'78/52': Film Review | Sundance 2017

A thorough examination of a pivotal moment in screen history.

Alexandre O. Philippe's doc explores how the now-legendary 'Psycho' shower scene changed cinema.

Is the shower sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho the historical pivot point between the decorous Old Hollywood cinema and the more unbridled and bloody films of the subsequent 57 years? This is the position essentially forwarded by 78/52, a resourceful, if rather hyperbolic documentary that devotes 90 minutes to analyzing one of the most famous scenes in film history. An elaborate and fancy-looking undertaking that's a natural for festivals and documentary-friendly home viewing networks, it has a populist orientation lathered by a heavy emphasis on Psycho's inspiration to more than one generation's worth of horror filmmakers, which should further bolster its appeal.

The title refers to the number of setups and cuts employed by Hitchcock to fashion the three-minute sequence that stunned 1960 audiences not only for the shocking violence of Janet Leigh's slashing knife murder in a shower at the Bates Motel, but also because the film's female lead was eliminated in the first third of the picture. The scene provoked massive gasping and screaming upon its release and, no matter how often it's been imitated, referenced, parodied and outstripped violence-wise over the decades, it still retains its power as a prime example of pure visual cinema.

Although Hitchcock himself wasn't convinced the scene, or the film, was effective until Bernard Herrmann's brilliant, shrieking strings were added (the director had originally intended to use no musical accompaniment at all), the fact that he devoted an entire week to filming it suggests the importance he attached to it. Numerous anecdotes are widely known, including those about the use of nude model stand-in Marli Renfro (a spunky presence in a filmed interview), chocolate sauce standing in for blood in the black-and-white feature and the fact that you never see the knife blade penetrate skin.

But it's the joint creative/sociological effect the sequence has had on viewers, filmmakers and the culture over the years that more concerns writer-director Alexandre O. Philippe (The People vs. George Lucas, Doc of the Dead), whose sensibility comes off as a mix of academic and horror-slanted fanboy. Some general background on the film for the uninitiated leads up to Peter Bogdanovich describing what it was like to be at the Loews State in Times Square for the 10 a.m. show on opening day, when many in the crowd had no doubt been enticed by the publicity campaign warning that no one would be admitted after the film had begun.

Focusing quickly on the big scene itself, the film scrutinizes it from all imaginable angles, noting how brief it is in the Robert Bloch novel and analyzing its debt to a certain Baroque painting, the selection of the knife, the nudity, skirting of censorship and decisions relating to film speed and cutting frequency — and the question of why Psycho was so successful but the virtually simultaneous and thematically related Peeping Tom provoked such a scandal that it all but derailed the career of Hitchcock's British compatriot and contemporary Michael Powell.

To be sure, Philippe dutifully touches the necessary historical and scholarly bases by including brief audio excerpts from the landmark Hitchcock/Truffaut interview and lively commentaries from the likes of thrills maestro Guillermo del Toro, editor Walter Murch, the stars' kids Jamie Lee Curtis and Osgood Perkins, Hitchcock granddaughter Tere Carrubba, American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, key collaborators on Gus Van Sant's ill-advised shot-by-shot color 1998 remake and several serious critics.

But the director would seem to disclose his base-line sympathies through the preponderance of youngish horror film makers and enthusiasts whose often manic and jargon-filled ejaculations of avidity for Psycho suggests that Hitchcock's achievement lies less in pioneering (however unwittingly) the cultural shift signposted by 1960 and more in cracking open the door to a later generation of filmmakers to make gruesomely unrestrained horror films: Eli Roth, Leigh Whannell (writer-producer of the Saw and Insidious franchises) and Scott Spiegel (Hostel, Part IV), to name a few. Some antics by Elijah Wood and others further distract from the documentary's more admirable and serious ambitions.

Production company: Exhibit A Pictures
With: Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Daniel Noah, Josh Waller, Bret Easton Ellis, Gary Rydstrom, Shannon Mills, Illeana Douglas, Marli Renfro, Tere Carrubba, Stephen Rebello, Bill Krohn, David Thomson, Mick Garris, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Jeffrey Ford, Chris Innis, Bob Murawski, Fred Raskin, Amy Duddleston, John Venzon, Leigh Whannell, Richard Stanley, Scott Spiegel, Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Kreng/Pepijn Caudron, Alan Barnette, Marco Calavita, Jim Hosney, Timothy Standring, Howie Movshovitz
Director-writer: Alexandre O. Philippe
Producer: Kerry Deignan Roy
Executive producers: Felix Gill, Joey Porcelli, Randy Pharo
Director of photography: Robert Muratore
Editor: Chad Herschberger
Music: Jon Hegel
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)


91 minutes