Could ‘Psycho’ Get Made Today?

Could It Get Made Today? is an occasional column where we look at a classic film and consider how changes in technology and tastes would impact it if it was shot today. This week’s subject: The 1960 classic — and 1998 remake — of Psycho. 

Movie: Psycho
Director: Alfred Hitchcock / Gus Van Sant
Stars: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles / Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore
Release Date: June 16, 1960 / December 4, 1998
Synopsis: An employee at a realtor in Phoenix named Marion Crane (Leigh/Heche) makes a rash decision to steal a huge pile of cash from one of her boss’ wealthy clients. She intends to use to it start a new life with her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin/Viggo Mortensen) but along the drive from Phoenix to his home in California, she gets lost in the rain. She winds up at the Bates Motel, run by a nervous but welcoming 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 turn up at the Bates Motel looking for her, only to discover that there is more to Norman Bates’ mother than anyone realizes.

Could It Get Made Today?

Technically yes — but only with major changes. Someone did just that a few years ago, with the television series Bates MotelBut that show, which was set in modern times, was mostly a prequel to the events of the Psycho story. When it did turn to adapting the original Psycho novel (by Robert Bloch) and movie in its final season, it had to make some really major changes to the storyline.

Of course, Psycho was already remade once, by Gus Van Sant in 1998. His Psycho remains a fascinating, if mostly failed, experiment. Though not quite a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock’s film, it is an extremely faithful update of it — even in places where certain creative choices make the film extremely anachronistic, even in 1998. (Like costuming Vince Vaughn’s Norman Bates in a corduroy blazer and slacks, something no one that age wore in the late ’90s.) Van Sant’s Psycho also features nearly identical dialogue to Hitchcock’s, all of the same characters (and no additional characters), along with a new recording of Bernard Herrmann’s classic score.

While Van Sant’s Psycho was designed as a “modern” update — the opening title cards establish the date as December 11, 1998 — it is now 24 years old. When It was released, Hitchcock’s Psycho was 38 years old. In those 38 years, society had changed, but not so much that you couldn’t reenact the same story in roughly the same place with only a few cosmetic changes. (Marion Crane steals $400,000 in the remake, instead of the $40,000 of the original.) 24 years after that, it seems almost impossible that you could remake Psycho again — at least not the way Van Sant did it.

Most of the plot’s complications could not exist in a world of cellular telephones —  much less smartphones. Marion goes missing, and then the private detective Arbogast does as well; 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 notice they’ve gone missing. (Arbogast even has to find a pay phone to check in with Lila and Sam.) In a world of text messages and email, Marion and Arbogast’s absences would have been detected a lot sooner — to say nothing of the fact that Norman would need to dispose of their phones if he didn’t want the cops to immediately find their bodies at the bottom of the swamp behind the Bates Motel.

But many other details of the story would crumble in a world of computers and internet and modern commerce. Would Marion be able to rent a room under a fake name and with no credit card? Maybe at a backwoods dump like the Bates Motel, but it’s unlikely. Would a cop so quickly let her go if he could check her license in a central computer database? Again, it’s possible, but a lot less plausible. Hell, the Bates Motel would probably get such bad Yelp ratings (“The pressure in the shower head was great, but the staff was beyond terrible!”) that Norman would run out of potential victims in a hurry.

All the psychological underpinnings of Marion and Sam’s relationship would have to be changed too. In the previous movies, they must meet in secret because of Sam’s divorce. In 2022, nobody would care; Sam and Marion wouldn’t have to sneak around on lunch hours. The reception to 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. Much of Psycho’s impact, at least in 1960, hinged on the shock value of Marion Crane’s surprising fate, and the way the the film upended audience’s expectations. This archival press reel shows the lengths Hitchcock and Paramount went to in order to keep Marion’s storyline from getting out too soon.

In a social media age, it would almost impossible to the film’s surprises a secret beyond Thursday night before its Friday release. No amount of jolly pleading from its director would change that.

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