Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: 78/52

by Rob DiCristino
Chocolate syrup, casaba melons, and four minutes that changed horror forever.

Alexandre O. Phillipe’s 78/52 is the sort of documentary that many hungry cinephiles (myself included) will soon be begging to see more often. In many ways, it feels like an elevated version of our beloved DVD making-of featurettes, one given a sizable budget and ninety minutes to breathe. Through archival footage, animated storyboards, and artfully staged interviews with the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Guillermo del Toro, Bret Easton Ellis, Mick Garris, and Leigh Whannell, Phillipe’s (The People Versus George Lucas, Doc of the Dead) latest offering dissects the inspiration, construction, and legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho shower scene, inarguably one of the most iconic moments in all of cinema. Though the film’s primary focus is on Hitch’s signature scare (“78” being the number of camera set-ups the scene required and “52” being the number of individual edits), its interest in filmmaking as both a technical craft and a societal force gives it a scale and resonance that stretches far beyond those few horrifying moments while simultaneously reminding us why each and every one is so precious.
Presented almost entirely in black and white, 78/52 begins with Janet Leigh body double Marli Renfro recalling the audition process that turned her into one of the most recognizable torsos of her time. She sets the record straight on a few rumors (yes, it was Hershey’s chocolate syrup doubling for blood), and, more notably, immediately draws our attention to the artifice of moviemaking in general. “That’s right,” we realize, “Janet Leigh would have used a double. That woman exists somewhere.” The film then takes a bit of time to contextualize horror within the cinematic trends of the Atomic Age. This is important, of course, because — though he would later influence the Charismatic Sociopath archetype of movie murderers — Norman Bates wasn’t the conventional horror icon of the day. If we’re going to understand what made the shower scene so revolutionary, we need to see what audiences were used to when they walked into the theater. Next comes a quick run through the usual Psycho production legend — the low budget, the censorship issues, and the importance of stuffed birds, visible breaths, and biblical paintings.

It feels a bit rote at first (and there are definitely a few sequences where 78/52 seems like it’s stalling for time), but things start to come together around the thirty-minute mark. It’s there that the talking heads (further including Elijah Wood, Walter Murch, Neil Marshall, Karyn Kusama, and Danny Elfman) actually sit down and watch Psycho in a replica (?) of the infamous Bates Motel Cabin 1. This should feel hokey and constructed, but it doesn’t. The genuine glee on Wood’s face, in particular (as well as his play-by-play insight into how Anthony Perkins’ physicality during the parlor scene betrays his changing intentions; “I bet that’s the moment he decides to kill her,” he says after the actor tilts his head just so), actually serves to warm things up a bit. Phillipe knows that his audience considers everything before That Scene to be preamble, so he stretches out the anticipation by letting his interview subjects experience it before we do. It’s a fun variation on that recent trend in documentaries where, as Patrick puts it, there always have to be two story threads. It can be distracting in other films, but 78/52 finds a nice compromise that never loses focus on the subject at hand.
Then comes the good stuff, the real nuts-and-bolts wonky analysis of each and every cut and camera move used in the famous scene. Each shot is cataloged by length, and some are even given fun nicknames like “the wet hair cut” (the odd jump cut that matches an angle of Marion with dry hair to an identical one of her with wet hair, apparently meant to signify the passage of time). Veteran editors are on hand to explain the visual significance of the bookending shower head shots (the first signifying its cleansing power; the second, its oppression), and seasoned sound designers tell the “melon story,” the extended saga in which Hitchcock searched for precisely the right dull, wet, slicing sound he’d use for each stab (a mix of raw red meat and the casaba melon, for those curious). This is the sort of nerdery I wanted more of, to be honest, and I couldn’t help thinking that Phillipe may have felt pressured not to get too technical for too much of the film’s running time. But that’s a minor quibble forgotten once Bernard Herrmann’s famous strings are introduced. Again, 78/52 holds out as long as possible before letting us hear them. By the time we finally do, it’s almost cathartic.
78/52 won’t offer seasoned Psycho fans much in the way of new information, but there’s enough style and craft here to recommend it wholeheartedly. At its core, its goal is to remind us that our favorite movies are born of tireless planning and relentless hard work. Not just anyone could make Psycho. Nothing like that just happens by accident. Of course, when accidents do occur (like when Janet Leigh’s eyeball twitches just the tiniest bit, or when we notice that seam in the optical zoom-out from her dead body) it somehow endears us to Hitchcock and his team even more. Maybe it humanizes them a bit, reminding us that there was a time during the evolution of every great piece of art when it didn’t exist yet — when no one knew what it looked like, how to execute it, or how it was going to turn out. Walking out of 78/52, I was making a mental list of the countless other scenes and sequences I’d like to see dissected at length by a series of enthusiastic talking heads, including those far less memorable than The Shower Scene. It reinvigorated my Movie Love, and in the end, that was enough.


  1. i wasn't aware of this documentary. i shall hunt it down soon

    speaking of docs, what did you think of Spielberg? i thought it was fine, but a bit underwhelming. adding nothing new to the man's career

    1. Haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll be sure to check it out.