The new version of "Psycho" is the latest example, but the scenario has happened many times before.
It goes like this. A new Hollywood movie is heading our way, and advertisements have been trumpeting its praises for weeks. But audiences know that a good promotional campaign doesn't equal a good movie, so on opening day they pick up a newspaper or tune in a broadcast to find out what the critics think. And the critics don't think anything at all, for the excellent reason that they haven't seen the picture, which wasn't previewed by its studio on the theory that no reviews are preferable to the bad reviews it's expected to receive.
This doesn't happen every month, but it seems to be occurring more often than it used to. A recent instance is "The Avengers," a big-budget romp with major stars and stylish characters drawn from a popular TV show. It promised to be a sure-fire conversation piece, at the least, yet Warner Bros. refused to screen it in advance, apparently hoping to keep its failings a secret until the last moment.
But critics eagerly told their readers, viewers, and listeners all about the no-preview policy, a sure sign that the movie's own makers considered it a loser. The critics then bore out their own prophecy, making a beeline for the first public showing and panning the picture with uncommon enthusiasm.
The story of the new "Psycho" is slightly more complicated, since Universal spread the word that Alfred Hitchcock refused to preview the original version before its 1960 premire.
Like most excuses, however, this one is less than convincing. It's true Hitchcock orchestrated the premire of "Psycho" with exquisite precision, and it's true he kept the picture's content a secret so he could spring it on the public with maximum impact. But he was releasing a movie that held extraordinary, unprecedented surprises, including a historymaking scene that killed off the main character with shocking abruptness less than halfway through the story.
The new version doesn't hold any such novelties, precisely because almost every moviegoer has seen, or partly seen, or at least heard about the original.
If the executives at Universal thought they had a similar success on their hands, they would surely have previewed the daylights out of it, if only to gather blurbs for the "quote ads" that have become a woefully predictable part of marketing movies. The fact that they hid the picture speaks volumes about their confidence in it.
Those executives could be mistaken, of course, turning their backs on a movie that's better or more challenging or daring or innovative than they're capable of recognizing.
But sad to say, that's not the case with the new "Psycho." It's so slavishly similar to its predecessor - right down to the symbolic lettering on Marion's license plates - that there's little to spark fresh discussion except the acting. Here the news is mixed.
Anne Heche and Viggo Mortensen are adequate as Marion and her boyfriend, but Vince Vaughn doesn't have a shred of Anthony Perkins's demented magnetism. The best work comes from William H. Macy as the detective and Julianne Moore as Marion's feisty sister.
In the end, it's hard to imagine why a smart and savvy filmmaker like Gus Van Sant would want to "re-create" this classic in the first place. There's nothing wrong with remaking a masterpiece if the goal is to put the story in a new context, a different time and place, exploring its relevance to new social and historical circumstances. Regrettably, the new "Psycho" doesn't attempt anything so ambitious.
Its occasional changes or additions, including more sexual explicitness attached to Norman's voyeurism, point less to Van Sant's inventiveness than to the diminished subtlety of Hollywood cinema. On this point, it's worth remembering that Hitchcock once claimed he filmed "Psycho" in black-and-white because a single shot in the picture, showing blood swirling down a drain, would have been too disgusting in color. The remake serves up buckets-full of bright red liquid, suggesting that disgust has become just another tool for imagination-starved studios.
* Rated R; contains sex and violence. Monitor film critic David Sterritt is author of 'The Films of Alfred Hitchcock' (Cambridge University Press, 1993). E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org