J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, October 08, 2018

De Palma’s Sisters


This early, career-defining film by Brian De Palma probably features the best use of split screens since The Thomas Crown Affair. It definitely has exploitative elements, but it also boasts a fully orchestrated score composed by the legendary Bernard Hermann. Not surprisingly, “Hitchcockian” is often a word used to describe De Palma’s sinister 1972 homage. Freshly restored in 4K, Sisters (trailer here) opens this Friday at the Quad.

Contemporary viewers will pick up on odd echoes and resonances when watching De Palma’s gritty, ever-so-1970s film, starting with the opening sequences involving a voyeuristic game show called Peeping Toms. Phillip Woode has been set-up by French Canadian model Danielle Breton, but his chivalrous behavior earns him her respect and a date to use his free dinner for two. She won a set of Ginzo-esque knives, which should indeed sound ominous.

Breton gets very drunk during their date, but Woode continues to be gallant, driving her all the way home to remote and exotic Staten Island. He also must contend with her stalker ex-husband, Emil. However, the real surprise comes in the morning, when Breton reveals she lives with her twin, Dominique. Alas, it seems Dominique is even more prone to jealous rages, judging from the slasher murder of Woode. Grace Collier, a professionally stalled local SI journalist, sees it all, or at least a good deal of it from her rear window, but her most recent story was an expose on police brutality, so getting the cops to take her seriously will be a challenge.

Of course, De Palma tightly controls just what exactly the audience does and does not see, rather skillfully pulling off a neat feat of misdirection. He alludes to just about every Hitchcock film except Jamaica Inn, but the parallels with Psycho are especially strong, with a dysfunctional sibling relationship replacing Norman Bates’ special friendship with his mother. There is even a terrific scene in which a Life magazine reporter reveals the Breton sisters’ tragic backstory, much like Simon Oakland’s classic Psycho epilogue, but De Palma puts it at the midway point instead.

Sisters is not a perfect film. Arguably, a pivotal but totally nutty flashback-fantasia looks like it could be the ironic work of Guy Maddin, yet for fans, the rough edges are part of its charm. Regardless, its merits far outweigh its shortcomings, starting with its street-level depiction of 70s New York, which is just as effective as a time capsule of the era as Sidney Lumet’s more “respectable” films.

Margot Kidder is terrific as the Breton Twins, in what might be her best role not involving a man in a cape. She is all kinds of creepy and squirrely, but in a way that is entirely different and distinct from Norman Bates and his imitators. Likewise, William Finley immediately established his cult status with his unsettlingly weird turn as the mysterious Emil (probably half his credits come in films directed by De Palma and Tobe Hooper).

Lisle Wilson is quite charismatic and down-to-earth as Woode, making him quite a worthy Marion Crane analog. Granted, Collier is supposed to represent many of the era’s frustrations, but Jennifer Salt’s confrontational portrayal often leads to face-palms. However, ubiquitous 1980s character actor Bernard Hughes (Tron, The Lost Boys) is quite memorable explaining it all as Life reporter Arthur McLennen.

So, is it horror or is it a thriller? Hermann’s Hitchcockian score says the latter. That will be good enough for anyone who takes their movie soundtracks seriously, but people of good conscience could disagree. De Palma worked in both genres, blurring the lines between them with films like Carrie, The Fury, Body Double, and Dressed to Kill. It is still a tense and grabby film that has also become a fascinating cinematic artifact of its time. Highly recommended for fans of De Palma and psycho-killer movies (across genre), Sisters opens this Friday (10/12) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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