Shot almost exclusively in stylish black and white (save for the colour film clips and art pieces), Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary 78/52 celebrates Alfred Hitchcock, and the most infamous shower scene ever committed to celluloid (and after its decline). Its title referring to the mammoth 78 set ups and 52 cuts that makes up the sequence which lasts just 45 seconds.
Recreating scenes of the proto-slasher and taking full advantage of Jon Hegel’s string-heavy score, 78/52 relies upon audience participation; ours and those onscreen seated on a set decorated not too dissimilarly to the Bates house, all floral wallpaper, old fashioned TV set and dressed in trinkets. By the final third, we are watching those talking heads involved viewing the scene in question to utterances of “wow”, the odd gleeful “yes”, only Marli Renfro (Janet Leigh’s body double) appears uncomfortable. Just one more aspect of voyeurism which begins with Norman Bates and his peep-hole.
From Saul Bass’ storyboards and Hitch’s script notes, Bernard Herrmann’s score, and the casting of Leigh’s body-double Renfro, to the type of melon used for stabbing foley and of course, the watered-down Hershey’s chocolate syrup which doubled so convincingly for blood; 78/52 is an interesting and in-depth critique of an iconic piece of film by a controversial cinematic auteur. It is effective, informative and well-produced as the likes of Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Bret Easton Ellis, Tere Carrubba (Hitchcock’s granddaughter), Eli Roth, Osgood Perkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Danny Elfman – amongst many others including directors, actors, authors, film editors, professors of cinema, composers, AFI scholars and art curators – wax lyrical about the film which was so culturally and socio-politically integral to cinema and its reception. As one suggests, it elevated not only the horror genre but cinema as a whole.
While the influence of Psycho is staggering, one small scene cannot quite sustain a whole 91 minute film which is why it veers somewhat through Hitch’s body of work and the film as a whole. The majority of observations are interesting, however, there are moments which are superfluous and trite and a few which remain unsaid. For example, Hitchcock’s notorious onset working practices is a subject never broached and what of the sexualised aspect of the shower scene, the symbolic rape (though there is Bogdanovich’s ‘feeling’ of rape after seeing Psycho for the first time and a comparison to Irréversible), or the female gaze? Again, topics that are mentioned in passing and danced around but never explicitly with reference to the subject matter (or not at all). Karyn Kusama and Illeana Douglas (two of only seven women interviewed) aren’t afforded the time to expand upon their thoughts – or were and then cut. It seems almost ironic to set up a discussion about a horror film which has an integral scene removing the woman and then not have a few more female filmmakers, fans and/or experts to voice opinion – unless that’s the point?
As a piece of art, there is no denying Psycho remains a cornerstone of the horror genre and cinema, it broke taboos and pushed boundaries and is one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces within a substantial and impressive oeuvre. In the words of Edgar Allan Poe “the death of a beautiful woman, unquestionably, is the most poetical topic world” which pop up onscreen as the documentary begins. It’s just a shame that more women weren’t included to talk about it rather than the whole discussion, or thereabouts, dominated by white males.
78/52 is for those who have an interest in the art and history of film. Part visual essay, Hitchcock commentary, and Psycho autopsy, it’s entertaining enough and well worth a watch but for anybody who has ever studied film or auteur theory, there will be little you didn’t already know.