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Gilbey on Film: don't stop screaming

Why we just can't get enough of Psycho.

Psycho is on the loose again in cinemas this week, accompanied by a BFI Southbank season, Psycho in Context, which positions the film in a ghoulish family portrait alongside its thematic cousins (Les Diaboliques, L'avventura) and upstart offspring (Halloween, Dressed to Kill).

It's a shame it wasn't possible to have Douglas Gordon's installation 24-Hour Psycho screening somewhere in the vicinity. I saw (a small slice of) this eerie interrogation of Hitchcock when it formed part of the "Spellbound" exhibition at the Hayward in 1996. With the film slowed down to the stated length, any moments of hysterical horror are rendered abstract, even peaceful; already a patient, measured work, it becomes in Gordon's hands a pure reverie. "24-Hour Psycho, as I see it, is not simply a work of appropriation," the artist said in 1993. "It is more like an act of affiliation . . . It wasn't a straightforward case of abduction. The original work is a masterpiece in its own right, and I've always loved to watch it . . . I wanted to maintain the authorship of Hitchcock so that when an audience would see my 24-Hour Psycho, they would think much more about Hitchcock and much less, or not at all, about me."

There's a corresponding effect at play in Gus Van Sant's 1998 Psycho. Despite being in colour, with a different cast, the occasional split-second visual detour and the odd cosmetic tweak (such as the amount of money stolen by Marion Crane) to bring it up to date, this is pretty much the shot-for-shot remake that it is rumoured to be. The film got a rough ride from most critics, primarily on grounds of impertinence, when it was released. What's surprising is how often it is still invoked as a cinematic punchbag for the anti-remake worrywarts. Writing in the Guardian last October, Sam Leith expressed the typical objection to Van Sant's Psycho: "Why would you take one of the greatest films ever and do it again, not just line by line, but frame by frame? It's the cinematic equivalent of waiting for Alfred Hitchcock to leave his bicycle chained up outside a shop and running over to sniff the saddle when he goes inside."

To my mind, Psycho Mk II ranks as one of the most unsettling films ever made. It has about it the whiff of a shindig in a mortuary, or a game of dressing-up conducted entirely by reanimated corpses. It's sick -- but it's a gas. You could imagine Norman and Mother getting a hell of a kick out of it. And, like 24-Hour Psycho, it is an experiment that invites us to confront what Psycho means to us: rather than distancing the viewer from the original, or attempting to over-write it, it's an act of profound cinephilia that depends upon and enhances our familiarity with Hitchcock.

It also ranks as one of the baldest attempts at subversion ever visited upon a Hollywood studio. "[The studios] were turning every TV show into a movie around that time," Van Sant told me in 2008. "They were obsessed with this brand identity. And they still are. They love sequels and remakes. But I could never figure out why they took the script when they did a remake, and threw out the original director's input -- the camera angles and so on. I was at Universal and I said, 'If you're going to do a remake, why not literally follow every frame?' And they laughed. At the time.[Pause for comic effect.] In fact, they're still laughing."

After the success of Good Will Hunting, Universal finally let him loose on his big idea. "I thought: if this makes money, the studios will be encouraged to keep doing it. It was like creating a virus, wherein the studios could get busy remaking their own material." I asked why this would have been a good thing. "I thought it was lame of the studios to want to do remakes in the first place. So to try to create a cycle like this was a kind of passive-aggressive way of . . . you know . . ." Turning their weapons on themselves? Giving them a taste, an overdose even, of their own medicine? "Yeah! I was trying to create a subversive act for them to do. Unfortunately, Psycho didn't make any money."

It's still a great movie, though -- right? "Good. That's good." Didn't he agree? "I can't tell," he said, enigmatically. So ended my second experience of attempting to convince a film-maker of the effectiveness of his own work. (The first was trying to sell Panic Room to David Fincher.)

But before we get too entrenched about our views on either Psycho, let's remember that there were many doubters in 1960 too, such as the Observer's C A Lejeune, who "grew so sick and tired of the whole beastly business" that she fled before the end. Perfidy!

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs on film for Cultural Capital every Tuesday