With the release of new documentary ’78/52′, a deep dive into the myth behind the most famous shower scene of all-time, we take a look at the making of one of the first and greatest horror movies, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, ‘Psycho’.
Warning: spoilers for 57-year-old film coming up…
1. ‘Psycho’ is based on a book
The film is actually an adaptation of a 1959 pulp novel by Robert Bloch, a book which Hitch optioned for a meagre fee and then set about buying up so fewer people would know how it ended.
The novel fundamentally differs from the film in several ways – in it Norman is a drunk, homicidal forty-something voyeur as opposed to the far more tender, complex character eventually played by Anthony Perkins. And Bloch isn’t a good enough writer to subtly reveal the actual fate of Mrs Bates, writing scenes in a way which makes the reveal just as shocking, but less believable.
2. The book was inspired by a grisly true story
Bloch based Norman partly on Ed Gein, an American killer whose crimes came to light in the late 1950s. A loner with a mother fixation, Gein admitted to murdering several women, as well as robbing dozens of graves to find gruesome trophies, with the goal of creating a replica of his mother out of human skin which he’d be able to wear.
3. The film was REALLY controversial
Made when Hollywood was in thrall to the restrictive Production Code, it’s unsurprising that a film as bold as ‘Psycho’ irked the censors.
The screenwriter Joseph Stefano recalled how they didn’t like the word transvestite, or the fact that you see Mrs Bates’ mummified face, but that they backed down when they were told that the former was used as a medical term. As for the latter, the filmmakers got doctors at UCLA to approve the model shown in the movie as being medically accurate.
4. Its most controversial scene may surprise you
While you can understand the puritanical demands of the times meant they balked at Janet Leigh in a bra at the beginning (Hitch actually wished he could have had her bare-chested like her scene colleague and on-screen lover John Gavin), as well as the suggestiveness of their illicit love-making, rather more peculiar was their problem with a flushing loo.
In fact, ‘Psycho’ is generally recognised as the first film to feature a toilet flushing, something apparently far too unpleasant for proper people’s eyes at the time. But Stefano made sure it had to stay in by writing that Marion (Janet Leigh) gets rid of important paper that way, therefore making it intrinsic to the plot and not frivolous.
5. It took a whole week to shoot the shower scene
“It took us seven days to shoot that scene and there were 70 camera set-ups for forty-five seconds of footage,” Alfred Hitchcock told fellow director Francois Truffaut. “We had a torso specially made up for that scene, with the blood that was supposed to be spurt away from the knife, but I didn’t use it. I used a live girl instead, a naked model who stood in for Janet Leigh. We only showed Miss Leigh’s hands, shoulders and head. All the rest was a stand-in. Naturally, the knife never touched the body.”
6. The body double has her own strange true story
That body double was Marli Renfro, a ‘Playboy’ cover girl, whose out-of-focus breasts did manage to make it past the censors, who ended up getting so confused about whether the scene actually contained nudity that they let it pass.
Now in her 70s, Renfro has even been the subject of a death hoax when back in 1998, an actress called Myra Davis was murdered by her handyman. Reports at the time said that Janet Leigh’s body double had been killed – with journalists confusing Davis and Renfro. In fact, Davis had worked on ‘Psycho’ as what’s called a lighting stand-in, posing in position so that the crew could light the scene properly before the cast arrives on-set.
The mistake was eventually discovered by Robert Graysmith, the author best known for investigating another serial killer – the Zodiac – and played in David Fincher’s film of the same name by Jake Gyllenhaal.
7. It was shot like a TV show
For something as beautifully constructed as ‘Psycho’, you might think it was the end of a laborious and expensive creative process. In fact, it was the complete opposite.
Shot for a comparatively low £600,000, Hitchcock used the crew which made his television shows, did it very quickly and apart from a couple of scenes filmed on a California highway, it was made entirely on the backlot at Universal Studios.
And while it’s perfect in black and white, one of the primary reasons for that was because it was cheaper than shooting in colour.
8. There were SEVEN Mrs. Bates
Incredibly, there are actually seven Mothers – or at least a septet of people who play her in different guises.
Actor Anthony Perkins does portray her briefly of course, but then three other women play her physically during the film. A dwarf stunt performer called Mitzi Koestner for the scenes inside the house, including the moment ‘she’ murders the detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Anne Dore is the silhouette you see approaching the shower. And the person striking those fateful blows is Margo Epper.
Perkins later suggested that perhaps this way of portraying the character was accidental. The shooting of the shower scene was postponed twice and when it finally happened, the star wasn’t available. “I had to go to New York,” he told the Boston Globe. “Hitch hired someone else to be there with the knife.”
It doesn’t end there though. Perkins’ friend Paul Jasmin lends some manly elements to the character’s voice, while Virginia Gregg and Jeanette Nolan also lend their vocals. Hitchcock and his sound engineers took all three performances and blended them together to make Mrs Bates’ spooky tones.
9. The legacy of the ‘Psycho’ endures
Dozens of films and TV shows have since spoofed the shower scene, from Mel Brooks’ ‘High Anxiety’ to ‘Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure’ and ‘The Simpsons’.
And the ‘Psycho’ house remains a vital attraction on the Universal Studios tour in Los Angeles – back in 1999 Jim Carrey once frightened paying guests to death by running out from the house dressed as Mother.
Then there’s the ill-fated 1998 shot-for-shot Gus Van Sant remake starring Vince Vaughn as Norman and Anne Heche as Marion, as well the television prequel ‘Bates Motel’.
10. Cinema would never be the same again after ‘Psycho’
Perhaps the film’s greatest legacy is the way it took B-movie ideals and turned them into blockbuster box office, making the industry realise that low-brow done right could end up being high-brow.
Not only that, but Hitch’s decision to kill off his most famous actress halfway through the film has inspired hundreds of other filmmakers (‘Scream’ for example). And you can see the auteur’s strict demand for secrecy (he forbade anyone from entering the cinema after the movie had started and made a plea to keep the ending confidential) echoed in the spoiler-free antics of modern directors like JJ Abrams.
’78/52′ is coming to UK cinemas 3 November.