Alfred Hitchcock had already become the master of suspense by the time he released “Psycho” in 1960. But the film’s chilling shower scene would make him a legend for generations to come.
In “78/52,” which premiered in the Midnight Section at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday night, we are given an incredible deep dive into the significance that scene has had on not just filmmaking but popular culture.
If you’ve never seen “Psycho,” you’ve likely seen its shower scene in any retrospective on the horror genre or spoofs. Or you know it from the piercing Bernard Herrmann score that accompanies the scene, and has become as distinctive as the footage itself.
“78/52” (named for the 78 setups and 52 cuts it took to accomplish the scene) celebrates the mastery of the scene by talking to people who were on the film (like Janet Leigh’s body double, whose body you mostly see in the scene), Hitchcock historians, and horror aficionados like Elijah Wood, Eli Roth, Richard Stanley, Guillermo del Toro, and others.
What’s special about the movie, especially if you’ve watched or read past pieces on how the shower scene was created, is that it also touches on how “Psycho” itself came at a moment where the country was on the cusp of social unrest with the civil rights movement and the assassination of president John F. Kennedy soon to come following the tranquil 1950s.
Hitchcock admitted that the only reason he made “Psycho” was to do the shower scene. Always a master at manipulating the audience, his making of the movie was the ultimate inside joke — killing off the movie’s presumed star 20 minutes into the run time. Hitchcock turned that surprise into the ultimate marketing ploy: When the movie was released, he demanded that no one enter the theatre after it started.
“78/52” also has an exhaustive amount of insight on everything you could possibly think of about how the shower scene was created: the use of Hershey’s chocolate syrup as blood because it would look better in black and white, how the shower head was rigged so water wouldn’t get on the camera lens, even the type of melon the sound man stabbed with a knife to create the skin-penetrating effect in the scene.
Director Alexandre O. Philippe really does take a vast amount of information and displays it in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s a super-fan’s term paper. He pulls this off through great archival footage, entertaining interviews on a set similar to the Bates Motel, and filming in black and white — another ode to “Psycho” — which gets you into the feel of the subject matter.
If you are a Hitchcock fan, this one is required viewing.
And to get you in the mood, here’s the shower scene from “Psycho”:
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