Thoughts on Hitchcock’s Psycho, Gus Van Sant’s remake of the film, and the ruthlessly butchered version shown on television

Psycho is widely seen as the progenitor of the modern-day slasher film, yet watching it today, I wonder if that credit shouldn’t actually go to the movie Hitchcock made immediately after — The Birds, where the “slashing” came through beaks and talons instead of a knife gripped by an unforgiving hand. In a sense, yes, the famous shower scene opened the sluices for everything graphic and gory we see today, but behind it all is a nagging moral tone that seems very much a vestige of the 1950s (Psycho was released in 1960) — hardly “modern-day”.

Simply put, it’s this: crime doesn’t pay. More specifically, if you indulge in premarital sex (especially with a married man), and if you steal, then you’re going to come to a bad end. Even if you repent. The most touching aspect of Psycho is that the heroine, Marion Crane, dies after she decides to go back home and hand over the money she’s stolen and face the consequences.

Today, though, God is largely absent from the screens, and when we see bad things happen to people, we do not think of it as His vengeance. The Birds is truly a modern-day movie, in the sense that it’s all chaos. Birds swoop in and attack and then, just as suddenly as it all began, it ends. People are punished — apparently — for nothing at all, for nothing more than simply existing with the usual shades of human foibles.

They do nothing more to invite misfortune on themselves than, say, the victims of the serial killers in The Silence Of The Lambs or Se7en or Zodiac (though the serial killers themselves could probably be traced back to Psycho). That’s what we see and know today, that innocent folk suffer and die all the time, and that’s why The Birds, more than Psycho, appears to me the progenitor of the modern-day slasher film.

These thoughts came about a few weeks ago when I was unwell, confined to the indoors and thrown at the mercy of television channels. There’s clearly some kind of unwritten law that the day(s) you’re actually free to watch hours of television, there will be nothing worth watching — but by some stroke of luck, I stumbled into Gus Van Sant’s 1998-remake of Psycho, a “modern-day slasher film” at least with respect to the year of its release.

The film, as you may know, is a scrupulous attempt to replicate the Hitchcock classic. The non-numerical lettering of the date is the same: FRIDAY DECEMBER THE ELEVENTH TWO FORTY THREE PM. The cop who questions Marion, who’s fallen asleep in her car, still wears creepy dark glasses that block out his eyes. But it’s in colour — so we see, for instance, that the bars that fracture the screen in the opening credits are green. And the stolen amount has increased from $ 40,000 to $ 4,00,000.

Despite what’s been said, Van Sant’s film is not a shot-for-shot remake. In the opening scene in this version, Marion and her lover are in bed, after making love. In the older film, the implication is still that they’ve made love, but because of censorship restrictions, they couldn’t be shown in bed together — and we see him standing beside the bed.

Then there are changes in the characters. In the older film, we get the feeling that Marion was making it up as she went along, whereas here, she has a crafty gleam in her eyes, an I-pulled-it-off look. The theft seems premeditated, and thus we don’t feel sorry for her when she’s killed. And because of this change, we don’t understand why she repents, why she wants to go back and return the money.

But Marion’s sister, Lila, comes across better in the new version. She’s more aggressive. She wears pants, not skirts, and we believe her when she manfully snaps, “Patience doesn’t run in my family.”

For 1998, it’s strange that Van Sant didn’t feel free enough to do more with the scares, because, seen today, the original Psycho is hardly scary, more interesting as a director’s showcase than as a thriller that will make you jump out of your seat. The new film, therefore, is little more than a curio. And it was even more of a curio on TV, after the censors got through with it. This is what happens in the famous shower scene: Norman’s mother comes into the bathroom, she lifts the knife, Marion screams, and... we cut to Mother leaving.

Stabbing, clearly, is too much for Indian television, never mind that our masala movies such as Rowdy Rathore, featuring far more graphic violence, are allowed to run almost untouched.

If Psycho is known for anything, it’s the shower scene, and now there’s no shower scene. The film is rendered ridiculous, and made worse by the coy subtitles. When we’re told that Norman was aroused by Marion, the word “aroused” was beeped out and the subtitle showed the word “a****”. It reminded me of a swearword I wanted to use on the censors.