Reviewed by Kristy Puchko
The shower scene in Psycho is easily one of the most iconic scenes in cinema history. Even those who’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s notorious 1960 thriller know its shrieking strings score, and have surely seen it mimicked in a bevy of film and TV shows. Beyond that blood-splashed shower curtain, there’s a whole world to be explored. Documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe dives in with 78/52
Making its regional premiere at Fantastic Fest, 78/52 features interviews with actors, directors, writers, editors, sound designers, musicians, and film critics. Such big names as Elijah Wood, Peter Bogdanovich, Jamie Lee Curtis, Danny Elfman, and Guillermo del Toro expound on the shower scene, from its cultural context, to its influence on filmmaking, its battle against MPAA censorship, Hitchcock’s impressionist violence, and behind-the-scenes trivia. When introducing the era leading up to Psycho’s making, Philippe confidently unfolds a story of an America moving unstoppably towards a violent cultural shift. But beyond this, the doc just meanders from one talking head to another, making for an uneven an ultimately vexing viewing experience.
Watching the film, I thought of The Shining-centered documentary Room 237, which follows the threads of several different theories on what fans think Stanley Kubrick’s Stephen King adaptation is really about. These threads allow its audience to get a sense of story and arc, even in an analytical doc. But in 78/52, there’s no chapters, threads, or momentum. There’s just bursts of chatter. Some of it is interesting and even darkly comical, like a section about which melon makes for the best foley sound effect for stabbing flesh. (“Casaba.”) Others are intriguingly intellectual, like del Toro declaration that Hitchcock’s killing off Janet Leigh’s heroine “has broken the covenant between filmmaker and audience, and the audience can’t wait to see more.” But other sections are exasperatingly formless with talking heads griping about ADR or snarking over the shape of Mother’s hair. Too much of 78/52 is not insight or analysis, but blathering or sound bites that feel like filler instead of focused.
In apparent homage to Psycho and its use of direct address shots, Philippe directs several interviewees to talk straight to camera. This gives a frankly grating sensation of being talked at. As one man nattered on and on staring right down the lens at me in the audience, I felt trapped in a conversation with an arrogant bore, who can’t take a breath because he must share with me his ever single thought before I might escape. At this point, I realized an overwhelming majority of Philippe’s interviews are with men. This strikes me as odd considering a recognized legacy of Psycho is how it made violence attacks on naked women a pretty standard horror trope. Even this documentary notes this legacy, albeit in passing with a quick montage of ghoulish kill scenes. Yet somehow, 78/52 gives only lip service to gender politics.
Acclaimed horror director Karyn Kusama pops by briefly to declare the shower scene a pivotal moment in how assault on the female body is portrayed on film. An hour later, someone else will mention Psycho birthed the slasher flick trope of female nudity being punished with murder, often in a shower or tub. Notably, Fantastic Fest paired 78/52 with an intro short called “Nothing A Little Soap and Water Can’t Fix.” A super-cut composed of a plethora of films, it painted the tub/shower as an explicitly female space, where women go to relax and allow themselves to be vulnerable, only to be attacked. But 78/52 never recognizes this distinction, and instead talks about the universal experience of being exposed in that space. However, this Psycho scene is one where a cross-dressing man murders a woman for inadvertently arousing him. And he does so with a phallic symbol, acting as his own mother. It’s a glaring omission to not explore its gender politics. Then to add insult to omission, tone-deaf comments are included like Bogdanovich dryly remarking of his first experience watching Psycho, “I felt I’d been raped.”
While there are some interesting baubles to be found in 78/52, it’s frustratingly unfocused and woefully incomplete, skirting one of the shower scene’s most obvious–and arguably important–aspects. When this intellectually ambitious but deeply flawed documentary finally finishes, it’s not with a bold theory, criticism or insight, but one last lackluster anecdote from Leigh’s Playboy Playmate body double, Marli Renfro, and of course one last chance to leer at her naked body limply playing dead. Frankly, Psycho deserves better.
78/52 will hit theaters October 13th.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). She’s a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com