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Sisters. 1973. Directed by Brian De Palma. Screenplay by De Palma & Louisa Rose.
Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Barnard Hughes, Mary Davenport, & Dolph Sweet. Pressman-Williams/American International Pictures.
Rated R. 93 minutes.
Brian De Palma is a quality filmmaker. That quality hasn’t been kicking around much as of late. Doesn’t discount all the great work he’s done in a lifetime of film. He’s spent much of his filmography emulating Alfred Hitchcock, though not in a way that copies or borrows too liberally. No, De Palma has forged his own way through a wonderful career by using that Hitchcockian influence to dust the edges. There are some much lesser efforts out of De Palma than the masterpieces he’s known for – Sisters is not one of them.
This film has been sitting on my shelf for far too long. I bought it up as soon as I could because I’d heard of it for years, always wanting to see it. Then once I had the thing, for some unknown reason, the copy sat lonely, unwatched. When I did view Sisters, I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been. Honestly, this is an unheralded classic of psychological horror. Early on in his career De Palma already cemented himself as a natural heir to the Hitchcock throne. The directing, the editing, the Bernard Herrmann score (when he was semi-retired no less), the central performance of Margot Kidder with all its mania and depth; every last piece is like the perfect one for the puzzle. There’s lots of influence here, De Palma clearly emulating his idol in heaps. Rather than feel at all a copy off the Master of Suspense, Sisters was a fresh drop of horror in 1973, tinted with the suspenseful, tension-filled qualities you might have felt from Rear Window or Vertigo. Either way, this is awesome cinema that shouldn’t be overlooked.
So many great shots. Simple to complex. For instance, there’s a nice shot of shadows on the wall as a door closes that is obviously telling while also chillingly subtle that, along with a bit of score, takes us right into the pure psychological terror De Palma aims for through telling this story. This is just the start.
In a film such as this I have to mention the editing, in combination with the excellent writing. Not long after the shot of the shadows there’s this eerie little moment where the cake is having the names put on it, the icing squeezing out in the names Danielle and Dominique, cut against Danielle having this fit. Just those two names and the way she’s beginning to implode already, these shots perfectly set that up.
Furthermore you’ve got a nice use of split-screen. Certain film fans may not dig that. Others may love it. Personally, I find De Palma uses it appropriately. Because ultimately this is a film that has to do with psychology, fractured identity and perspective, so on. So the split-screen helps give the look a psychological angle all of its own. There’s an overall sense of strangeness that develops, between the various techniques used to tell the story and the story itself, filled with interesting characters and events. I love when the atmosphere of a film matches up so closely with the storytelling, it makes for exciting cinema. Sometimes when a horror, particularly when leaning into the psychological, goes for the grim atmosphere it doesn’t always connect directly to the plot, so much as it’s grim for grim’s sake. Whereas De Palma uses the different techniques to induce a very personal, psychologically driven perspective. In that vein, the story and the filmmaking line up to create an effective cohesiveness. That’s why I find the movie so successful, even as such an early effort by the great director. He showed the film world quickly that his sensibilities as director were well honed already, itching to expand.
A huge part of what makes the suspenseful moments and the tension work is that juicy, creepy score by none other than Bernard Herrmann; again adding to the Hitchcock influence, the composer having worked on some of his best films. There are absolutely bizarre moments, such as the brutal death of Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) where xylophones and the Moog synthesizer take you to some other plane of existence. Rightfully so. The greatest aspect of Herrmann’s work, as usual, is that it adds a totally whole other character to the film. It is another character. It shapes the atmosphere. These bizarre pieces of music allow De Palma to put us in the headspace of the main character, as she all but literally falls down the rabbit hole of psychological dread.
There’s also a couple genuinely shocking moments. When Philip is stabbed I actually couldn’t believe it. I knew something was coming, and something bad. But this was a really good scene. I’ve seen worse, there’s just something shocking about the moment that strikes so well. Later, the more quiet shock comes in the black-and-white flashback to a time when the Siamese twins are conjoined – or more so it’s a dream on the part of Grace (Jennifer Salt) imagining herself as the twin joined to Danielle (Margot Kidder). A very terrifying moment that doesn’t need to be outright horror to scare. It’s pitch perfect leading into the finale.
I have to say, Sisters is my personal favourite De Palma film. Hands down. He’s done some other fascinating work. I can’t shake this one. There’s an undeniably unsettling effect to the whole thing. Each moment that pulls you into the psychological viewpoint makes the end of the main plot feel that much more intense. As you draw closer to the finish there’s a sense of impending doom. The suspense De Palma employs, the tension he uses to work his audience over with is brutish at times, in the best sort of sense. In terms of talent you really can’t say that De Palma wasn’t shining nearly right from the get go in his career. Margot Kidder provides an emotional, manic performance as a woman torn apart by the bursting identities instilled in her through the loss of her conjoined twin. She is a great actor and I’ve enjoyed so many movies because of her alone. Not to say she’s the only one, just that her role and performance are the highlight in that arena. You can’t say you love De Palma and not see this one. Seek it out if it hasn’t hit your eyeballs yet. Not sure, after finally watching it awhile back, why I waited so long. This needs to be watched and watched and watched again. There is much to enjoy, much to fear. What an underrated psychological horror is Sisters! Let’s not forget it. Ever.
FX’s American Horror Story
Season 1, Episode 2: “Home Invasion”
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl)
Written by Brad Falchuk & Ryan Murphy
* For a review of the previous episode, “Pilot” – click here
* For a review of the next episode, “Murder House” – click hereThe opening sequence to Season 1’s second episode is an absolute killer. Sorry for that brutal pun, but it truly is an excellent piece.
Again, we’re already seeing the series use famous horror movie scores and nodding to a few of the greats. For instance, in a flashback to 1968, a strange man enters the house (where the Harmons now live) under false pretences. Nurses live there, and a bunch are out for the night. He attacks one and takes them both hostage. As soon as he turns rancid, the Bernard Herrmann score from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho begins to play. Further as the sequence progresses, before coming back to the present, more of the music continues, as well as a NASTY kill on one of the nurses; she is stabbed in the back, some of the shots nearly mirroring the famous murder of Marion Crane – except this one takes place on a couch instead of a shower. The whole thing has a very Ted Bundy feel.
When we’re whisked back to present day, the memories of the 1968 murders linger.
Even while Tate (Evan Peters) and his trusty psychiatrist Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) conduct their latest session, it’s still hard to shake the savagery of the opening scene.Big shocker, as a woman – obviously the one Ben cheated on Vivien (Connie Britton) with – calls Ben and tells him that she’s pregnant. So quick into the season and we’re already really past the tipping point with Ben and his infidelity. Which is interesting, because while the house is obviously twisting their lives up and we want to feel bad for them, it’s tough to make Ben, in any way, out to be the victim.
A reference to Peter Medak’s The Changeling, after Ben finds Addie (Jamie Brewer) playing in the basement, laughing seemingly to herself. Once he clears her out of there, we watch the ball she’d been rolling around come rolling back out of the darkness by itself. I mean, the colour of the ball and everything resembles that scene, I can’t help but feel as if it was definitely a reference to the Medak haunted house classic.
Ben has a young lady coming to see him now as a patient, Bianca (Mageina Tovah), who is having dreams about trying to escape a stalled elevator and then being cut in half. She clearly has another fascination with being there other than psychiatry, there’s something about her totally affected by the house, as if she knows all about it, the history and such.
There’s so much perfectness between Addie (Jamie Brewer) and her doting yet also hateful mother Constance (Jessica Lange). While at times Constance is an outright bitch in the way she talks to Addie, there are so many instances of how much she does care for her daughter. I love that Falchuk and Murphy aren’t afraid to bring characters to life here who are complicated. Aside from all the infidelity stuff, we’ve got a wonderful actress like Brewer playing a character whose own mother is resentful of her disabilities. It’s tough stuff, however, I find it incredibly intriguing, especially in a horror-based show. Their relationship, obviously, will flesh out more and more with every episode, and it’s something I end up enjoying a great deal about Season 1.Ben is in trouble. Hayden McClaine (Kate Mara) his supposed one time mistake is back in his life, full-time now, with the prospect of a child. Unfortunately, Ben is not only keeping secrets, he now has the horror of the house and the insanity of Larry Harvey (Denis O’Hare) being pumped into him. It’s dark stuff where this will all be headed.
Another dynamic I enjoy is the one between Vivien and her daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga). Britton and Farmiga are both great. Their acting here is on point and I found their relationship, the whole season, to be extremely believable. Violet is beyond spiteful, as she tells her mother “I think you’re weak,” and we can see that she’s as much hurt by her mother’s inability to walk away from her cheating father as she is by his unfaithfulness. Probably not fair, however, ultimately I think it’s mostly because Violet is sad. She only lashes out because, as we all once were, she is a teenager and believes her knowledge – supposed knowledge – is the right kind. Britton and Farmiga do well together in their scenes, really have a family feel going on, which doesn’t come off as forced.
Sneaky Ben has snuck off to see Hayden (Kate Mara). She’s supposed to be having an abortion, which they’ve both determined is best for them in the long run. While some might look at Hayden, believing her to be in the wrong or that she is clinging to Ben, I see the character as a girl who was duped into thinking there could be more eventually between them. Ben tries to avoid responsibility, much as he possibly can, but eventually things will catch up with him.Back at home, Vivien begins to experience something similar to – or exactly a copy of – what the nurses in 1968 went through on that fateful night at the hands of a strange and murderous man. Bianca (Tovah) was merely casing the house in her session with Ben, and along with Fiona (Azura Skye) and Dallas (Kyle Davis) they plan to recreate the murders. I mean – WILD! Love it, plus today in the sick society we’ve developed, I can totally see a twisted copycat style murder like this happening. If it hasn’t happened yet, it will. This trio is like a deplorable serial killer cult, worshipping the man who killed those nurses in the ’60s; they’ve even got one of the objects used in the crime, bought off E-Bay, in order to bring further authentic and ritualized sense to their present day murders.
I won’t spoil any more of what happens, but we see so many things come to play – one of the cupcakes Addie and Constance made earlier, the ghosts lurking in the basement, as well as the tenacity of both Vivien and her sassy daughter Violet. Amazing scenes here. Tense, suspenseful moments. What’s even worse is the fact Ben is off with Hayden, as his wife and daughter have to deal with the titular home invasion.
Wildly shocking scene between Addie and Constance later in the episode. I mean, I couldn’t get over how witchy Constance comes off at this point. Locking Addie in a closet so she can have peace and quiet with her hunky, young boyfriend, Constance puts her in there – only surrounding the poor girl are mirrors, tons of them, reflecting her appearance right back into her eyes. Obviously Addie doesn’t like looking at herself much, which Constance knows. This part broke my heart – Constance walking away, Addie screaming bloody murder in the closet. Terrifying and sad all at once.
Again, the horrors of the house, from top floor to basement, come out in fine fashion for “Home Invasion.” The murderer hopefuls who broke into the Harmon house in order to reenact those 1968 killings experience the worst of what creeps amongst the shadows. In an act of retribution, the murdered nurses – victims of the serial killer they were there to worship and to whom they wished to pay tribute – are the ones who come back, ghostly and grisly, to take fresh souls for the house to keep.
Furthermore, we also get to start seeing how Constance, Tate, and Moira are all linked to the house. Not in the sense we’re given a ton of expository dialogue, or any exposition beyond what we’ve already started to think ourselves. Merely an effort on their parts, together, to clean up the basement after the would-be killers are dispatched by the living dead nurses. I thought that was a nice, slight touch. Instead of spelling things out too easily for everyone, it’s a brief nod for us to understand – okay, this is going somewhere, these three are up to something. What? We’ll find out.Next episode is “Murder House” (what this first season has been retroactively dubbed after each season seems to be given a subtitled name), which is directed by Bradley Buecker whose work includes other work later with American Horror Story, as well as Nip/Tuck and more.