78/52

Directed by: Alexandre Philippe
Featuring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Peter Bogdanovich, Bret Easton Ellis, Martin Scorsese, Guillermo Del Toro, Elijah Wood

Even if you haven’t seen that quintessential scene in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, PSYCHO, you still probably know it. A series of rapid edits of a young woman, caught by surprise in the shower, as a little old lady’s knife comes crashing down to the tune of a piercing, staccato, violin screech… The scene is legendary and just as effective now, nearly 60 years later, as it was back then. Exploring the impact of this cinematic moment is a great new documentary focused primarily on that sequence.

Screened during Fantasia’s Documentary from the Edge showcase, 78/52 examines the celluloid stabbing, and its legacy in cinema, by way of interviews and expert analysis. They talk to everyone from Martin Scorsese to Guillermo Del Toro to Elijah Wood. They talk to editors, both young and old, as well as some of those involved with the original film. All the interviews appear to take place in the infamous Bates Motel, although the filmmakers behind this flick admitted that it was all green screen and FX magic wizardry.

Even from the title, named after the number of edits/shots, 78/52 is very much a film made for cinephiles and other filmmakers. Everyone involved is absolutely gushing and ecstatic over talking shop. You hear about their first exposure to the scene, their favourite bits of Hitchcock’s film theory and technique, and the scene’s current influence on film as a whole.

It’s always fun seeing artists talk about other people’s art. It’s great when it’s unrestrained, and it often feels more emotional than when they talk about their own projects. There’s a genuine love for the craft there when they geek out about what they’re passionate about, and this film does a great job of capturing those moments.

To describe the film as, just a bunch of loveable cinema snobs talking your ear off, would be a disservice, because there’s also a great deal of behind the scenes tidbits. It explores many factors on the contextualizing of the film in that 1960 landscape, especially via that era’s censorship and taboos, and just how ahead of the time this movie really was.  It’s a very insightful look at film history and the horror/suspense genre as a whole.

Hitchcock’s own feelings towards the film also get examined, as well as the the shocking twists and turns the film takes at that horrifying moment, leading to the the clever promotional campaign to guarantee no late-comers! The differences with the book, alternate cuts, and Hitch’s actual hands on involvement in getting the scene just right, also get mentioned.

This documentary also goes to lengths dispelling myths and rumours that have plagued this film for years. They go frame by frame to show, among others, whether Janet Leigh had a body double (she did, and said double is interviewed extensively), if the knife actually does make contact, whether any nudity was seen, and how much is implied to the viewer versus what’s actually shown. There’s also a significant portion involving settling the great debate on whether famed title designer and storyboard artist, Saul Bass, ghost directed the entire shower scene.

This film really does explore everything. There’s a rather lengthy segment that even examines the choice of the painting behind the peephole. The knowledge dropped on that seemingly inconsequential bit of background is eye-opening and all-so crucial. It becomes increasingly obvious how much careful thought was put behind every little detail in PSYCHO, and a lot of that gets unmasked thanks to this doc.

Regarding the iconic score, there’s a deep look at that particular bit of Bernard Herrmann’s work and genius, and regarding the sound design, you finally get to find out just what Melon was used to create those stabby sounds.

Further expanding on the film’s influence is a great montage featuring many of the tributes, homages and parodies in the 60 years since, and artists, such as Scorcese, openly admit to cribbing some of the best bits for their own films.

Despite being a longtime fan of PSYCHO, and having just rewatched it a month before (including all the obligatory BluRay extras), there was so much fascinating new information that I had learned just from watching this doc. The perspectives and different takes on the subject matter were so fresh and informative that I saw some things for the very first time.

At one point Elijah Wood re-watches the clip leading up to the murder, and you can see the lightbulb go off in Wood’s head, and his eyes glow with child-like amusement. At that moment he too drew new links and noted new aspects of Anthony Perkins’ performance. That look was the look of someone exploring new layers to a classic film. It’s the same look I had many times while re-examining PSYCHO through this stunning bit of documentary filmmaking by director Alexandre Philippe. I can’t wait to see his next project, which he revealed to be another examination of a classic film moment– the chestbursting Xenomorph from Ridley Scott’s ALIEN! 

78/52 is a widely entertaining crash course in cinema and feels like the best film school class you’ll ever take. If you’re one of those obsessive film junkies, or just really wanna see a clever bit of film about art, you should sit back, dim the lights, and terrify yourself with a look at the moment that changed horror forever.

About The Author

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When Theo isn't drawing weirdo art he's watching Films. Theo likes films. Theo likes all kinds of films. Sometimes we even get a coherent review out of him. Sometimes. Read his yearly coverage of the Fantasia Festival and you’ll see what we’re talking about.

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