78/52, which dissects and decodes the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), has received mostly glowing reviews from critics—which makes sense, given that it both validates cineastes' obsessions and constitutes a fine piece of film criticism itself. Named for the 78 camera setups and 52 splices that Hitchcock employed for a sequence running about three minutes, the documentary feels like an Intro to Cinema Studies class taught by an engaging professor, both wonky and accessible.
Shooting in black and white, with the interview subjects superimposed over spooky images of the Bates Motel, director Alexandre O. Philippe (The People vs. George Lucas) interviews 39 directors, authors, editors, actors, and other interested parties about the iconic scene (including Hitchcock's granddaughter, Tere Carruba; Anthony Perkins's grandson, Osgood Perkins; and Janet Leigh's daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis). Philippe also culls audio from François Truffaut's 1962 interview with Hitchcock and visuals from an array of sources: Hitchcock's films and TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the German expressionist films that inspired Hitchcock, and the raft of movies influenced by Psycho's taboo-breaking merger of sex, voyeurism, and violence.
The result is a semester or two's worth of film theory packed into an hour and a half of expertly paired imagery and insights. However, like the praise heaped on this easily digested documentary, the interviewees' adulation for Psycho and its most famous scene borders on hyperbole. No one dares to dispute the film's greatness and impact, and only one lobs a complaint: the killer's head, bewigged and shadowed during the slashing, looks too much like a mushroom.
Nevertheless, Philippe's geekiness is infectious. His passion for film shines through most when he invites some of his interviewees—like horror nerd Elijah Wood and his friends—to watch the film on camera and comment on its foreshadowing and subtle motifs. Even those who've viewed and analyzed Psycho ad nauseam are likely to learn something new here, be it the symbolism of the painting Norman Bates removes from a wall to spy on Marion Crane through a hidden peephole or the fact that Hitchcock's Foley artists chopped up several varieties of melon to find the proper sound for a knife ripping through flesh (they ultimately settled on casaba).
As many have observed, the prolonged, bloody murder of Psycho's ostensible protagonist, Marion—likable, repentant, and, most egregiously, nude—marked a turning point for the horror genre, for filmmaking, and for the American psyche at the uneasy dawn of a new decade. But like any good professor, Philippe encourages a multiplicity of interpretations. Deconstructing the scene, South African filmmaker Richard Stanley focuses on its spiritual element—how Marion's blood swirling down the drain represents "the pointless spiraling of the universe" to which we will all succumb. Director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) describes the scene as "the first modern expression of the female body under assault." Peter Bogdanovich, disturbed as much by the film's voyeurism as by its violence, recalls stumbling out onto the bright street after watching Psycho in 1960: "I felt like I'd been raped." With commentary such as this, Philippe proves that one of the most scrutinized films of all time still possesses that rare ability to surprise. v