"What if someone really good made a horror picture?" Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) poses in Hitchcock before directing his 1960 thriller Psycho. Truth is, this mother of all scary movies almost didn't get produced. Terrifying! The studio balked at the shocking script, so "Hitch," eager to reinvent his career, financed the $800,000 pic himself. Five decades after Psycho's premiere, Hitchcock pulls back the shower curtain on the creation of the classic creeper and details the on- and off-set struggles, notably Hitch's strained relationship with his wife, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). Dying to know more? Catch our five-point primer on the flick. Step right in: The water's fine.
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1. Mastering "The Master of Suspense:" Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins packs on the prosthetics and padding to embody the corpulent filmmaker, who never received a Best Directing Oscar despite five nominations. Though not physically a dead ringer, Hopkins brilliantly channels the director's vocal inflections, mannerisms and ink-black wit. Coincidentally, Toby Jones is also playing Hitchcock in HBO's The Girl, about the making of The Birds. It's another case of competing biopics for Jones, whose terrific turn as Truman Capote in Infamous was overshadowed by Philip Seymour Hoffman's Capote.
2. The Woman Behind the Auteur: The "Hitchcock touch" owes a major debt to one woman's touch: Alma Reville. She was not only Hitch's steadfast wife for 54 years, she also played a key collaborative role as his script editor and editorial consultant. Reville finally steps out of the shadows here, thanks to a strong performance by The Queen herself—Oscar winner Dame Helen Mirren, who trades frightfully fun jabs and stabs with Sir Anthony. Plus, the stunning actress gets to rock her bathing-suit body by the Hitchcocks' pool!
3. Art Imitating Life Making Art: Hitchcock pulls off a tricky feat of casting, finding actors who can convincingly portray Psycho's well-known castmembers and their iconic characters. Scarlett Johansson is all flirtatious curves and scarlet-lipped lusciousness as Janet Leigh, playing the ill-fated Bates Motel guest Marion Crane. Her cross-dressing, knife-wielding killer is Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates, and James D'Arcy eerily captures Perkins' twitchy insecurities. Jessica Biel brings a savvy edge to actress Vera Miles, who created the role of Lila Crane while also enduring Hitchcock's mind games.
4. "A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother:" Real-life psychopath Ed Gein—who slaughtered women, exhumed corpses and kept around his mummified mom—was the inspiration for Robert Bloch's novel Psycho, adapted for the film. In Hitchcock, Gein (played by Michael Wincott) appears as a twisted figment of the director's dark psyche. Notorious Gein was also the inspiration for the Buffalo Bill character in The Silence of the Lambs, starring...Anthony Hopkins. Forget Kevin Bacon, this is six sick degrees of Ed Gein!
Fox Searchlight Pictures
5. Legal Issues Can Be Murder: Because of rights restrictions, Hitchcock can't show actual footage from the original Psycho or even recreate shots. But just as Hitch shrewdly suggested nudity and knife penetration without ever showing it, Hitchcock uses cinematic sleight of hand to dramatize shooting Psycho's infamous shower scene. Fortunately, Hitchcock does include composer Bernard Herrmann's signature slashing violins, which Hitch initially opposed—and Reville urged him to try.