The Enduring Power of ‘Psycho’ Lives On in ’78/52′

Picture it: any movie theater in the fall of 1960. It was the shower seen around the world, followed quickly and without warning by the screams of millions that reached the darkest recesses of space. Over a short period of time, it was a story that turned legendary, even without seeing the actual film: amateur thief Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), overwhelmed with guilt to return the $40,000 she’s stolen, goes to take a shower and is brutally slashed to death by motel proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins)… ’s mother. To the studio heads at Paramount, it was the tackiest of numerous tasteless scenes schemed up by a great showman of a director trying his hand at a sleazy B-movie. To history, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho is a landmark that broke the rules with aplomb and changed the game, all while inspiring a rise in baths among movie patrons (and a joking suggestion of dry cleaning).

But what is it about ‘Psycho’s’ legendary “shower scene” that enamors the world so much, even as the film marches towards its 60th anniversary in 2020? That is the question filmmaker Alexandre Philippe (‘Doc of the Dead’ and ‘The People vs. George Lucas’) commits himself to explore in “78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene”, a lovely tribute and analysis to those iconic two minutes, 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits, which just had a special public screening at Beyond Fest in Hollywood this past weekend after making the rounds at Sundance and Fantastic Fest.

Unlike Rodney Ascher’s unevenly amusing and infuriating ‘Shining‘ analysis ‘Room 237′, ’78/52’ is no gathering of “nerds and conspiracy theorists” promoting outlandish ideas that Mr. Hitchcock intended ‘Psycho‘ to be an allegory for genocide, imperialism or falsified space travel. Instead, Mr. Philippe opts for an endlessly fascinating gathering of personalities reflecting on this seminal event in pop culture history, the political and cultural climate of the time that would ultimately culminate in ‘Psycho‘ and most importantly, its immortal legacy and influence, wonderfully intercut with archival interviews of Mr. Hitchcock flexing his legendary dry humor with other directors and talk show hosts, stunningly recreated moments that further put Gus Van Sant’s infamous remake to shame (including one of the shower scene as it’s depicted in Robert Bloch’s original novel, which paints a sharp image of why it was best to make Norman Bates look like Anthony Perkins and not a pudgy, 40 year old alcoholic) and a hilarious montage of melons getting stabbed to explain Mr. Hitchcock’s decision to use a casaba melon for the stabbing sounds.

Mr. Philippe also pulls no punches when it comes to the range of interviewees all too eager to contribute their thoughts and knowledge, from filmmakers (including Guillermo Del Toro, Eli Roth, Karyn Kusama and Mick Garris) to actors (Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Elijah Wood with his cofounders at SpectreVision and Illeana Douglas) to historians (Stephen Rebello, whose text on the making of “Psycho” is considered the final word) and academics to legends (director Peter Bogdanovich, editor Walter Murch and composer Danny Elfman, whose adaptation of Bernard Herrmann’s original score for the remake remains one of its few highlights) and even controversial novelist Bret Easton Ellis and Mr. Hitchcock’s granddaughter Tere Carrubba. One special voice comes from former Playboy bunny Marli Renfro. Both Ms. Leigh’s body double for the film’s more risqué shots and the only subject who was actually on set, Ms. Renfro is allotted a considerable amount of time to recount her involvement from casting to time spent in the shower and beyond.

An especially brilliant touch on the film’s part is to wait until the third act to finally get into the nitty-gritty of the shower scene; even more impressive is the decision to not show the sequence in its completed (although during the Q&A following the screening, Mr. Philippe revealed this was mostly due to legal issues), only snippets from the HD master, one of the subject’s personal 16mm copy from childhood and Saul Bass’ legendary storyboards. From Walter Murch’s in-depth analysis of George Tomasini’s frenetic cuts and the film’s influence on Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” / Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” to the general view that the film not only brought a number of taboos to the surface, it shattered them; the impact of this shower is made and felt by all. Even Ms. Curtis has a heartfelt and, in true Jamie Lee Curtis fashion, pretty damn funny anecdote about why she always declined appearing in any spoofs or references of her late mother’s iconic role until finally being convinced to do one for Ryan Murphy’s underrated satire ‘Scream Queens‘.

As we are just entering the Halloween season, you can bet ‘Psycho‘ will be a popular choice to watch for thrills and scares, as it has been these last fifty-seven years, which makes the release of “78/52” all the more timely. If you love movies or documentaries, or especially documentaries about movies, you owe it to yourself to see ’78/52’ at your earliest convenience. And if Saturday’s screening is an indicator of Mr. Philippe’s talents as a documentarian and cinematic historian, two of the upcoming projects he let the audience in on – more analysis documentaries, one focused on ‘Aliens’ equally iconic and horrifying chestburster sequence and the other on the climax of another Hitchcock classic, ‘Vertigo’ – offer strong evidence that cinema’s power is just as potent in the communal analysis as it is in the experience.

’78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene’ is scheduled for release in theaters and OnDemand on October 13th courtesy of IFC Midnight.

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