The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘Psycho’ (1998)

Welcome to the JOE-DOWN, a back-and-forth movie review blog by two snarky newspapermen named Joe from Minnesota, Joe Froemming and Joe Brown. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked 1998’s “Psycho.”

The info:

The Movie: “Psycho” (1998)

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Julianne Moore

Director: Gus Van Sant

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) A young female embezzler arrives at the Bates Motel, which has terrible secrets of its own. 

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 38 percent

Our take:

Brown: So in our last installment, the JOE-DOWN experienced the technicolor nightmare of “Mandy,” a movie that had Nic Cage snort coke and take LSD together while killing Sam’s Club Cenobites and hippies. It was the proper way for us to begin Halloween Month.

This week, we have another colorful nightmare. And I don’t mean that in the endearing way of “Mandy.”

This week, it’s the 1998’s shot-for-shot remake of “Psycho” that NO ONE asked for.

It was the proper follow-up for us on Halloween Month. Because we hate ourselves.

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” from 1960 is a cinematic landmark. I actually remember seeing it in a psychology class in high school, which seems like a controversial choice of film for a public high school. Then again, I had a math teacher who showed Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi,” which I’m 100 percent certain that teacher didn’t do his research on other than seeing the pi symbol on a VHS box.

I knew going into this week’s review that Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” was reviled, but I had never seen it other than the clip of Vince Vaughn peeping on Anne Heche. So, you know, another thing that was unnecessary in an unnecessary movie. 

So Froemming, while I hide $400,000 in my newspaper, give us your first take of 1998’s “Psycho.”

Froemming: *sigh*

The original “Psycho” is one of my favorite movies. It was the first scary movie I saw as a child, and it introduced me to a genre of films I love.

So, in 1998, me and my buddy went to the theater to see this remake. Gus Van Sant had just made the incredible “Good Will Hunting” the year before, and he made “Drugstore Cowboy,” so this should have been pretty good, right?

Nope. I sat in the dark theater seething with anger, like Norman at the end of the film. I hated everything about it. At the time, remaking classic films seemed like a dumb idea, and frankly it was. I wish Hollywood learned its lesson from this, but alas, it did not.

Brown: I mean, you don’t see shot-for-shot remakes so much. But you’re right, Hollywood did not learn the lesson. In fact, with the horror genre, it doubled down. 

That reminds me: We’re going to review the “Black Christmas” remake sometime this winter.

Froemming: Well, it is close for a shot-for-shot remake. I don’t remember Anthony Perkins loudly masterbating during the peephole scene of the original.

Brown, as I cope with the memory that at one point, Anne Heche was a big name in movies in the late ’90s, why don’t you kick this off?

Brown: We start off the credit sequence with the stylized line credits that the original movie had, scored by one of the best soundtracks ever… the original movie’s soundtrack. 

Then when Gus Van Sant’s name popped up, I remembered something that I think Froemming will get a kick out of. 

For years, I would mix Gus Van Sant up with Steve Van Zandt. So yeah, for a long time, I thought this remake was directed by the guitarist of the E-Street Band. I guess that means I thought the guitarist of the E-Street Band, doofy bandanas and all, was an Academy Award-nominated director. 

… I’ve never claimed to be a smart man. 

Froemming: He should have followed up his previous film with this:

At least it would have spared us a remake of a Hitchcock classic.

Hey Gus, how do you like them apples?

Brown: Not now, Froemming. He’s counting his money.

Anyways, this movie takes place in 1998 and opens in Phoenix, which, after visiting last summer, is the sleepiest major city I’ve ever been to. Seriously, I got into town during rush hour and it was a (REDACTED) breeze.

Froemming: Well, because of the weather I imagine they are all like drunk Mr. Rogers.

Brown: We then come into what seems like a nice, high-rise motel where Marion Crane (Heche) and her boyfriend Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortensen) are enjoying some pillow talk after a little afternoon delight

Turns out that this hotel is your typical hourly-rate sleeze hotel, which is fitting for Sam, who is apparently in the midst of a divorce and is swimming in debt. Marion’s into him, though, and wants something more substantial soon. 

When Marion returns to work, her boss is schmoozing, I think, Burt Reynolds’ character from “Striptease.” You know the type: gross Texan in a cowboy hat still pretending it’s 1950 and sexual harassment in the work place is OK. 

Froemming: Basically the character Rich Texan from “The Simpsons.”

Brown: He also says that he has a lot of money because he doesn’t declare it on his taxes. So, he’s the Malibu-Stacy-with-a-new-hat version of Trump.

Froemming: This scene also sets up one big question: How often can they put Heche in her bra and panties in this movie? The answer: Too often.

Her boss and the Texan have business, and he has $400,000 in cash, on hand, and they give it to Marion to bring to the bank. Which, I mean, I know they have an afternoon of boozing but they probably could have stopped at a bank themselves, right?

Also, if you are carrying around $400K in cash, I’m sorry, I don’t feel bad for you when you lose it.

Which he does, because Marion sees this cash as her…what, out? If a man has that kind of pocket cash, he will find you if you steal it.

Brown: So this is one of the few things this movie changed from the original. Hitchcock had the money at $40,000; Van Sant at $400,000 since inflation and all. 

Now, Marion steals the money with the intention of giving it to Sam so he can get out of debt and presumably start a new life together. 

Two questions:

  • In 1998, was $400,000 really considered starting-over money? Even in Bill Clinton’s America, that seems unlikely. Considering you’d be on the lamb and all for grand larceny, you should probably have seven figures. 
  • Should you really throw away your life and your safety to steal $400,000 from some crazy Texan for a non-commital guy who bangs you on the reg in a fleabag motel?

Froemming: Here is where, if I were remaking “Psycho,” I would have given more back story to Marion and make it so she is in financial trouble and sees this as an escape for her situation. I mean, I could start over with $400,000 in 2020, but not all of us are Mr. MoneyBags like Brown. 

Brown: So after leaving work with the money, Marion makes her move. First, she changes clothes because this movie LOVES having Anne Heche in a bra as much as Quentin Tarantino LOVES putting Uma Thurman’s feet on screen. Then, she gets ready to flee Phoenix for Sam’s place in California. 

Froemming: Look, I find Heche attractive, but this movie takes it to a creepy level with the skin. Treat it like how Jerry Seinfeld does, not George Costanza.

Brown: In real life, I’m absolutely Costanza in that clip. 

Now, this movie does the same bit as the Hitchcock version where Marion is bleary-eyed while driving on the highway with her internal monologue going all over the place as she heads out of town. Only, the original is better about ratcheting up the uneasiness. Maybe it’s as simple as being a black-and-white movie compared to Van Sant’s colorized version. When you have the bright tones all over the place, it doesn’t fill you with the same sense of dread.

Froemming: Woah woah woah? Are we just going to ignore the weird use of green screen while she is at a stop light and her boss and the Texan walk by?

Brown: I was gonna save the green screen for later scenes, but hop right in, dude.

Froemming: Not since “The Room,” have I been baffled by this much pointless green screen. The first time was when she walks into her office, and the people outside the door on the sidewalk were all green screen. Then when she is driving and sees her boss, THEY GREEN SCREEN THAT TOO!

Was Van Sant and George Lucas in a competition on who could cram as much pointless effects into a movie during the late 1990s?

Brown: I get why Van Sant did it. We should stop calling this a shot-for-shot remake and call it what it is: Van Sant plagiarized Hitchcock. 

Froemming: Reading up on this, Quentin Tarantino said this version was better than Hitchcock’s because it was “more real.”

Brown: Half the stuff Tarantino does in his movies is plagiarized from other films, so yeah, I see him taking Van Sant’s side. 

Going back to the green screen bits: When the movie is black and white, and you’re not dealing with more advanced screenings, you can get away with the weird backgrounds. It was a limitation of the time. In this version, especially viewing on a decent computer monitor, all the green-screen backgrounds are jarring. That really comes into play when people start getting killed. 

Froemming: I have a 4K TV and you are 100 percent right. This movie looks (REDACTED) horrible.

Brown: In an effort to move this thing along, Marion falls asleep on the side of the road, where she’s woken up by a suspicious cop. I wish their interaction went something like this. 

Froemming: I will say I wish it went like this.

So the cop is green screened for some reason too. This movie needs to be tossed into the dustbin of history, not only does it look lousy, everything about it is lousy.

So, on the lamb and now with a cop, what does Marion do? Why, she acts so suspicious that now the fuzz is suspicious of her. She even tries to Karen her way out by starting her car and trying to leave, which the cop says no to.

I am SHOCKED she did not demand to talk to his supervisor. 

So, he follows her to the next town, where she pulls into an auto dealership so she can switch cars, doubling-down on that suspicious behavior. She trades in her car, plus $4K for an uglier looking car, because she probably got swindled here, and takes off right when the cop shows up. 

Brown: If you’re the cop, how are you not hopping in your squad car and pulling her over after that situation? Or at least reporting on your radio to be on the lookout for this woman while you gather information because she is suspect as all hell. 

Froemming: Because she is white. And has that Karen hairdo. Probably not worth the headache.

Brown: See, I couldn’t see past my own privilege there. My mistake. 

Froemming: Moving this along, she finally stops at a motel. The infamous Bates Motel, where a tragically miscast Vince Vaughn plays our psycho, Norman. 

Brown: Oh, this was a terrible casting choice. Not because Vince Vaughn is bad in the role — I think he does fine with the material — but it’s because I don’t buy him as a misfit loner teeming to the brim in mommy issues. Dude was fresh off of “Swingers,” where his brand of confident charisma shined. Try as he may to hide it, Vaughn still has that kind of charisma, which is so antithetical to what Norman Bates is supposed to be. 

And, seeing skinny Vince Vaughn is weird after seeing him in “Old School” and “Wedding Crashers” so many times.

Froemming: Exactly. Anthony Perkins worked because he was unassuming and meek. Vaughn has a presence that does not work like that. 

Anyway, she checks into the motel, signing her alias which the name above hers in the sign-in book was “Michael Scott,” which leads me to think this might exist in the “Threat Level: Midnight” cinematic universe. 

Brown: That would make sense that 1998’s “Psycho” is in Michael Scott’s world, because the next scene is early “Office” levels of awkward. 

Norman offers to make dinner for Marion. But as he runs into the house and Marion gets settled in, she hears Norman and an old woman yelling at each other. A defeated Norman eventually comes down with a sandwich, so the two head into the parlor to eat and chat. Norman has stuffed birds everywhere. 

An actual line in this sequence: “My hobby is stuffing things.” Kinda shocked that didn’t make the script for Vaughn in “Wedding Crashers.” 

And yeah, it is a tense conversation about Norman’s abusive relationship with his mother and how, despite that, he won’t leave. 

Now, let’s put ourselves in Marion’s shoes here. She hasn’t paid for the room yet. Has barely unpacked. The director hasn’t asked us to strip to our bra and panties for, like, the 18th time in a 104-minute movie. You are sitting in what can be titled “Red Flag: The Social Interaction.”

… Why the (REDACTED) are you like saying “You know what? Thank you for your hospitality, but the rain has stopped and I think I’m gonna hit the road again.” She is 15 miles from the nearest town! Know what they probably have there? Hotels that aren’t run by Ed Gein!

Froemming: Who the (REDACTED) was this movie for? When it came out, most who saw it already had seen the original, so the twist is already known. And if it were to get people who had not seen the Hitchcock classic, this version probably made them never want to see it. Because this movie is a shit sandwich. 

Anywho, she goes to her room to strip down yet again, and we have Norman leering at her through a hole in the wall, loudly masterbating. 

I did not need clarification for the original as to what was going on here. He mashing it so loudly I am shocked Marion didn’t hear it. 

Brown: Yeah, it’s one thing to have the visual of Vince Vaughn leering at a half-naked Anne Heche, but the sound effects of Norman Bates just goin’ to town on himself are the most harrowing thing in this movie.

Froemming: Then he just unloads on the floor and heads to the house. That was pretty disgusting. 

This was probably the 10th time I wrote in my notes “I wish I was watching the original instead.”

Then we see Marion having a change of heart on this whole theft business, and does some math, because she is now $4K short for when she returns the money.

Then she decides to flush that down the toilet for reasons and take a shower.

And the shower kill scene proves how much more frightening this is when it was black and white and used some chocolate syrup instead of bright red blood and made by a better director 30-plus years before.

Brown: Yeah, when you know the twist from a 32-year-old movie (at the time), this version of the famous shower scene falls comically flat. Like, it’s clearly not Vince Vaughn wearing the wig and doing the killing. And the cinematography is all over the damn place. 

Also, what the hell was with the random esoteric images when Marion is getting stabbed? I get that random disturbing images were a ‘90s trope thanks to Tool music videos, but what the (REDACTED) does it add? Those were thrown in in much the same way you throw in a few different words or phrases in a college term paper: Just to give yourself a little leeway from the plagiarism accusations. 

BUT, I will say this: Those violin shrieks still get me all sorts of panicked. That’s a credit to the original’s score. Not to this movie.

Froemming: Yup, it was a classic scene in the 1960s that was mangled by a bum director in a very bad idea of a film.

Norman now comes back, getting ill by the carnage his alter-ego has brought down, and has to clean the scene up. With a mop and some water.

*rubs temple*

At least modernize this scene. Lots of bleach or whatever, blood is hard to clean up. Hell, “American Psycho” did it better when the realtor just paints over Patrick Bateman’s carnage. 

Nope, we get some dirty mop water and that does the trick! And then he wraps her up in the shower curtain, drives her car to the swamp, where Marion is given a watery grave. 

Oh, he also threw the $400K in the trunk because it was wrapped in a newspaper in her room. 

Brown: The entire time Norman is cleaning the murder scene in a panic, Vince Vaughn is giving facial expressions that Billy Bob Thorton was doing in “Sling Blade.” It was incredibly distracting. 

Then as the car sinks into the swamp, I thought of two things. 

First: I wish this was the music when the car was going down. 

Second: I was kind of hoping that the car would stay afloat like in “SLC Punk.”

Marion’s dead and it seems as though Norman had properly disposed of the evidence. 

Then, I got extremely bummed out when I saw that Flea got dragged into this shit sandwich as a co-worker of Sam’s when Marion’s sister, Lila, barges into his store to ask about her sister’s whereabouts.

Froemming: Seems like this 1998 movie also had a better Flea cameo:

Brown: It wouldn’t be a ‘90s movie without a cameo from either Flea or Henry Rollins.

Froemming: Lila storms into Sam’s shop demanding to know where her sister is, because of the theft of that money and all.

And then I was bummed out to see William H. Macy in this steaming pile of horse shit. He plays a private detective named Milton Arbogast, and dear God why did they stick with the 1950s film noir gumshoe trope with him? Either modernize it or go full retro. Don’t try to be Mac and play both sides

Brown: You know, it’s easy to have an identity crisis like this “Psycho” has when YOU SHOULDN’T EXIST IN THE FIRST PLACE!

Yeah… Arbogast is here on behalf of our crazy rich Texan and Marion’s boss, who just want the money back without having the police get involved. 

As a better Flea movie would put it: THEY WANT THE (REDACTED) MONEY, LEBOWSKI!

Froemming: We find out right away Arbogast is lousy at his job, because he proclaims he knows Marion is in that town.

*narrator* She was not.

We then get a montage of him knocking on random doors all over the greater Los Angeles area, which somehow leads him to the Bates Motel, which I assume is pretty far (REDACTED) away as it took Marion like, what, a day and half to get there?

Brown: *checks Google maps* It takes about six hours to get from Phoenix to LA. You could have done that in a day, Marion.

Also, this sums up how Arbogast canvassed the various motels. 

Eventually, Arbogast happens upon the Bates Motel, where Norman is changing linens at a hotel NO ONE goes to. Like, this should be the hourly motel we saw earlier. 

Under questioning, Norman stumbles and bumbles his way through it. Marion isn’t around, but Arbogast knows something smells fishy in the state of Denmark. When our dick asks to talk to Mrs. Bates, Norman gets especially agitated. Arbogast gives Lila an update, then decides to head back to the Bates Motel to approach Norman’s mother. 

Arbogast heads into the house and heads upstairs. Then, suddenly, a long-haired woman storms out of a bedroom and slashes the dick’s face thrice, sending Arbogast stumbling down the stairs before getting stabbed some more.

Froemming: Mrs. Bates was only standing her ground, Brown!

Brown: Oh, so the second amendment covers knives now? I don’t recall Charleton Heston saying you can pry knives out of his cold, dead hands.

Now, in the original, this is the scene that puts me most on edge. The buildup leaves me as tense as Marge Simpson watching plane crash movies

The remake… it’s the same as the shower scene. Weird green screen effects and camera work. Esoteric images flashing as Arbogast gets stabbed. I only got spooked because of the damned violins.

*sigh* … Why does this (REDACTED) movie exist?

Froemming: One thing before we move on. Arbogast kept asking Norman if he would need to get a warrant to search the place. Private detectives cannot obtain warrants, that is for law enforcement. This movie is so stupid, even if he was just bluffing to get Bates nervous.

Brown: Arbogast also keeps getting out of his car through the passenger side. He does a lot of things that defy convention.

Froemming: Now Lila and Sam are sitting around like doofuses waiting for their detective friend to call back. They grow impatient and head to the home of Sheriff Al Chambers, who once worked as a library cop in New York.

They tell him about the call they got from Arbogast regarding Norman and his mother, which makes no sense to the sheriff, as he tells them Mrs. Bates is dead as a doornail, has been for some time since the murder/suicide thing that happened all those years ago with her and her boyfriend. 

Brown: Like President Trump talking to Putin about election fraud, the sheriff just takes Norman’s word on it.

Froemming: This poor son-of-a-bitch then, in the middle of the night, calls Norman about what is going on and Norman says the detective showed up earlier, but never returned. 

So these two hatch a scheme to go to the hotel and snoop around posing as a married couple. They somehow have less chemistry than Anakin and Padme in the “Star Wars” prequels.

Brown: Yeah, but they’re not really supposed to have chemistry, so I was fine with it.

I like how, on Amazon, they mentioned that some of the characters were given more depth compared to the original. But I think the only depth Lila was given compared to the Hitchcock version is that she owns a Walkman. 

I can’t be too mean, though. Julianne Moore is very pretty.

Froemming: Wrong! They also added that she is constantly annoyed too!

Brown: After getting a room, Sam and Lila sneak into the room Marion stayed in and find a scrap of paper in the toilet that had “$400,000” written on it. They know Norman is hiding something. So, Sam goes in the office to distract this awkward hotel manager wearing The Rock’s hilarious jeans/turtleneck combo while Lila runs up to the house to confront Mrs. Bates.

Froemming: I find it odd everyone’s way of dealing with Norman is to antagonize him. Sam does this, only to get Happy Gilmore’d in the head with a nine-iron. 

Brown: I love that once Norman discovers the ruse, he runs to the house. Only, the way Vince Vaughn runs looks like Homer skipping through the land of chocolate. 

Froemming: Meanwhile, Lila is snooping in a house she does not belong in, finding weird shit, yeah, but nothing really incriminating. She then heads down to the fruit cellar, where she finds a room full of birds and…the dead corpse of Mrs. Bates in a chair!

Again, the twist here was much better in the original. Sometimes shadows and black and white adds to the terror.

She then is attacked by Norman wearing a wig and a dress, only for him to be foiled by Sam.

*rubs temple* We should have just reviewed the original. I would have been much happier.

Brown: This is the JOE-DOWN. We actively avoid ways to make each other happy.

A psychiatrist talks to Norman… or what’s left of Norman. See, he developed an alternative personality of his mother after he murdered his mother and her lover years ago. We go on to hear about how Norman preserved his mom’s body and had conversations with himself with the two personalities. 

Then the movie wraps up with a voiceover from Mother, who wants to convince the cops that she couldn’t have done these murders. She wouldn’t harm a fly. Then Vince Vaughn looks up at the camera, just like Anthony Perkins did in the original, just to give you one more reminder that you could be watching a better movie. 

*long sigh* Froemming, let’s go to recommendations before I decide to lock myself in a car and drive into a swamp behind the Bates Motel.

WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?

Brown: Nope. This is one of the most unnecessary movies I’ve ever witnessed. Hitchcock’s version is a classic for a reason. Don’t watch this miscast, misguided tripe.

Froemming: No. Just. No. Watch the original, it is such a classic.

WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?

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