Since 2010, IFC Films has brought some of the best contemporary horror films to discerning gore fans via its IFC Midnight label, including Sean Byrne’s colorful possession thriller The Devil’s Candy and the Australian psychological creature feature The Babadook. With its latest release, 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (which opened in theaters on October 13), IFC Midnight turns to one of the genre’s most iconic classics.
In 78/52, director Alexandre O. Philippe explores a cinema master (Alfred Hitchcock) and his masterpiece (Psycho.) Most of his attention is focused on Psycho’s infamous shower scene — the numerical title stems from the 78 camera set-ups and 52 edits used in the three-minute sequence. At the time of the film’s release, the scene famously shocked filmgoers, who expected to follow the story of embezzler Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) throughout Psycho’s runtime; instead, the ostensible protagonist is brutally stabbed to death as she showers. Through conversations with contemporary film luminaries, behind-the-scenes production materials, and footage of the scene itself, Philippe paints a portrait of the circumstances contributing to its creation as well as the seismic effect it had on popular culture moving forward.
The vast majority of the film features the talking heads typical of documentaries examining the import of a historical event. Fans, academics, and icons like novelist Bret Easton Ellis, editor Walter Murch, and director Karyn Kusama sing the praises of Hitchcock’s pervasive genius. In these scenes, Philippe employs a subtle shorthand for conveying the extent of Hitchcock’s influence. The sequences are filmed in black and white, recalling Psycho’s monochrome cinematography. The setting for the interviews is likewise reminiscent of Hitchcock’s thriller, mimicking the budget mundanity of a room in the Bates Motel. A bed covered in plain, coarse-looking sheets; gaudy floral wallpaper; and anonymous, boring wall art create the sense that the interviewees have been drawn into the world of the film. However, the merging of reality and fiction flows in the opposite direction, with the potency of Hitchcock’s vision spreading its influence into the real world. His contribution so impacted the horror landscape that storytellers often find themselves operating in a cinematic grammar of the British filmmaker’s creation, a grammar that Philippe wisely adopts to show the film’s omnipresent influence.
Philippe adds another dimension to his argument by using cinema itself as a primary source. Famous moments from other films contextualize the revolutionary nature of Hitchcock’s work. In one scene, director Neil Marshall (The Descent, the upcoming Hellboy reboot) likens the shock of Leigh’s violent bathtime murder to the urban legend regarding the audience for an early Lumière brothers film terrified by the approach of a celluloid train, believing it was real. Hitchcock’s use of montage is also compared to Sergei Eisenstein’s mastery of the technique in the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin. Near the end of the film, a reel of sequences inspired by the shower sequence — which includes clips from the viral video Lego Psycho, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and a tribute featuring Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis from the television show Scream Queens — makes clear the resounding influence of the sequence in popular culture. Including films outside Hitchcock’s oeuvre in the discussion situates Psycho’s shower scene as a milestone in the history of cinema.
The scene itself is accordingly paid great heed, and Philippe portrays it from a variety of potential approaches. Most strikingly, Philippe films a black-and-white reenactment of the scene as it was portrayed in Robert Bloch’s source novel. Marion and the audience see the killer’s face, which, in the final film, is obscured by shadow; the victim is dispatched quickly as opposed to the prolonged death sequence of the 1960 movie. We also see legendary graphic designer Saul Bass’ storyboards for the film, alternating with pages from the screenplay. In addition to redirecting the audience members’ eyes in a scene with which they’re likely to have at least a passing familiarity, these alternate possibilities for bringing Psycho to celluloid highlight Hitchcock’s choices as a visual storyteller. Rather than setting limitations with his particular choices, Hitchcock created a masterpiece that expanded the possibilities and tools for shock, suspense, and terror available to future generations of horror filmmakers.