My annual series, “Halloween Horrors,” doesn’t officially begin until next week, but I am offering this week’s column as a prequel (just like so many recent horror films are so fond of doing). Before the series debut, I think you might like to take a shower.
What I am referring to is perhaps the most famous (and infamous) scene in movie history–the three-minute shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic 1960 movie, “Psycho.” The inspiration for this column comes from the imminent October 13 release of Alexandre Philippe’s new shower scene documentary “78/52: 78 Shots And 52 Cuts That Changed Cinema Forever.” During its preview phase, this film has garnered much attention and has won awards at the Calgary Underground Film Festival, the Fantasia Film Festival, and the Catalonian International Film Festival. Hey, I realize we’re not talking about the Academy Awards here, but this is a start. At least the documentary features a well-known cast of commentators, including Jamie Lee Curtis (whose late mother, Janet Leigh, claimed to have stopped taking showers when she emerged from her week-long stint in the shower set), Guillermo del Toro, Danny Elfman, Brent Easton Ellis (the author of AMERICAN PSYCHO, and Peter Bogdanovich.
Much has been written about the shower scene, and an analysis of this famous segment is generally a focal point for the many authors who have contributed to the very large collection of books that have been written about Hitchcock’s films. Many of these books devote a lot of space, or even an entire chapter, to discussing and perhaps over-analyzing these three harrowing minutes. Chief among these are Stephen Rebello’s ALFRED HITCHCOCK AND THE MAKING OF PSYCHO, David Thomson’s provocative THE MOMENT OF PSYCHO: HOW ALFRED HITCHCOCK TAUGHT AMERICA TO LOVE MURDER, Janet Leigh’s PSYCHO: BEHIND THE SCENES OF A CLASSIC THRILLER, and my favorite, Peter Conrad’s THE HITCHCOCK MURDERS, which is about as good as it gets when it comes to Hitchcock books.
Add to this list a very interesting book with a very interesting premise, Philip J. Skerry’s (what an appropriate name), PSYCHO IN THE SHOWER: THE HISTORY OF CINEMA’S MOST FAMOUS SCENE (2009). Yes, we’re talking about a book that, in a little over three hundred pages, focuses on just one scene. How could that not be a little over-indulgent and perhaps a little boring, you ask? Well, the secret is that Skerry, in the course of his shower scene analysis, gives us a very absorbing tour through Hitchcock’s major films (as well as through a good chunk of cinema history as well) in order to set the infamous scene in its proper context. Along the way he intersperses some interviews with the principal characters involved with the production of the movie, including actress Janet Leigh, screenwriter Joseph Stefano, assistant director Hilton Green, and film editor Terry Williams. It is of course unfortunate that Skerry never had the opportunity of interviewing the Master of Suspense himself, but we thankfully have some valuable book-length interviews already, with the likes of Francois Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich. In one of his best and most valuable sections, “The First Time,” Skerry collects a number of recollections from people from all walks of life who recall their first impressions upon seeing the “Psycho” shower murder for the first time. I have often wanted to assemble a group of people who have never seen the film and record their thoughts.. Maybe one day I will get around to doing this, if I can find anyone who has no knowledge of the film, and especially the shower scene.
The heart and soul of Skerry’s book is Chapter 11, “The Culmination of Suspense and Terror: The Shower Scene,” in which he gets around to focusing on the scene itself, after two hundred and eighteen pages of preparation. He begins by observing that “It’s no exaggeration to say that the shower scene is the most analyzed, discussed, and alluded-to scene in film history. Its major images and sounds have become iconic and instantly recognizable.” He goes on to say that there are several reasons for this, including technical, cinematic, social, cultural, and intellectual explanations. His views are echoed by those of “78/52” director Philippe who tells us in a recent Entertainment Weekly review that “78/52 is the result of a lifelong passion for Alfred Hitchcock, and his obsessive search for the ultimate cinematic trick. . . .The shower scene is a watershed cultural moment, the most important scene in the history of motion pictures, the culmination of decades of experimentation for Mr. Hitchcock, and the purest expression of his absolute mastery of the art and craft of filmmaking. That scene is a joy to discover, and endlessly rediscover, because it contains countless mysteries and secrets, and ceaselessly challenges us to think about film as art in new and exciting ways.”
According to Skerry, Philippe, and David Thomson (the author of the aforementioned THE MOMENT OF PSYCHO), the moment Janet Leigh dies in the Bates Motel shower, a new era in filmmaking was given life–an era where old restraints were lifted and the movies ventured into areas they had never gone before. With the birth of the ratings system, and those familiar G and PG symbols, filmmaker’s were free to become more and more graphic with their treatments of onscreen violence and sex, and the way was prepared for a new generation of filmmakers like Scorsese, Coppola, DePalma, Rafelson, Altman, and Tarentino. The curtain that separated the Old and the New Hollywood was forever rent and pulled down, revealing a quite new corpus delicti.
Here’s hoping you will be anticipating the release of “73/52.” If you are one of the few who have never seen “Psycho,” or if have taken that shower more than once, give me your thoughts.
Stay tuned next week for the first installment of this year’s “Halloween Horrors.”