When watching 78/52, filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe’s new documentary about Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark horror masterpiece Psycho, it’s difficult not to be unsettled by the score and camerawork; though it’s a modern dissection of Hitchcock’s classic and not a horror itself, the atmosphere is just as eerie as the clips we see interspersed throughout from Psycho’s legendary shower scene. This is perhaps in part owing to Philippe’s ‘extreme level of comfort’ with the director’s suspenseful techniques, admitting to having no memory of watching Psycho for the first time, though he knows it was when he was around ‘five or six’ years old that he first began watching Hitchcock.
To many of us, this might seem like a startlingly young age to watch some of the creepiest films of all time. However, Philippe assured me that he was never scared; in fact, he’s disappointed that he’ll never be able to experience that shower scene for the first time. ‘You can keep finding new things in his films, and yet they’re extremely accessible on a first viewing, which is a rare talent,’ he muses. Certainly it seems Alexandre has found a multitude of new ways in which to view the film: numerous members of the horror film industry, such as Jamie Lee Curtis, modern-day scream queen and daughter of Janet Leigh, filmmaker and ‘Splat Pack’ member Eli Roth (Hostel, Knock Knock), and visionary director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak) have gathered to dig deeper into the psychology of what makes Alfred Hitchcock’s horror so masterful.
Most likely this is because these contemporary horror filmmakers are aware of the huge debt they have to pay to ‘Hitchcock and his craft’, and his ideas of what horror should be: ‘working with both suspense and shock in ways that are kind of new’. This in itself might seem like a kind of contradiction: how can horror break out of cinematic boundaries when we continue to reference Hitchcock in our visual work? Yet that’s exactly what Philippe thinks we need to keep in mind when trying to make a film that will resonate correctly with the culture of our time. ‘Look at Jaws, look at Star Wars – there’s no question about it,’ he says. ‘Did they have the same sort of “freak-out” factor on audiences?’
It seems only a handful of film scenes have risen to the top of the pop culture canon in the same way that Marion Crane’s brutal shower murder has, and maybe that’s something to do with timing. Psycho – and more specifically, star Janet Leigh’s unanticipated demise not even halfway through the film – tapped into a primal fear the public didn’t even know they had until they saw it projected on the big screen: the terror of the shadowy figure, attacking us at our most vulnerable. This psychological formula was one of which Hitchcock was knowingly aware when constructing the shower scene, and one which we can find obvious traces of in others that Philippe has mentioned: Jaws, with its own trademark sinister soundtrack to rival Bernard Herrmann's.
Indeed, since Psycho, horror has become a method of accessing the root of everything that stimulates society in uncomfortable yet honest ways: take Quentin Tarantino, king of melodramatic gore, and yet a filmmaker of ‘mass recognition, mass appeal’, who ‘becomes an attraction just as much as the movies themselves’. These ‘cultural watershed moments’ – scenes from Pulp Fiction, for example, or Spielberg’s Jurassic Park – ‘resonate with culture in a very powerful way’, Alexandre believes, and yet are few enough to be counted on one hand since Hitchcock set the trend. And that is one of the reasons Philippe seems so keen to investigate them further, telling me that his next feature documentary is set to examine the iconic chest-burster scene from Ridley Scott’s Alien.
In this way, it’s fitting that Philippe is just now releasing 78/52, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The documentary’s title itself is a reference to the number of setups and cuts it took to create the shower scene, something ambitious and previously unseen for a three-minute piece of cinema. When we compare this scale of innovation to today’s cinematic landscape, it seems that a lot of horror today has become ‘complacent in the way that it’s made.’ Certainly, Hitchcock was the first to introduce ‘elements of filmmaking and storytelling that were never experienced before by an audience,’ says Alexandre. ‘I don’t think there’s been anything since.’
And yet, when discussing horror as it stands today, Philippe is also interested in a new wave of horrors ‘that are trying to do different things’, like Robert Eggers’ 2015 The Witch and Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 Under the Skin. They are the sorts of films ‘where you start blurring the lines’, and using ‘elements of horror cinema in ways that are much more subtle and effective than things we used to see maybe ten years ago’ – in a sentence, those that are effective because of their ‘great restraint’.
Perhaps, then, horror is changing again from the precedent that has been set by Hitchcock and his revolutionary approach to film. Or, maybe, it's just changing back to the techniques Hitchcock made popular, and which remain effective today. 'You can lose yourself in cinema and never even scratch the surface. There's so much out there,' Alexandre says of cinema and filmmaking. Maybe that's why he’s committed to showcasing such iconic moments in as much detail as he can – to give people a better sense of what they are watching. And what advice would he give to them, those filmmakers – especially young ones, wondering where to start? ‘Watch the classics: Bergman, Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Fellini. See which ones resonate with you. And when something really strikes you, that's where you have to crack that open and go deeper. The more you do, the more you become in touch with what you want to do. And that’s how you develop your voice.’
Win free tickets to 78/52 here.
78/52 is being shown at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse at 6pm on Wednesday 25th October, following which Alexandre O. Philippe will be hosting a Q&A. Book tickets here.
78/52 will be in UK cinemas from November 3rd.