Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Sisters. (1973) Brian De Palma

With persistent references to Read Window and Psycho and an over-indulgent soundtrack which accentuates dread-fueled moments of shock, Sisters was to the 1970s what Final Analysis might have later been to the 90s, or a worse version of Shutter Island might have been to last year. They are films which either rip off or pay homage to Hitch; they borrow and steal with a wink and a nod. But if you're going to steal, why not steal from the best?

It seems like a reasonable question. But if you steal from the best, your work will be remembered for not being the best, but rather a copycat, a reflection or a recurrence. You're the student who wishes he could be as good as the master while he eyes the master's every move.

Such is the fate of the first half hour of Sisters, by Brian De Palma, the director who would make a decades-long career out of tipping his hat to Hitchcock.

The rest of the film is such a nosedive that it wouldn't be fair to even remotely compare it to Hitch. But it is a spectacular nosedive to observe, teetering on the brink between utter stupidity and that phrase that b-movie house managers love, that loathsome phrase, "admirable flop."

The story starts out with some usual Hitch-like moral probings - in this case, situational ethics on a "Peeping Tom" television game show and the more-highly-debated-37-years-ago topic of interracial relationships, seen when a normal black man beds a white woman, a model. This could have been fertile ground in which to dig, except that the man, the only black in the film, is killed off rather quickly from the start. (Bad De Palma!)

At the point of said death the film completely switches gears. We know that if the possibility for rich topics were there for digging before, we're certainly not going to be digging now. We're jolted instead into split screen viewing, murder, and movie sibling psychoanalysis. Things turn somewhat predictable in nature, and when events aren't predictable, they're still predictably dumb. Margot Kidder (later Christopher Reeves' Lois Lane), who plays twin sisters Danielle and Dominique and is the only interesting person in the film, gets traded in for a poorly acted newspaper reporter and an out of nowhere Private Eye, of which the film quarter-bakes the former and nearly forgets about the latter. They should have called this The Descent rather than Sisters - it would have perfectly summed up the script, the acting, the trajectory, and audience interest.

There were, however, a couple of Bests:

Best use of a hideaway bed, ever. Best birthday cake surprise ("Whoops!"). Best fake fake blood I've seen in quite a while. Best non-authentic looking archival asylum footage.

The first viewing in my "June Lite" month has only reinforced my initial bias towards De Palma. There is little doubt this is going to be a fun month, as long as I remember the eye candy I'm in for. There's little protein in this diet, lots of sweet stuff involved, but I'm certain there will be unforgettable moments as I continue forward on the timeline of these films. (I personally can't wait to return to Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables again.)

But like the split screens De Palma is known for - a technique I actually kinda dig - Sisters can be divided exactly in half. Most of the first half is interesting, retro-chic, suspenseful and creepy. The unraveling of the second half turns the whole of the film into a laughable, ludicrous mess of a wreck, as predictable as a train on tracks headed over a cliff.


  1. More or less my take on the film.

    And, I have to say, I don't think De Palma's eye had yet fully developed. There are occasionally some interesting shots/formal choices on display in SISTERS, but it's not visually striking in the same way that CARRIE or BLOW OUT or FEMME FATALE are.

  2. Did you say you saw Obsession? That one really interests me, but it looks like the only way to see it is to YouTube it. It would be the first time I've ever YouTube'd an entire film... I would think with the way you love Vertigo, that you either love (for its love) or hate (for its inferiority) Obsession.

  3. I've seen OBSESSION a few times.

    I went into OBSESSION hoping to love it. It is, after all, an enormous VERTIGO homage, and while it was sure to be inferior, I thought it would probably be a great deal of fun. In its favor, I can say I was never bored, and it does have a terrific score and a terrific ending.

    But it's not very satisfying. The characters aren't fleshed-out enough to be compelling, and it lacks the great sequences that typically fill De Palma's work, so it just kinda sits there.

  4. I found Sisters haunting and moving. Sure the Hitchcock references are all-pervasive, but as someone who has seen much or most of Hitchcock's oeuvre I still found it fresh and unique. In spite of some predictability, it surprised me by maintaining its tension and a creepy evil atmosphere while also succeeding on a subtle comic level. Some combination of the score, themes, and great performances from Kidder and Finley and the hallucinatory final act (which reminded me of Lynch's films) succeeded in creating a modest gem of a film, in spite of some missteps.


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