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Psycho, Psycho, Psycho

The story of Psycho began with Ed Gein, a real dude who lived in Wisconsin in the 50s. Gein was a sick bastard who liked going to the cemetery and digging up women whom he thought looked like his mother. But what is still vital about Psycho...

Image by Courtney Nicholas

What’s in an adaptation? What’s in a remake? How does the transference of material from life into art differ from the transference of material from one piece of art into another? And what about the approach? Meaning, when we take from life, do we do it as a documentary (nonfiction), a feature film (fiction), or as reality television (depressing)? And when we do a remake, what are we remaking? The story, the characters, the structure, the way it was shot, the way it was written?


The story of Psycho began with Ed Gein, a real dude who lived in Wisconsin in the 50s. Gein was a sick bastard who liked going to the cemetery and digging up recently interred bodies of women whom he thought looked like his mother. (Gein must have been doing a ton of digging, especially considering he was all by himself! I had to dig a grave once in a recent adaptation of As I Lay Dying, and that shit ain’t easy.) He made furniture out of their body parts—lamps out of their skin, bedposts out of their skulls. He seemed to be into collecting the parts as much as he was into the actual killing. You can see a list of flesh bits that were found in his house on Wikipedia. It was stuff like vaginas in shoeboxes and heads in bags.

This true story of Ed Gein was then turned into Psycho, a novel by Robert Bloch. And that novel inspired Hitchcock’s film, which led to a series of schlocky sequels. (One of those sequels was Psycho III, which was directed by Anthony Perkins, the actor who played Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho. I guess Anthony’s career got sucked into that storied motel, after all.) Gein’s penchant for masks of human skin must have also inspired Leatherface of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the late 70s. Then in the late 90s, Gus Van Sant made a shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock original—something he was skewered for. And now there is the series called The Bates Motel, which is a Twin Peaks-type take on Mother Bates and her child, before Ed killed her and stuffed her body. All of these incarnations make you wonder, what is still vital about this thing called Psycho and what is it that keeps us returning to the story of Ed Gein?


Another work that was inspired by Gein that Wiki isn’t aware of is Cormac McCarthy’s third book, Child of God, which is about a loner named Lester Ballard who progresses from peeping tom, to necrophiliac, to murderer. It’s fascinating to see how Bloch used the Gein source to make a thriller and McCarthy used it for a dark character study. I was fortunate enough to adapt this novel into a movie, which will premiere at the Venice Film Festival at the end of this month. I said to McCarthy that I would probably be asked why I chose such a subject for a film, so I asked him why he chose such a subject for a book. He said, “I don’t know James, probably some stupid reason.” Then when I asked him about the deeper theme of extreme loneliness, and the inability of the character to fit into civilized society, he said, with a John Ford level of dissembling (Ford was famous for not talking about his work, see Peter Bogdanovich’s film on him): “Yup, there are people like that in our world.” Yes, indeed.

In 1993, the great Scottish artist Douglas Gordon, one of the YBAs, exhibited his piece, 24 Hour Psycho, in which he slowed down Hitchcock’s film to about two and a half frames per-second in order to make it last 24 hours. There is a ton to be said about this piece. To me, it is about going “psycho” on the film form. We are made to watch something that is part of our collective consciousness. Who isn’t aware of Psycho? Even if you haven’t seen it, you know the music, the shower scene, etc… But Gordon’s work subverts that familiarity in such an unusual way that he forces you to start thinking about different aspects of the film. It becomes an object. You look at the shots like film stills. You lose the story and start to become aware of the actors behind characters. Almost 20 years later, the great Don Delilo featured Gordon’s piece in his book, Point Omega. Incidentally, I put the two of them together so that Delillo could have permission to write about the work. Then Douglas went on to acquire the rights to adapt that book into a film, in which he wants me to star. He’s been talking about it for a while. Let’s do it Douglas!


Douglas’s piece was first presented in Scotland and had very few viewers, now it’s owned by MoMA and I’m sure a bunch of other important institutions. Twenty years later, it stands out as one of the most important works of the 90s. Later on, my favorite director, Gus Van Sant, released his own version of Psycho in 1998. Gus said the idea was to do a remake the film based on the direction, rather than just the script or the story. This was a move out of the contemporary art playbook, but relatively unheard of in mainstream film. And that was one of the big things against Gus. His Psycho had the expectations of major Hollywood film. What would probably have been celebrated in the art world (look at Douglas’s piece) was rejected by film critics and filmgoers. Gus had just come off of his largest commercial and critical success to date, Good Will Hunting. He was allowed to do almost any film he wanted. For a long time he had been talking about a remake of Psycho, and no one took him seriously. After the Affleck-Damon rocket to the stars, he was given the green light. You can’t blame him for wanting to make it on a sizable budget, and for wanting to get paid after years of smaller movies, but I think the movie would have had better karma (it is a great idea) if it had been made for less.

Fifteen years later, I like Gus’s version. I know that my attraction is probably due to my love all of his work, but I really enjoy gleaning his style from behind Hitchcock’s template—the colors, the design, the lighting, the framing. Even if all of that is based on Hitchcock, it is now Van Sant in a Borges/”Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” kind of way. Yes, there is something strange about the actors standing in almost the same positions as those of the original. It forces the viewer to be aware of the connection to the original film, and if a viewer hasn’t seen the original, then the presentation probably looks strange because it is consciously following an old style of blocking and shooting that might feel slow to a contemporary audience. The aware audience will chafe at the explicit connections, and the unaware audience will not appreciate the care put into mimicking a master. Not to mention, all the actors are great. The film was made back when Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, and Joaquin Phoenix were in a trio of films together. The only problem is that their performances were undercut by the close proximity of the original. It’s like watching a great rendition of a scene from Raging Bull in an acting class—you ain’t never going to get DeNiro out of your head, no matter how good the performance. Something more needs to be changed. But I still like Gus’s film. I see it and I think, What balls!


I also made my own version of Psycho, an installation at the Pace Gallery in London. And yes, we reshot the shower sequence. But I played Marion. Long story, but I think it worked.

Bates Motel is cool. I haven’t watched much, but it’s well done and engaging. Here the idea is to go back to Norman’s youth and show us how he got to where he did in Hitchcock’s film—although it is set in present day. I’m not sure how that works, but I’m bet they’ve given some explanation in the press. The point is to go back to the past and expand, expand, expand. They’re not trying to quickly tie up lose ends, as I think they did in Psycho IV. One privileges the exploration of a character’s youth, it gives us new insight into character we already know. I think the fascinating thing is that while watching Bates Motel we are made to sympathize with a man we know will be a demented murderer of innocent women. Crazy.

More film stuff from James Franco on VICE:

All Over the Place in New York

Keep Standing by Me

New Orleans Dionysus