Monday, October 20, 2014

Shocktober Revisited: Sisters

 This review originally appeared in 2010.

 Sisters, a film that arguably is the first time the signature "style" of Brian De Palma is on display, is also a precursor to his "homages" to Alfred Hitchcock*, like Dressed to Kill and Body Double, cobbling from a number of the "Master of Suspense"'s films.

 Danielle Blanchon (Margot Kidder) was born half of Siamese twins, with her sister Dominique. After being separated, Danielle pursued a career in modeling and acting, appearing on game shows like "The Peeping Tom Show" (which opens the film in a curiously race-baiting manner, both for the contestants and the audience). When Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) avoids the temptation of watching a "blind" woman undress, he wins a dinner for two to the even less politically incorrect "African Room" and invites Danielle (the "blind" woman) to come along (Danielle wins a set of knives). Aside from an awkward run-in with her ex-husband, Emil Breton (Bill Finley), the date goes swimmingly, and he accompanies her home to Staten Island.

 After a night of heavy petting, Phillip overhears Danielle and Dominique having and argument and accidentally knocks her medication into the sink. Phillip runs out to find the twins a birthday cake, and comes back only to be (SPOILER, I guess) stabbed in the groin by Dominique, and then viciously sliced up before scrawling "HELP" on the window in full view of investigative journalist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt). Collier becomes obsessed first with proving the murder happened, then on uncovering the "true" story of the Blanchon twins, enlisting the help of private detective Joseph Larch (Charles Durning). What is Breton's actual relationship to Danielle and Dominique? Why aren't the police interested in the murder? And what is really going on at the institute that the Blanchon twins grew up in?

 I don't feel bad about ruining the death of Phillip Woode because if you've seen Dressed to Kill, you have some idea how the first thirty minutes of Sisters is going to play out. Hell, if you've seen Psycho, you know how both of them are going to play out, but sticking strictly to De Palma films, Dressed to Kill is likely better known than Sisters, which plays out like a grindhouse-friendly warm up for his more direct Psycho homage.

 But it isn't just Psycho that gets the nod in Sisters: there's also Rope, Rear Window, Frenzy, and a strange running gag akin to The Trouble with Harry involving Woode's final resting place - and the film's MacGuffin - a fold out couch-bed. The last shot, in fact, echoes the futility of the MacGuffin, as Joseph Larch (the Sam Loomis /Lisa Fremont stand-in) sits perched on a telephone poll, spying on an abandoned couch in a comparably abandoned Canadian train station, never to be claimed.

If it feels like I'm spoiling a lot of Sisters, really I'm not; I deliberately left out the film's "twist," which shouldn't be difficult to figure out given De Palma's penchant for Hitchcock plot turns, and I'll dance around the hallucinatory third act, which takes place in the institution and intentionally echoes Freaks or The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari in its dream sequences. It's placement in the film is rather jarring, considering the great technical lengths De Palma goes to earlier in the film (including not one, but two intricate split screen sequences), and nearly derails the picture. It kicks the Freudian overtones into overdrive and drastically switches gears from an exercise in intertextuality into an overcomplicated bundle of psycho-mumbo-jumbo before returning to a by-the-numbers murder mystery.

Which is not to say that critics with a psychoanalytical bent won't have a field day with Sisters (as they do with virtually all of De Palma's films): the almost literal "castration" of both male leads (and a more figurative form for Larch and Arthur McLennen [Barnard Hughes**], the reporter who broke the twin story) is consistent throughout the film. Dominique seems to be triggered by arousal and her weapons are always phallic (a kitchen knife, a scalpel), and Collier's general disdain for men (and her overburdening mother) eventually point her towards a safe, if unsatisfying, end.

Sisters is a bit sloppy around the edges, lacking in much of the precision evident in later Brian De Palma films, but it has a scrappy quality to it that keeps the film watchable when it teeters on incomprehensibility. It doesn't hurt that Kidder is very good as Danielle and Dominique, and Salt carries most of the film as the truth obsessed Collier. Wilson, Finley, and Durning are also believable in mostly thankless roles, and when De Palma is on, the film crackles with suspense. It's easy to see in Sisters the traces of his later, superior films, as well as his interest in incorporating Hitchcockian themes and images early on. As a horror film - which I suppose is technically why it's included this month - you could do worse, although Sisters is probably going to appeal to cinephiles more than casual viewers.

*edit* In my haste to put this up, I forgot about the Cranpire's favorite character, who will be referred to only as "The Midnight Gardener," who so inexplicably a plot device that I must assume he's a direct reference to another film. Kudos to you if you identify it in the comments!

* The debate rages on whether these are homages or rip-offs, and I don't really want to get into it here. For plenty of starting points, I refer you to Google.
** If the name doesn't ring a bell, Hughes' voice should automatically ring a bell, particularly if you remember Dumont in Tron or Grandpa in The Lost Boys.

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