Friday, October 2, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: Sibling Rivalry and a Big Knife in Brian De Palma's Sisters

Brian De Palma is a director often accused of stealing from Hitchcock. Whether or not you're a fan of De Palma's work, it's understandable that some viewers would make such accusations. But De Palma's nods to the Master of Suspense are typically superficial, as he merely lifts the plots and presents them in a unique style. For example, Dressed to Kill (1980) begins with a shower scene. As Angie Dickinson showers, the audience is presented with her point of view (POV), and you can see a figure through the shower door. One might expect said figure to approach menacingly (an obvious Psycho reference), but it's eventually clear that he's simply using the bathroom mirror for a morning shave. Dickinson is then suddenly attacked by someone inside the shower with her. De Palma would frequently include familiar plots to play with viewers' expectations: does Jake know what he's truly seeing in Body Double (1984) [Rear Window] and is Carter suffering from murderous multiple personalities in Raising Cain (1992) [Psycho again].

Brian De Palma's first foray into the Hitchcockian thriller was his splendid 1973 movie, Sisters. Phil is a young man who is duped by a Candid Camera-esque TV show called Peeping Toms. A supposedly blind woman undresses while in a locker room with Phil, and a studio audience votes on what they believe the man will do. Following the show, Phil dines with the woman (who is, in fact, not blind), Danielle, a French-Canadian model. They spend the night together, but by the morning, Danielle is upset over an argument with her twin sister, Dominique. She asks Phil to pick up a prescription for her, and having just learned that it's the sisters' birthday, the man also stops by a bakery to have a cake made. When Phil returns, he unknowingly meets Dominique, who, in lieu of cutting the birthday cake, stabs Phil with a knife. In a nearby apartment, reporter Grace Collier witnesses the bloody encounter and telephones the police, but by the time they arrive, Danielle and her former lover, Emil, have cleaned the area and hidden the body. With the cops believing she's overzealous, Grace is determined to prove that a murder occurred in that apartment.

The Hitchcockian elements are there: a Bernard Herrmann score, shades of
Psycho (check out the knife Dominique uses), etc. But the presentation of the story and the establishment of characters is vintage De Palma. One example of the director's style is the use of split screen, which he employs wonderfully after the murder: one screen shows Grace standing on the sidewalk, impatiently waiting for the cops, the other has Danielle and Emil desperately cleaning her place. It's an excellent technique to heighten suspense. He utilized the split screen to similar effect in films such as Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Carrie (1976) and Snake Eyes (1998).

Another example of De Palma's style in his frequent shifting of perspective. Keep in mind that, while Hitchcock did this in
Psycho, he typically presented his protagonists' POV and stayed there for the duration of the narrative. De Palma bounces the audience around varying perspectives. Phil seems to be the protagonist, but then the viewers are suddenly with Danielle, and quickly to Grace. This is another way in which the director generates suspense, as the audience is often unaware as to people's true motives. In other words, just when the viewer believes that he/she knows a particular character, De Palma switches to an alternate perspective and said character now looks completely different. Danielle is quite innocent when she is with Phil. But she not only lies to the police when they arrive at her apartment with Grace, she's also considerably good at lying. Without giving away the ending, by the film's conclusion, a once reliable POV becomes shockingly unreliable. De Palma also toyed with perspectives in Blow Out (1981), Body Double, Snake Eyes, and even his commercial venture, Mission: Impossible (1996).

is strengthened by some exceptional acting. Margot Kidder, playing the dual role of Dominique and Danielle, is very good as both, a seemingly naive young model and a frighteningly unstable lunatic. William Finley is great at playing characters who are odd and undeniably creepy, which he proved in further De Palma productions, such as Phantom of the Paradise and a bit part in The Black Dahlia (2006). Jennifer Salt portrays Grace, and she makes a sympathetic reporter. Salt also starred in the 1972 TV film Gargoyles (another selection from this month's 31 Days of Halloween), and eventually retired from acting to pursue writing, having helmed a number of episodes of the popular FX series, Nip/Tuck. In 2006, Douglas Buck directed a lackluster remake of Sisters, starring Stephen Rea as a doctor and Chloë Sevigny as Grace.

So the next time you hear someone say, "Oh, that Brian De Palma just wants to be Hitchcock!" or if that very thought should cross your own mind, please take a step back and have another look. The director is just having fun with Hitch's theatrical plotlines. His keen visual eye and clever techiques are a grand talent not to be missed, and
Sisters is one of his very best.


  1. Sark, this is an exceptional review of one of DePalma’s best excursions into Hitchcockian cinema! You are spot-on with your assessment that DePalma doesn’t rip off Hitchcock; he pays homage to him by cleverly integrating elements borrowed from the Master of Suspense. My favorite DePalma films are from this period in his career, with BODY DOUBLE, THE FURY, and, of course, this one. When I first saw SISTERS, I knew no one in the cast except for Jennifer Salt (from the telefilm you mentioned). That made it all the creepier because I didn’t know who would get killed and when. Herrmann’s score is both beautiful and disturbing…which pretty much describes the whole film. This was a fine pick for our month-long tribute to horror & sci fi films.

  2. This is a remarkably in-depth analysis of a complex director. As a viewer it is extraordinarily jarring to have the POV disturbed because you feel violated, as if the action on screen has included you as an unwitting participant in what is unfolding. "Sisters" is a fascinating film but one that I need to put into my "seen it but don't want to see it again" portfolio. The older I get, which of course is something I cannot alter, the less able I am to watch movies like this. Sark, this blog is one of the Cafe's best. Thank you for all of your research and a thought-provoking analysis. Very well done!

  3. Rick and toto2, thank you for your very thoughtful comments!

    toto2, I'm open to mostly anything, but I have a "portfolio" much like what you described. There are many movies that I really enjoyed but would rather not watch again. I'm satisfied with a single viewing due to intensity, boredom, etc.

    Rick, I also prefer De Palma's films from this time period, like -- in addition to the ones you mentioned -- DRESSED TO KILL, CARRIE, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE and BLOW OUT. But I'm happy that he's still making good movies. I really enjoyed SNAKES EYES and the more recent THE BLACK DAHLIA. He's a great director!

  4. you did a wonderful job on writing this review. i dont know if i can watch this sounds too scary. :-O

  5. Sark,, thanks for the Post. I'm SOOOOO sick of the De Palma rips off Hitchcock thing, that goes back to the 70's.Thanks to your post I need to rewatch Sisters . My Favorite of his films from this period is The Fury with it's famous ending, which was cut out the last time I saw it on TV.

  6. Paul, you could have a great discussion with Rick, as I believe THE FURY is also his fave De Palma movie. I find many of De Palma's films fascinating. And writing about them is a lot of fun. Thanks for the kinds words! And thanks to Dawn, too!

  7. Sark, great review. I love De Palma, particularly The Fury, Blow-Out and Carrie. I have never seen Sisters. That's going to be on my must-see-soon list, during the haunted month of October.

  8. Sark - I haven't seen SISTERS, but this was a very interesting and well-written post. Great job!

  9. Thank you, Becky and Eve! It's nice to have your writing complimented by talented writers. I would, of course, recommend SISTERS for the both of you! :)