It’s the most iconic sequence in the history of horror movies—maybe in the history of movies, period. A beautiful woman on the lam with a small stolen fortune in her handbag checks into an empty motel run by a creepy proprietor with a sweet tooth for taxidermy and candy corn. While taking a shower—naked, vulnerable, and trying to wash away her sins—she’s slashed to death. In 1960 this was a shocking, sexually charged symphony of taboo-smashing terror. And thanks to the artistry of Alfred Hitchcock, it remains one today.
In this mostly great documentary, Alexandre O. Philippe dissects Psycho’s infamous premature climax like a cold case begging to be solved. The film (whose title refers to the number of camera setups and edits in the scene—the 78 camera setups and 52 edits that yielded the sudden, violent, waterlogged demise of Marion Crane) gets off to a rocky start with distracting reenactments featuring actors who look nothing like Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.
It’s meant to be meta; it’s just cheesy. But Philippe recovers quickly, interviewing such notables as Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Leigh’s scream-queen daughter Jamie Lee Curtis, and Leigh’s Psycho body double Marli Renfro, who all come at the scene from different angles (the lighting, the illusion of gore, the screeching score), parsing it like Talmudic scholars. Best of all is editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who slows the scene down and unpacks its artistry.
78/52 is an orgy for movie obsessives. It makes you see the familiar with fresh eyes.
First published in Entertainment Weekly by Chris Nashawaty