My notes on the Psycho-themed documentary, screening at the Fantasia International Film Festival.
Alexandre O. Phillippe is cornering a market for feature-length genre study documentaries which aspire to be a great deal more than jumped-up DVD extras – he’s also upping his game from mainstream cult stuff like Star Trek (Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water) and Star Wars (The People vs George Lucas) or even zombie movies (Doc of the Dead) by tackling not only a stone classic of cinema (Psycho) that’s been raked over by more critics and fans than anything else in the horror field but narrow-focusing to one single scene in it, the murder in the shower of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
In 1960, this was an shocking scene (if not quite unprecedentedly shocking – as clips from The Leopard Man and Les Diaboliques attest) for mainstream audiences who weren’t used to being so affronted by horror … but it also instantly displaced the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (also glimpsed here) as the single most academically analysed scene in the cinema. Later, it became the most influential and parodied sequence too – as Phillippe demonstrates by editing together a version composed entirely of clips from other films (High Anxiety, Lego Psycho, Dressed to Kill, The Funhouse, Looney Tunes:Back in Action, Scream Queens, etc). The never-quite explained title refers to the number of cuts (52) in the number of seconds (78) the murder takes up … so, a feature film about a single minute and 18 seconds of screentime? Amazingly, there’s a sense that this isn’t quite enough, though individual segments focus on the principle actors (Jamie Lee Curtis and Oz Perkins represent and reflect on their parents), storyboard man Saul Bass (slightly downplayed – perhaps because he tried once too many times to claim he actually directed the scene, which he blatantly didn’t), composer Bernard Herrmann (Danny Elfman, who arranged the score for Gus Van Sant’s remake, is very insightful) and editor George Tomasini (Amy Duddleston, who edited the Van Sant film, is similarly smart), while Walter Murch focuses on Hitchcock’s direction and Leigh’s body double Marli Renfro (a Playboy nude model) gives the real inside dope as the only survivor of the actual shooting of the scene.
The nightmare abusive Hitch who has tended to feature in pop culture lately (Hitchcock, The Girl) is downplayed, as almost all the filmmakers interviewed concentrate on the artistic achievement of the scene – it might have been a contrast to have a Hitchcock debunker or accuser in the line-up, for there must be some who feel this scene was the beginning of a collapse of western civilisation rather than a great leap forward for the horror movie. It’s quite a striking movie visually, with all the interview footage – and a few recreations – in black and white, so that folks’ living rooms start to look like the Bates House or Motel (many participants seem to watch Psycho on a circular-screen antique TV) but vivid colour intruding in clips from the likes of North By Northwest, Vertigo, To Catch a Thief, Suspiria, Peeping Tom or the Van Sant Psycho (which includes a shot of dead Marion sprawled over the bathtub that Bass storyboarded but was Hitch’s sacrifice to the censors in 1960). Herrmann’s strings are surprisingly little-heard (there’s a decent score by Jon Hegel), perhaps to avoid blunting their effect – but those 52 shots are seen over and over, with due attention paid to screen space, unusual edits (it’s not a real-time sequence), how specific effects were managed, the way references to the scene are salted throughout the movie in dialogue and elements some consider gaffes (an awkward ADR line, Marion standing under the shower before turning it on, Leigh’s not-quite excised breathing). Miraculously, this doesn’t include that many well-turned anecdotes – though a few essentials are trotted out again.
Among the talking heads (some very briefly seen – suggesting hours of deleted scenes): Guillermo del Toro, David Thompson (a rare critic, here as the author of The Moment of Psycho), Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Richard Stanley, Neil Marshall, Bret Easton Ellis, Peter Bogdanovich, Leigh Whannell, Karyn Kusama, Leigh Whannel, Scott Spiegel,Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, Bob Murawski and Mick Garris (his Psycho IV gig isn’t mentioned). It’s such a comprehensive line-up that one wonders what Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino were doing missing out – and it might also have been interesting to have input from Van Sant or the creatives on Bates Motel, but that would be getting into miniseries territory.