Tagged Hitchcockian

Brian De Palma’s Sisters is One Hell of a Fractured Psychological Journey

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.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
POSTER
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

Raising Cain: There’s Better De Palma and There’s Worse

Raising Cain. 1992. Directed & Written by Brian De Palma.
Starring John Lithgow, Lolita Davidovich, Steven Bauer, Frances Sternhagen, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower, Mel Harris, Teri Austin, & Gabrielle Carteris. Pacific Western.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Thriller

★★★
POSTER
Brian De Palma is one of those classic directors of his generation, leaving his mark indelibly on the psychothriller, often imitating his greatest influence Alfred Hitchcock, though never in a way that rips off the master. Instead he is keen on homage, and uses the influence as an element incorporated into his overall style as a director and writer. He’s honestly not one of my personal top favourites. He is undeniably great, all the same. I do love CarrieSistersCarlito’s WayMission: Impossible, but don’t care for some of his more lauded works such as the cult phenomenon Scarface and The Untouchables, other than bits and pieces; they’re good movies, just not fantastic as others claim. I prefer the stuff like Dressed to Kill and Blow Out.
Raising Cain is a nice heady mix of psychological horror, mystery, and all folded into a thriller structure. While this is another film that doesn’t go on my top De Palma, it is fun. Almost in a seedy way. He’s tread through the sleazy, sexy-styled thriller before and isn’t a stranger to that territory. Here, it doesn’t feel as Hitchcockian. Instead the plot comes off more trashy than anything and not in a way that’s beneficial, in say the sense of a grindhouse picture or something purposefully attempting to feel like that. De Palma tries to make another solid thriller that twists and turns, but instead of doing much twisting or turning he opts for a load of nasty business, some steamy bits. Ultimately, the screenplay gets lost in its own convoluted attempts at becoming greater. I wanted to love this and only came out lukewarm even about its best bits.
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There’s no doubt John Lithgow is a wildly underrated character actor. Although he knocked the role out of the park, 3rd Rock from the Sun never did him any good, or justice. He’s been in plenty of movies since, but I can’t help feel that series put a damper on his career at a later stage, whereas someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt was young enough to shake it off. And that’s sad. Lithgow is at his best here, taking on a Peter Sellers-like task of multiple roles. Except these are twisted, each more sinister and unsettling than the last. All juxtaposed with the main character, Carter Nix, whose nice and friendly qualities are what you’d imagine Lithgow is probably like in real life. He does well portraying the Multiple Personality Disorder at the heart of the main character. There’s a genuine disconnect between the different perspectives, the different looks and their ways of speaking, and so instead of feeling like he’s just hopping from costume to costume, Lithgow legitimately gives us separate, distinct personalities. Right down to the voices and their idiosyncrasies. All the marks of a classic performance.
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This brings me to a point I don’t exactly enjoy about the screenplay. The whole Multiple Personality Disorder angle is fine, no problem. What boggles my mind is why there’s so much going on. There’s already a large split in the main personality of Carter, so what I’m not sure of is why De Palma insisted on involving such an intricate plot of Jenny Nix (Lolita Davidovich) cheating? Why does that have to be shuffled in there? Only clogs things up. It’s enough to have his wife suspicious of him and his complete obsession with the mental development of their daughter. A little too much to throw in a whole angle with infidelity, especially considering the movie’s only 91 minutes. Not that it’s badly written. Poorly, yes, but not bad. There’s simply too much going on for De Palma to properly juggle.
Partly it’s the end that makes me feel as if, in this film, De Palma goes too hard into his Hitchcock influence. With the whole female personality of Carter, a.k.a Margo, there’s almost too much Norman Bates lurking; in turn, we could say he’s riffing on Robert Bloch, as well. The timing of having this part of the personality come out feels too much like the climactic chills of Psycho for it to be any bit genius in its own right.
There are some real excellent scenes. Such as the simple yet effectively fun tracking shot following Lieutenant Terri (Gregg Henry), Sergeant Cally (Tom Bower) and Dr. Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) – not only is it beautiful, the Waldheim character is strong, as well as funny in the way she walks on talking, not paying attention where they’re going, only to be lead around forcefully by the lawmen while they trail behind listening. That’s just unbelievably good writing, and without being a major part of the plot or anything of the sort it adds a big boost to the movie. These are the portions in which De Palma’s talent shines. He doesn’t just write weaving plots, he’s capable of doing good things both big and small.
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Raising Cain has all the potential to be endlessly interesting. There’s no shortage of thrill, even a chill or two from time to time. John Lithgow is perfect in his multiple roles, bringing to light Multiple Personality Disorder in fine psychological horror fashion. This is a wild, sleaze-filled ride straight off the top until the last frame. Brian De Palma can and has done better as writer-director. His abilities as a next generation Hitchcock are usually on display. This movie tries to aim for that sort of feel, but falls short. I wanted so badly for this to break free of its chains. Unfortunately, De Palma tries doing too much at once. Instead of sticking to something more basic while serving better the thriller aspects of the Multiple Personality Disorder, he goes wide and throws in a kind of Hitchcock-type plot to make things move quickly. I can’t help thinking this would have been better served as a slower burning plot, one without the infidelity of the wife and focused solely on Carter. It doesn’t need so many bells and whistles. It was good enough on its own. Luckily for all Lithgow makes this enjoyable, keeping each eye glued until the underwhelming finale that’s both too similar to a classic of the horror genre and also slightly too predictable for its own good.