"We all go a little mad sometimes, haven't you?" the creepy Norman Bates (Vince Vaughn), manager of his family's dilapidated, secluded motel, asks troubled guest Marion Crane (Anne Heche) about midway through Gus Van Sant's color redesign of "Psycho."
A similar question has been posed, repeatedly, to Van Sant, the acclaimed independent director ("Drugstore Cowboy," "My Own Private Idaho") who scored a mainstream smash with 1997's "Good Will Hunting": What kind of madness would drive the Oregon-based filmmaker to mess with the 1960 black-and-white thriller that survived scathing reviews to become a terror classic?
Hitchcock fans and aficionados of celluloid horror may breathe a collective sigh of relief. Semiflawed casting and two or three bogus additions aside, the '90s updating isn't akin to the bloody butchering Marion receives during the notorious shower scene, the segment that kept Janet Leigh (who originated the role) loyal to baths the rest of her life.
Van Sant's version, which sometimes feels as if it were set in the original time period, is a reverential retelling that's true to the general spirit, and practically all the particulars, of the original. In some instances -- the casual sexism of Marion's boss and his smarmy associate, references to long lunch hours and heartburn -- the movie is downright anachronistic.
This "Psycho," a nice antidote to those three mediocre sequels, gets started on the right note, literally, with Bernard Herrmann's haunting strings-driven score (adapted and produced by Danny Elfman) allying with the Saul Bass titles (updated by Pablo Ferro) to create suspense before the first scene is unveiled.
The director successfully carries off an opening shot that Hitch couldn't achieve because of technical limitations. Van Sant's camera swoops down from the Phoenix skyline to a hotel and finally the room where Crane is spending the afternoon in bed with her lover, Sam Loomis (a bland Viggo Mortenson in the part originally played by John Saxon). The move is provocative and effective, giving extra emphasis to the predator-and-prey theme that runs throughout the film.
Unfortunately better known for her private life than her solid work in "Wag the Dog" and "Donnie Brasco," Heche is vivacious and sassier than Leigh as a woman who gives in to temptation -- $400,000 in cash, intended for delivery to her company's safety-deposit box -- and faces debilitating guilt before paying the ultimate price for her act of passion. On the run and bound for the small town where Sam is employed at a hardware store and desperately trying to pay off his debts, she has a testy exchange with a policeman (James Remar) and fast-talks her way through a car trade with a befuddled auto dealer (James LeGros).
So far, so respectful. As a result of his frightening portrayal of a grinning sociopath in the otherwise forgettable "Clay Pigeons," Vaughn was chosen to play Norman, the emotionally disturbed innkeeper with an overbearing mother and a fondness for feathered pets and cross-dressing.
Vaughn, while not quite all wrong, isn't exactly right. The nervous giggle is good and appropriately unsettling. But he's too muscular and self-confident for a character intended to be frail, unsure and birdlike, and his delivery on occasion verges on the wooden. Heche and Vaughn threw off sparks together in "Return to Paradise," but their exchanges here are far from combustible. Perhaps the late Anthony Perkins' imprint on the part was so definitive that no contemporary star could have pulled it off. Maybe screenwriter Joseph Stefano, who wrote the original "Psycho," should have retooled this one with a particular actor in mind.
Van Sant is probably due criticism, too, for several gratuitous variations: Norman masturbates while watching Marion undress; a shot of storm clouds is inserted into the shower-attack sequence; and we get to visit the killer's bedroom, littered with a little boy's toys as well as skin magazines.
The supporting roles are expertly cast. The ever-impressive William H. Macy ("Pleasantville," "Fargo") is annoyingly pesky as Milton Arbogast, the private investigator who tracks Marion to the Bates Motel; and Julianne Moore ("Boogie Nights," "Safe") as Lila Crane convincingly moves from anger to concern to fear over the disappearance of her sister. Robert Forster is solid as the matter-of-fact criminal psychiatrist who "explains" Bates' behavior at the film's end.
Van Sant's take on "Psycho" couldn't realistically have the same impact as the first incarnation, simply because of the passage of time. Hitchcock's tale of mayhem, emotional meltdown and extreme sexual dysfunction was the first fare of its kind, and its staccato cuts and voyeuristic camera represented cinematographic techniques that were far from conventional.
The newfangled version nevertheless is equipped with its own personality and is likely to give spooks to a new generation of viewers more accustomed to "Scream"-style gore and a high body count than a scary story, well told and carefully paced. Immediate gratification isn't always a movie's best friend.