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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.