho look like the kind of movies that have worn those conventions into clichés.

Clearly, Van Sant’s remake cannot re-stage the historical specificities of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Instead, just as Hitchcock staged the temporal dislocations that marked Psycho’s historical moment in 1960, Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho stages the changing times and temporal dislocations that mark its own historical moment in 1998. In doing so, the remake adds to and transforms the existing anachronisms of the original. The emphasis on anachronism in the remake is achieved largely by the focus on shot-for-shot repetition. Van Sant deliberately repeats filmmaking conventions of more than 30 years earlier. Psycho 98 was an attempt to replicate almost exactly, with a few minor variations, the script, narrative, framing, blocking and editing of the original Psycho, right down to the length of the shots and the timing of the newly cast actors’ performances. According to the press kit issued by Universal, this process was facilitated by the DVD version of the original Psycho being played on-set, accompanying and measuring the performances by the cast and crew on the remake. In combination with this shot-for-shot strategy, the decision was made to update the setting of Psycho to the 1990s, the era in which the remake was released. This required some minor updates to the original script, to take account of changes in social mores and incomes, as well as choosing furnishings, costumes and sets contemporary to the 1990s. The decision to update the setting and script of the film in line with contemporary fashions and norms only further serves to foreground the significance of redundancy in the remake.

Michael Druxman argues that a problem for film remakes is that in “many cases, the moral values or situations in a once-exciting story have become so antiquated that even the best screenwriter cannot make the plot workable for contemporary audiences.”[10] James Limbacher likewise argues, “Many are made with the best intentions […] but often as not, a story which broke box office records in 1935 may prove completely out of touch with the times in 1955 or 1974, even though rewriting and updating are meticulously done.”[11] Van Sant’s Psycho explicitly foregrounds this kind of anachronism, updating ‘the times’ in which the film was set but simultaneously succeeding to make the narrative seem old-fashioned and out-of-date. The updated opening scene, for example, in which Sam Loomis and Marion Crane lie in a post-coital state of nudity, fails to conjure even a whiff of mischief out of what was originally a highly scandalous, but less explicit, scene. Druxman argues that changes in social attitudes, acting techniques as well as film production techniques have made many of the original films that were “early classics” into “anachronisms” (24). Ironically, while Van Sant’s remake embodies and foregrounds anachronism, Hitchcock’s Psycho has largely still endured as a ‘timeless’ classic.

Remaking, borrowing and referencing Hitchcock has long been a cinematic and televisual phenomenon, and in Constantine Verevis’s view, Van Sant’s very literal and self-conscious remake of Psycho is not so markedly different: it “differs textually” from the multiple circuits of referencing, adapting, remaking and reworking Hitchcock’s classic “not in kind but only in degree.”[12]   Yet Van Sant’s Psycho has been deemed controversial, provoked outrage and has been almost universally panned by film critics. No other remake of Hitchcock has generated the same degree of critical outrage.[13]

The critical dismissal of Van Sant’s efforts to remake Psycho was especially fuelled by the fact that in a major contrast to earlier historical times, when a film had limited currency beyond its initial release, by 1998, when the remade Psycho was released, the home video market had already effected a marked change in the relationship between originals and their remakes. In 1952, André Bazin said that he hoped the rise of archives and cine-clubs would result in the demise of the remake.[14] Twenty-three years later Michael Druxman was still arguing that,

[i]n doing a direct remake, producers hope to draw two types of people into the theatres – those who saw the original film, liked it, and are curious to see how the new stars will handle their roles; and those who have only heard of the original and have decided to see the new version because the old one is not available for viewing (18).

The story of MGM’s purchase of the negatives of Thorold Dickinson’s original Gaslight (UK, 1939) in 1944, as George Cukor was preparing his remake for the studio is part of cinema lore. In Thomas Leitch’s account, MGM wanted to wholly obliterate access to the original, destroying even the possibility that the original might again become available for viewing.[15] In contrast, the original theatrical run of Hitchcock’s film was so successful that it was actually reissued into cinema theatres in 1965 and 1969. The television rights were originally purchased by CBS in 1966 and Psycho has been aired on television since 1970 as well as widely circulated on VHS and on DVD and viewed and downloaded online. Today Hitchcock’s and Van Sant’s Psychos are circulating on DVD in the same media environment.

Couldn’t the Original Movie Do?

When “the old film is available alongside the new for video rental,” writes Leitch, remakes are often in competition with their originals and will typically “attempt to supersede [them] for all but a marginal audience watching them for their historical value” with “the goal of increasing the audience by marginalizing the original film, reducing it to the status of the unseen classic” (39-40). Psycho 98, in contrast, is very much what Leitch calls an homage, the primary purpose of which, he says, is “to pay tribute to an earlier film rather than usurp its place of honor” (47-50). Leitch argues that “a faithful homage would be a contradiction in terms (the most faithful homage would be a re-release)” (47). But Van Sant deliberately engages in this ‘contradiction in terms,’ precisely at a time when re-release has become a largely unremarked commonplace.

The emphasis that Van Sant places on shot-for-shot repetition in a rapidly changing media environment raises the question: Why bother to remake an original when that original is readily available and reasonably priced on DVD? Many of the film’s critics explicitly argued that the DVD player created the conditions for the redundancy of a shot-for-shot remake. The questions the remake raised for critics generally coalesced into a consensus on a question that captures well the spectatorial conditions into which Van Sant’s Psycho was released: “Couldn’t the original movie do?”[16] This is certainly the view of Constantine Santas, who also asks rhetorically, “What can an exact copy do for a viewer, especially a viewer to whom the original is so readily available?” And for James Sanford sitting through Van Sant’s Psycho is “like watching a team of Kinkos employees assembling the world’s most lavish Xerox job.”[17]   Roger Ebert, however, argues that Van Sant’s remake is, perversely, “an invaluable experiment,” because “it demonstrates that a shot-by-shot remake is pointless; genius apparently resides between or beneath the shots, or in the chemistry that cannot be timed or counted.”[18] James Naremore thinks that it might have been better to re-release a 35mm print of the original film.[19] While Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed 1991 version of Cape Fear, for example, circulated happily with J. Lee Thomson’s 1961 version on a collector’s edition DVD box set, Van Sant’s emphasis on shot-for-shot repetition summoned the boundary between remaking and replaying too closely.

Van Sant’s Psycho is what Jennifer Forrest and Leonard Koos term a ‘true’ remake, because it “copies the way the original’s images are presented on the screen.”[20] While the language of the distinction between the ‘true’ and ‘false’ remake might suggest a preference in the critical reception for the ‘true’ over the ‘false’ remake, in fact the opposite is the case. Forrest and Koos borrow these categories from the critical reception given the remake by Daniel Protopopoff and Michel Serceau, who regard the ‘false’ remake, characterised by “auteurist reworking and re-interpretations,” as far preferable to what they call the “shameless plagiarism” of the ‘true’ remake.[21] This attitude to the ‘true’ remake also reflects the wider critical reaction to Van Sant’s approach. His ‘shameless plagiarism,’ deliberate and openly acknowledged, was itself the subject of intense, angry and negative reviews which typically considered it an irreverent and foolhardy insult to an original masterpiece, as Constantine Santas suggests, little short of “cinematic blasphemy.” Because Van Sant’s Psycho pushes the limits of the concept of an acknowledged, close remake,[22] and chooses to do so by remaking a film considered a classic that in 1960 was ahead of its time, no-one regarded it as an improvement on the original. In a response indicative of much of the critical reception of the film, James Naremore declares in “Remaking Psycho” that in tackling Hitchcock’s Psycho, Van Sant was “simply asking for bad reviews,” and proposes that some films have “such artistic prestige and historical significance that remaking them, as opposed to quoting them or borrowing their ideas, seems crass and pointless” (388). Van Sant’s unique endeavour to reproduce shot-for-shot one of cinema history’s most “critically saturated”[23] films led, perhaps inevitably, to endless nit-picking by critics who were anxious to parade their own intimate acquaintance with the original.

Robert Eberwein questions a tendency among film critics to treat “the original and its meaning for its contemporary audience as a fixity, against which the remake is measured and evaluated.” He argues that the meaning of the original must instead be understood as “still in process.”[24] So how does Van Sant’s Psycho trouble or settle the place of Hitchcock’s Psycho in cinema history? Does it “hold up a mirror to the original film,” as Van Sant proposed in the press kit released by Universal, circulating in cinema history as the original’s “schizophrenic twin”(5)? For most of the reviewers who wrote about the remake, the perceived banality of Psycho 98 only served to solidify the place of Hitchcock’s Psycho in cinema history as a superior and classic masterpiece that had stood the test of time. Nonetheless, Van Sant’s Psycho reminds us that the cinema isn’t timeless. Times change, and with them so does the cinema. The circulation of this remake in the same marketplace as the original provides a vision, just as Hitchcock’s Psycho did, of the cinema in transition.

In other words, the reasons for which Van Sant’s remake has been dismissed as redundant are the very reasons why this film can help us to understand the shifting status of the cinema as a cultural institution and to think through the intersections between technical repetition and the remake, especially as they relate to the changing conditions of film spectatorship. Druxman refers to what he terms “timeliness” as a common factor driving the decision to remake a film: The coming of sound, colour and wide screen, for example, prompted remakes of films that were liable to be enhanced by these processes. New screen techniques might have been perfected or the theme of a film becomes relevant again (18). In the case of Van Sant’s Psycho, it is its deliberate redundancy that is central to its radical approach and central to its ability to be timely. The ‘timeliness’ to which his remake refers is the changing nature of film production and reception. By creating what was widely conceived to be an anachronistic and redundant remake, Van Sant raised timely questions about the changing conditions of film production, distribution and reception.

Debates about the impact of video and DVD on film spectatorship have tended to centre on the kinds of technical repetition opened up by the DVD player in terms of both the accessibility of a film to be replayed and also the different approaches to replaying available to, and employed by, film spectators. Laura Mulvey, for example, investigates a “new interactive spectatorship” made available by the video and DVD player, orientated around the act of replaying (22). She explores the consequences of the fact that we can now watch specific scenes over and over again, fast-forward, rewind, pause, slow-down and speed up any particular film, or stop at any moment in a film as we please. Her analysis serves to emphasise that the conditions of film spectatorship are tied up with shifts in the nature of technical reproducibility. However, the question of how the remake is determined in and by such changes has not yet been properly investigated.

In his book, Film Remakes, Constantine Verevis asks two related questions about the nature of the film remake. First, “[h]ow is film remaking different from the cinema’s more general ability to repeat and replay the same film over and again through reissue and redistribution?” and, second, “how does remaking differ from the way every film is ‘remade’ – dispersed and transformed – in its every new context or re-viewing?” (1) Because remaking overlaps with other forms of repetition available to the cinema, Verevis argues that a “broad conception of the remaking of Psycho” would acknowledge “any of the several re-releases of Psycho (from 1965 onwards) and its subsequent licencing by MCA for network and syndicated television screenings, and (later) sale to video tape and disc, as further revisions – or remakings – of the film” (74). In “For Ever Hitchcock,” Verevis goes so far as to suggest that remaking might actually extend to “the cinema’s ability to repeat and replay the same film over and again” (15). In short, for Verevis, to reissue, re-release, redistribute or replay Psycho is also to remake it.

This approach to Van Sant’s Psycho highlights the problem of trying to think about repetition in the remake outside of a relationship with media time, specifically, the multiple kinds of repetition made increasingly available through re-distribution, re-issue and replaying. Taking my cue from Verevis, I ask what can be gained from thinking about the remake as imbricated with these multiple forms of repetition, from replaying to redistribution? But rather than argue as Verevis does for the idea of remaking to be extended to include reissue, re-release and redistribution, I want to consider how Van Sant’s remake stages different relationships between these forms of technical repetition and those that characterise the remake.

Psycho 98 marks an attempt to rethink the question of what a remake is, and the emphasis on remaking Psycho shot-for-shot serves to foreground repetition in the remake very explicitly. This emphasis highlights ways in which the remake can help to think about the shifting status of technical repetition in a complex and changing media environment. In doing so, the film reminds us that the remake, a genre predicated on repetition, is tied to forms of technical repetition that are constantly being transformed, taking on different cultural functions, meanings, and referential relationships. So while Psycho 98 can be understood within existing paradigms of conventions of the remake, it controversially pushes the boundaries of some of the central taxonomies developed by academics to categorise different degrees to which remakes announce their intertextuality.[25] Of course, intertextuality is aligned with repetition in film theory. Verevis acknowledges this in Film Remakes when he defines the remake as “a particular case of repetition,” one that is “stabilised, or limited, through the naming and (usually) legally sanctioned (or copyrighted) use of a particular literary and/or cinematic source which serves as a retrospectively designated point of origin and semantic fixity” (xii). Verevis positions the remaking of films as a “specific (institutionalised) aspect of the broader and more open-ended intertextuality”associated with “other types of repetition such as quotation, allusion and adaptation” (21, 1).

As I have indicated, the press kit released by Universal reports that Van Sant had a DVD of Hitchcock’s Psycho with him on the set (10).  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how he could have realised his aim of producing the remake as a ‘literal’ repetition without such an aid. For the full range of temporal manipulations opened up by the technical capabilities of the DVD player – the ability to pause, rewind, fast forward, speed up, slow down and replay the film in its digital form –were crucial to this attempt at a shot-for-shot remake. According to the press kit, Van Sant timed the duration of each scene to coincide precisely with that of the earlier film (10). By bringing the DVD player onto the set, Van Sant established a unique interrelationship between the processes of re-staging, replaying and retiming, with all three being central to the successful production of this shot-for-shot remake. By heightening the degree of repetition in the remake with the help of the DVD player, Van Sant created a remake of Psycho that was itself enabled by, and entangled with, the new forms of technical repetition made available by DVD. As I demonstrate in the remaining sections of this essay, the unique relationship between these forms of repetition – re-staging, replaying, re-timing and re-filming – holds the key to the way in which Van Sant’s film can help us to think about the shifting status of technical repetition in a complex and changing media world.

The Pensive Spectator and the Delayed Spectator

Van Sant’s use of the DVD copy of Psycho in the production of his remake reflects the activities of the “pensive spectator,” a key figure in Laura Mulvey’s discussion of the changing nature of film spectatorship. The temporalities inherent in film include not only stillness and movement, but also a multiplicity of different speeds – kinds of time that a DVD player can make readily available to the film spectator. Mulvey argues that the interruptions and delays imposed on the flow of a film through return and repetition expose “the cinema’s complex relation to time” (8). Mulvey’s “pensive spectator” manipulates the temporality of a film and engages in “reflection on the visibility of time in the cinema” (11). As the pensive spectator manipulates the temporality of a film, s/he not only transforms her/his relationship with that film, but also transforms the film itself. When a scene is “halted and extracted from the wider flow of narrative development,” when it is “broken down into shots and selected frames and further subjected to delay, to repetition and return,” Mulvey argues that, “hitherto unexpected meanings can be found hidden in the sequence” (8, 144). Mulvey derives her notion of the pensive spectator from Raymond Bellour’s discussion of the way in which freeze-frame analysis opens up an awareness of the relationship between movement and stillness in the cinema (195), maintaining that Bellour anticipated the kind of reflection on the film image that is now readily available to every DVD spectator.

Pensive spectatorship of the original Psycho – a mode of viewing that is attentive to and shaped by repetitions, returns, temporal delays and freeze-frame analysis – underlies Van Sant’s remake. Pensive spectatorship enabled the making of the shot-for-shot remake, underpinning the attempt at literal repetition. Van Sant’s remake is therefore shaped by the imbrication of the shifting nature of movie spectatorship with the shifting temporalities of technical reproducibility. New ways of consuming old movies have become, with Van Sant’s Psycho, a new way of remaking movies that offers a reflection on new kinds of film consumption, on the complexities of film time and on technical media’s forms of repetition. Van Sant’s pensive spectatorship enables him to create out of Psycho 98 a critical reflection both on cinema’s past and the complexities of cinema’s present.

While Van Sant operates as a pensive spectator of the original Psycho, he also explicitly anticipates a different kind of delayed spectator for his remake, a spectator who may never have seen the original and who certainly never saw the original in the cinema theatre. Academic accounts of the remake have tended to draw attention to the different kinds of audience that the remake anticipates and engages. Thomas Leitch, for example, distinguishes between:

the audience that has never heard of the original film it is based on, the audience that has heard of the film but not seen it, the audience that has seen it but does not remember it, the audience that has seen it but liked it little enough to hope for an improvement, and the audience that has seen it and enjoyed it (40).

The spectator whom Van Sant envisions for his remake arrives at the original masterpiece a generation too late and via technologies unavailable at the time the original was made.

Van Sant aligns this vision of the delayed spectator with his desire to approach Psycho in the spirit of the tradition of staging classics works over and over again in theatre:

There is an attitude that the cinema is a relatively new art and therefore there’s no reason to ‘re-stage’ a film. But as the cinema gets older, there is also an audience that is increasingly unpracticed at watching old films, silent films and black and white films (5).

In this statement from the press kit, Van Sant draws on the tradition of the theatre through a reflection on the shifting status of spectatorship in the cinema. He indicates that it was his sense that the cinema was ageing, and that film spectatorship had transformed over the lifetime of the cinema, that inspired him to re-stage Psycho. His emphasis on re-staging also infers the theatrical cinema experience. What Van Sant’s remake also stages is a particular historical formation of the cinema: he re-stages Psycho again for general release in the cinema theatre.

Reflections on the way in which the cinema had aged, prompted by the centenary celebrations of 1995 (three years before Van Sant’s Psycho was released), were inflected with the coinciding decline and potential obsolescence of the chemical and mechanical technologies that had sustained the cinema over its history. These technologies are synonymous with specific spectatorial conditions: unique and specific occasions of viewing, largely confined to the movie theatre. The decline in these technologies corresponded with the decentring of the theatrical cinema experience, one in which watching a film is a unique and ephemeral event. Remember, Van Sant watched the original Psycho, first of all, as a television spectator, before he became its pensive spectator and before he pursued the temporal dislocations that marked the shifts in spectatorship taking place at the turn of cinema’s centenary.

As long ago as 1982, Stanley Cavell maintained that cinema’s “evanescence” was becoming less and less inevitable, that emerging distribution technologies were drawing attention to the historical specificity of the experience of movies as exhaustible, disappearing objects.[26] In The Virtual Life of Film, Rodowick tells how his sudden discovery in 1989 that Pasolini’s entire oeuvre was available at his local video store marked the moment at which he recognised that film-watching had truly begun to shift from being something rare, requiring the pursuit of unique and specific circumstances, to becoming a customary aspect of his daily life. For Rodowick, this realisation changed his sense of cinema’s relationship to time and with it the realisation of “profound consequences for the phenomenology of movie spectatorship” (26-8).

By bringing the theatre’s age-old tradition of re-staging plays to the cinema, Van Sant highlights the ways in which technical reproducibility has produced particular ideas and forms of repetition. Joseph Stefano, who wrote the original screenplay for Hitchcock and returned to it for Van Sant, was enormously gratified to see his work treated like a classic American play. In the press kit he comments enthusiastically on the idea of re-staging Psycho:

I don’t know of any screenwriters who have had their work remade in the same sense that say, Arthur Miller, has seen his plays redone. Even though the opportunity to see my work brought to life again is something I simply never expected, I thought it was a wonderful thing to happen (7).

However, Naremore identifies a fundamental difference between a script intended for the stage and one intended for the screen, when he argues that Van Sant’s remake is “not simply a re-filming of Joseph Stefano’s script, but an elaborate quotation of things that were literally printed on another film” (original emphasis, 390). The critical outrage that greeted the shot-for-shot remake serves to underline how contentious this act of elaborate quotation (framed as an act of re-staging) was. It is these specific conditions of film spectatorship that mark the remake as, in the words of Verevis in Film Remakes, a “particular case of repetition” (xii), one that cannot be separated from its implication in the shifting nature of movie spectatorship and the shifting temporalities of technical reproducibility.

At the same time, Van Sant’s emphasis on re-staging also focuses attention on the ways in which re-staging traditions do inform particular strategies of repetition that underlie the remake production process. For example, the production notes included in the film’s press kit stress the ways in which the remake realised Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène. These included the decision to use the original floor plans and the very same Universal Studios lot on which the first Psycho had been filmed, as well as efforts to base costumes and furnishings on the original designs and outlines and, as has already been noted, with the aid of the original shooting script, to replicate Hitchcock’s blocking. This emphasis on the production of mise-en-scène frames the remake as a re-enactment of key aspects of the production process. Van Sant even tried to work as closely as he could to Hitchcock’s original 37-day shooting schedule, implying that the original production process itself was an event ripe for re-enactment (4-17).

The Temporally Dislocated Spectator

Significantly, rather than recreating the ‘original experience,’ these production strategies are deployed in such a way as to produce a remake that inhabits mixed temporal locations. New technologies are used to produce an experience that is at once updated and outmoded. Decisions about how to integrate the updated with the outdated are discussed in considerable detail in the film’s promotional materials. The press kit reports how the original score was re-recorded and expanded under the supervision of composer Danny Elfman to take advantage of new sound-recording technologies. These new technologies were, however, used to re-produce an outdated experience. While the score was re-recorded in stereo, rather than the original mono, the sound designers recreated the harsh timbre of the original recording, (13). Rebello points out that Hitchcock wanted the opening shot of his film to be a long, complete pan/zoom helicopter shot over the city into Marion’s hotel room. This was impossible, as the helicopter shot was newly invented and could not yet be perfected (80). Instead Hitchcock had to make do with a combination of swish pans and dissolves. For the remake, Van Sant and his director of photography Christopher Doyle took advantage of the technological developments of the intervening 38 years to achieve a complete traveling helicopter shot. In other instances Van Sant adopted outdated techniques. Like Hitchcock, Van Sant used rear-screen projection—taking advantage of the latest rear-screen projection technology available— for the early driving sequences, even though, as he acknowledges in the press kit, by the late 1990s digital effects had largely superseded the old technique (11).

The cultural significance of Van Sant’s remake becomes fully apparent in the tension between this emphasis on shot-for-shot remaking and the film’s updating of the mise-en-scène. The remake replicates the timing of the original film narrative but updates the means by which its temporalities are reproduced. Van Sant’s remake inhabits a setting contemporary with the times in which it was released in the late 1990s, but re-enacts the modes of suspense that the original pioneered. This produces a powerful sense of redundancy because the narrative conventions the film re-enacts, innovative and shocking in the original Psycho, are tired and clichéd nearly four decades later. As Godfrey Cheshire observes, the original Psycho “depended on narrative surprises that can’t possibly be surprising now; on genre conventions that were superseded decades ago; and on material considered daring in 1960 that’s long since lost its power to raise even an eyebrow.” [27] Naremore agrees, saying that while the original film terrified him in 1960, Van Sant’s film registers on his “personal fright meter […] far lower than any number of movies that were clearly influenced by Psycho, including Polanski’s Repulsion, Freidkin’s The Exorcist, Spielberg’s Jaws and even De Palma’s Carrie and Dressed to Kill” (389).

Yet there is something more at work in this sense of redundancy produced by the remake.“Periods of intense technological change are always extremely interesting for film theory,” argues Rodowick, “because the films themselves tend to stage its primary question: what is cinema?” (9). The current transitions have also, he continues, made us “suddenly aware that something was cinema,” and prompt us to ask, not only “what is cinema?” but also, “what was cinema?” (31). The apparent redundancy of Van Sant’s Psycho does more than prompt these questions, it puts them into dialogue with one another. Laura Mulvey’s term “delayed cinema” describes an engagement with the cinema that participates in this dialogue between the cinema’s past and its future. She argues that “the coincidence between the cinema’s centenary and the arrival of digital technology” created a false opposition “between the old and the new” (26). This false opposition fails to take into account the fact that digital convergence has produced a complex dialectic between digital and analogue technologies. The delayed cinema, which engages directly with the realities of digital convergence, challenges “patterns of time that are neatly ordered around the end of an era, its ‘before’ and its ‘after’” (23).

Instead of establishing a relationship between ‘before’ and ‘after,’ Van Sant’s Psycho blends old and new, reflecting the period of intense technological change in which it was made, characterised by the convergence of outdated and updated technologies working together in the same media environment. The remake meticulously integrates these updated and outdated elements, playing with the temporalities of a so-called ‘timeless classic.’ Van Sant achieved quite a feat in producing a new film, up-to-date with contemporary mores that also used up-to-date digital production and post-production techniques, yet did not supersede the original. Instead, his film announced  itself as already obsolete, already superseded. As I have shown, his meticulously faithful practice of re-enactment presented the remade version as a strangely outmoded object. Yet with his redundant new remake, Van Sant manages to stage for us not only an idea of the cinema that is passing away but also the contradictory, changing times in which the cinema currently inhabits. Van Sant’s remake constitutes a version of Mulvey’s politically charged delayed cinema and foregrounds the tension between the outdated and the updated in the remake genre more generally. In Van Sant’s Psycho, the mixed temporal locations of the remake produce a temporally dislocated spectator who witnesses a remake that uses new technologies to produce outdated experiences and updated fashions and furnishings and morals that do not match with the outdated narrative conventions. The remake thus performs a particular relationship to cinema history from which we can gain invaluable insight into the new marginalised, delayed and temporally dislocated mode of spectatorship it produces.


Bazin, André. “Remade in USA.” Cahiers du cinéma 2 (1952): 54-59.

Cavell, Stanley. “The Fact of Television.” Daedalus 111 (1982): 75-96.

Cheshire, Godfrey. “Psycho – ‘Psycho’ Analysis: Van Sant’s Remake Slavish but Sluggish,” Variety, 6 Dec 1998, (29 January 2012).

Clover, Carol. “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” Representations 20, Fall (1987): 187-228.

Druxman, Michael. Make it Again, Sam: A Survey of Movie Remakes. South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes, 1975.

Ebert, Roger. “Review: Psycho,” Chicago Sun Times, 6 Dec 1998, (29 January 2012).

Eberwein, Robert. “Remakes and Cultural Studies.” In Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, edited by Andrew Horton and Stuart Y. McDougal, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Forrest, Jennifer, and Leonard Koos. Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice, edited by Jennifer Forrest and Leonard R. Koos. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Greenberg, Harvey Roy. “Raiders of the Lost Text: Remaking as Contested Homage in Always.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 18, 4 (1991), 164-172.

Horton, Andrew, and Stuart McDougal. “Introduction.” In Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, edited by Andrew Horton and Stuart McDougal. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Kapsis, Robert. Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992.

Krohn, Bill. Hitchcock at Work. London: Phaidon, 2000.

Leitch, Thomas. “Twice-Told Tales: Disavowal and the Rhetoric of the Remake.” In Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice, edited by Jennifer Forrest and Leonard R. Koos. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Limbacher, James. Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before? Remakes, Sequels and Series in Motion Pictures and Television, 1896-1978. Ann Arbor: Pierian, 1979.

McDougal, Stuart. “The Director Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock Remakes Himself.” In Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, edited by Andrew Horton and Stuart Y. McDougal. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. London: Reaktion Books, 2006.

Naremore, James. “Remaking Psycho,” in Framing Hitchcock: Selected Essays from the Hitchcock Annual, edited by Sidney Gottlieb and Christopher Brookhouse. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002.

Protopopoff, Daniel and Serceau, Michel. “Faux remakes et vraies adaptations,” in Le Remake et l’adaptation, edited by Michel Serceau and Daniel Protopopoff. Paris: CinemaAction, 1989.

Rebello, Stephen. Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.

Rodowick, D. N. The Virtual Life of Film. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Hack Job”, Chicago Reader, 25 Dec 1998, (29 January 2012)

Sanford, James. “Review: Psycho,” Internet Movie Database, accessed July 4, 2011,

Santas, Constantine. “The Remake of Psycho (Gus Van Sant, 1998): Creativity or Cinematic Blasphemy?” Senses of Cinema, 10 November 2000, (29 January 2012).

Schaeffer, Bill. “Cutting the Flow: Thinking Psycho,” Senses of Cinema, 6 May 2000, (29 January 2012).

Verevis, Constantine. “For Ever Hitchcock: Psycho and Its Remakes.” In After Hitchcock: Influence, Imitation, and Intertextuality, edited by David Boyd and R. Barton Palmer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Verevis, Constantine. Film Remakes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

[1] Press kit, Psycho, dir. by Gus Van Sant (Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment, 1998), 5. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[2] D. N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007), 28. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[3] Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991), 26. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[4] Bill Krohn, Hitchcock at Work (London: Phaidon, 2000), 224.

[5] Robert Kapsis, Hitchcock: The Making of a Reputation (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992), 60.

[6] Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), 85. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[7] Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Hack Job”, Chicago Reader, 25 Dec 1998, (29 January 2012)

[8] Constantine Verevis, “For Ever Hitchcock: Psycho and Its Remakes”, in After Hitchcock: Influence, Imitation, and Intertextuality, eds. David Boyd and R. Barton Palmer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 23.

[9] Carol Clover, “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film,” Representations 20 (Fall 1987): 192.

[10] Michael Druxman, Make it Again, Sam: A Survey of Movie Remakes (South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes, 1975), 24.

[11] James Limbacher, Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before? Remakes, Sequels and Series in Motion Pictures and Television, 1896-1978 (Ann Arbor: Pierian, 1979), viii.

[12] Constantine Verevis, Film Remakes (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), 68. For example: Mel Brooks’ take-off of Vertigo (USA, 1958) and Spellbound (USA, 1945) in High Anxiety (USA, 1977); Francis Ford Coppola’s inspiration from Rear Window (USA, 1954) for The Conversation (USA, 1974); and Brian De Palma’s infamous and ubiquitous borrowings from Psycho in Carrie (USA, 1976), Dressed to Kill (USA, 1980), Blow Out (USA, 1981) and Body Double (USA, 1984). As Stuart McDougal (52-3) has pointed out, Hitchcock repeatedly returned to particular themes, often remaking shots, transitions between shots as well as whole sequences.

[13] In 1998, the year in which Van Sant’s Psycho was released, two other direct Hitchcock remakes reached the screen without attracting similar levels of critical indignation: Andrew Davis’s A Perfect Murder (USA, 1998), based on Dial M for Murder (USA, 1954), and a TV-movie version of Rear Window (USA, 1998), starring Christopher Reeve.

[14] André Bazin, “Remade in USA,” Cahiers du cinéma 2, no.11 (1952): 56.

[15] Thomas Leitch, “Twice-Told Tales: Disavowal and the Rhetoric of the Remake,” in Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice, eds. Jennifer Forrest and Leonard R. Koos (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 50. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[16] See Constantine Santas, “The Remake of Psycho (Gus Van Sant, 1998): Creativity or Cinematic Blasphemy?” Senses of Cinema, 10 November 2000, (29 January 2012).

[17] James Sanford, “Review: Psycho,” Internet Movie Database, accessed July 4, 2011,

[18] Roger Ebert, “Review: Psycho,” Chicago Sun Times, 6 Dec 1998, (29 January 2012).

[19] James Naremore, “Remaking Psycho,” in Framing Hitchcock: Selected Essays from the Hitchcock Annual, eds. Sidney Gottlieb and Christopher Brookhouse (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002), 394. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.


[20] Forrest and Koos, Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice, eds. Jennifer Forrest and Leonard R. Koos (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 20. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[21] See Daniel Protopopoff and Michel Serceau, “Faux remakes et vraies adaptations,” in Le Remake et l’adaptation, eds. Michel Serceau and Daniel Protopopoff (Paris: CinemaAction, 1989), 37-45.

[22] Harvey Roy Greenberg, “Raiders of the Lost Text: Remaking as Contested Homage in Always,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 18, no. 4 (Winter 1991): 170, quoted in Verevis, Film Remakes, p. 9.

[23] Bill Schaeffer, “Cutting the Flow: Thinking Psycho,” Senses of Cinema, 6 May 2000, (29 January 2012).

[24] Robert Eberwein, “Remakes and Cultural Studies,” in Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, eds. Andrew Horton and Stuart Y. McDougal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 15

[25] For example, see Andrew Horton and Stuart McDougal, “Introduction,” Play It Again, Sam: Retakes on Remakes, eds. Andrew Horton and Stuart McDougal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); and Robert Eberwein’s elaborate taxonomy in “Remakes and Cultural Studies” (28-31).

[26] Stanley Cavell, “The Fact of Television,” Daedalus 111, no. 4 (1982): 78.

[27] Godfrey Cheshire, “Psycho – ‘Psycho’ Analysis: Van Sant’s Remake Slavish but Sluggish,” Variety, 6 Dec 1998, (29 January 2012).

About the Author

Megan Carrigy

About the Author

Megan Carrigy

Megan Carrigy is Assistant Director, Academic Programs at New York University, Sydney. She completed her PhD on the shifting status of re-enactment in film and television at the University of New South Wales where she was awarded the Best Doctoral Thesis Prize in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She has published with the 24 Frames series for Wallflower Press and is a regular contributor to the online journal Senses of Cinema.View all posts by Megan Carrigy →