By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Featuring Guillermo del Toro, Elijah Wood and Peter Bogdanovich
Written and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe
The pitch on the documentary 78/52 is that it’s an in-depth exploration of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, arguably the most famous onscreen murder in film history. Yet while the horrible fate of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is certainly dissected in depth, 78/52 (named for the number of camera setups and shots employed to depict the killing) uses it as a springboard to examine PSYCHO in toto as a groundbreaking shocker and a movie that continues to impress and inspire today.
A world premiere at the current Sundance Film Festival, 78/52 opens with one of the less-celebrated participants in the shower shoot: Marli Renfro, a Playboy Bunny hired to serve as Leigh’s body double. As Hitchcock and Leigh are no longer with us to provide first-hand recollections, Renfro is a welcome presence, leading us charmingly into a no-stone-unturned analysis of both how the murder was staged and the lasting impact it had. Marion’s fate was startling in any number of ways, firstly because she had been set up as PSYCHO’s heroine, though that twist initially occurred in Robert Bloch’s source novel. Bloch, however, dispensed with her death in a couple of lines; Hitchcock turned it into a remarkable montage, a mini-symphony of violence, albeit one in which (as detailed here) we never see Norman Bates’ knife pierce flesh.
How it was all put together, and how the visual schemes and Bernard Herrmann’s classic, shrieking score gave the scene its terrifying power, are covered in great and fascinating depth in 78/52, but that’s just a portion of what it offers. Writer/director Alexandre O. Philippe and his many onscreen commentators, ranging from veteran filmmakers to representatives of horror’s new blood to the offspring of PSYCHO stars Leigh and Anthony Perkins (actress Jamie Lee Curtis and director Osgood Perkins) offer a multifaceted master class in PSYCHO overall, and how this little black-and-white shocker that Hitch considered a black-comic lark went on to become one of the most influential movies in all of cinema’s history. No matter how much you know and love PSYCHO, 78/52 delves into all kinds of details you might never have considered: for example, the Baroque painting “Susannah and the Elders,” mounted on the wall in the Bates house to hide Norman’s peephole, offering a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reflection of the film’s themes.
Whether you’re a longtime PSYCHO lover or a younger viewer just discovering its genius, 78/52 is a must-see. Certainly, genre fans will revel in all the familiar names who go before Philippe’s camera to pay their respects, among them Guillermo del Toro, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Karyn Kusama, Mick Garris, Richard Stanley, Leigh Whannell and Neil Jordan. Perhaps the most fun are SpectreVision principals Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah and Josh Waller, nerding out about the movie together. They and others are digitally inserted into a replication of Marion’s room at the Bates Motel, making them literally a part of the film they’re celebrating; Philippe also stages a demonstration of the melon-stabbing used for the sound effects of the blade piercing (offscreen) Marion’s body. These are just two of the ways the filmmaker immerses you in the creation of a horror landmark; PSYCHO may be over 50 years old, but 78/52 gives the sensation of witnessing its creation first-hand.