Friday, September 25, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Sisters (1973)

"It's not where you take things from - it's where you take them to."

- Jean-Luc Godard

Watching Brian De Palma's Sisters (1973) today, it's easy to detect the reasons why the director has so widely been touted as "the Next Alfred Hitchcock." His first thriller is perhaps the most inspired homage to the master's Psycho ever created (at least until the same director's Dressed to Kill in 1980).

First and foremost, the "Janet Leigh" trick (the notion that a lead character should expire early on in the proceedings...) is transferred successfully here. Also, in Sisters a surprise twist involving identity resonates and interacts meaningfully with Psycho's climax. Plus, De Palma shares another important trait with Hitchcock: a love of gallows humor. And for all the brutal, crotch-stabbing violence of Sisters, the film exhibits that wicked and subversive sense of black humor.

Yet De Palma's genius is revealed not so much in his multitudinous contextual references to the canon of Hitchcock (including Vertigo and Rear Window), but rather in the dramatic and clever manner by which he fractures the film's imagery. In other words -- in Godard's words -- it's not where De Palma gets his ideas from, but where he goes with those ideas. Here De Palma's purpose is entirely his own: to express, finally, a splintered mind/splintered sense of reality in the language of film grammar, thereby replicating the explicit content of his narrative.

In his Best, Worst and Most Unusual: Horror Films, author Darrell Moore opined that Sisters is "Brian De Palma's best film" because it "has humor and gore and is adept at balancing the two." (Crowne Publishers, 1983, page 125). Entertainment Weekly noted that Sisters' "final half hour set in a rural Bedlam is particularly bent" and that the frilm remains a "strange and scruffy piece of work." (Ty Burr, "Hitchcraft, January 15, 1993, page 56). Both reviews are accurate, and get right to the spirit of the film: a journey into schizophrenia that is simultaneously terrifying and absurd. The thriller even has the audacity to culminate with a bit of social commentary on the role of women in American society in the early part of the disco decade.

We Can't Discuss it Now. A Man is Bleeding to Death

Inspired by a Life Magazine article about the Russian Siamese twins Masha and Dasha, Sisters tells the story of a gorgeous model named Danielle (Margot Kidder), who appears on the local New York TV game show, Peeping Toms (think: The Dating Game) and then goes out to dinner with the winning contestant, Phillip Wood.

But Danielle's bizarre ex-husband, Emile (William Finley) stalks Danielle to the restaurant and makes a scene there. Concerned, Phillip escorts Danielle home to Staten Island. And though her crazy husband stands watch outside their apartment, they spend the night together.

The next morning, Phillip is brutally killed after hearing Danielle speak to her (unseen) sister, Dominique. The murder (which occurs on Danielle's birthday...) is witnessed by plucky investigative reporter, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), from her own apartment. The police don't believe Grace's story of homicide because she wrote an expose about the police that the force considered anti-cop. Grace investigates on her own, drawn into a bizarre story of co-joined siblings, a mysterious mental institute, and the shocking truth behind Dominique and Danielle. We learn that Danielle never learned "to accept" the death of her twin Danielle, and, furthermore, that she "kept her alive" in her mind so as to deal with the guilt of having been the twin to survive a surgical separation. Sexual experiences with men (like Philip or Emile) represent the catalyst that awakens the Dominique side -- the murderous side -- of Danielle's tortured mind.

Torn Asunder By Split Screens

In 1976, Brian De Palma staged the climactic scenes of Carrie utilizing split screens. There, in a scene set at the high school prom, he crafted a visual cause-and-effect relationship with opposing freeze frames. In one frame, Carrie (Spacek) would gaze at something, a target. In another, simultaneous frame, her psi energy would generate explosions or fire.

In Sisters, De Palma's purpose is different, but no less powerful. First, he deploys the split screen to ease the audience through a transition from one protagonist to another. He thus finds a new way of "doing" Hitchcock; of expressing the essence of the "Janet Leigh Trick."

As Philip lays dying in Danielle's apartment, the frame is split. On one side (and filmed from inside the window), the audience sees Philip desperately seeking help as he dies. On the other side of the frame, in a different screen, viewers see from outside the window that another character is witnessing this bloody demise. It's the reverse angle, essentially. As Phillip -- current surrogate for the audience -- dies bloodily, Grace Collier, new protagonist, is introduced. It's a visual passing of the torch, a way to get from Janet Leigh, essentially, to Vera Miles, without the connecting, seconed-act presence of Martin Balsam. Instead, the switch in protagonists is expressed instantly, within the confines of a fractured composition. The effect: the audience feels "torn" (or splintered, like Danielle). The object of our interest and sympathy passes violently away and we are shocked. Simultaneously, our curiosity is aroused by the new presence in the film.

De Palma also paints a picture of contrasts with his split screens in Sisters. In one sequence, Grace Collier and unhelpful detectives are seen arguing in the downstairs lobby on one half-of-the-screen as the bloody clean-up of Philip's homicide in Apartment 3R is depicted on the other screen. Here "time" is the notion held in common between competing, simultaneous images. One image reveals time squandered as the police delay Grace Collier. The other image (of Danielle and her husband, Emile, hiding the murder..) reveals time used meaningfully. The effect generated here is suspense: we want to scream at the police to move faster, to do something, because we can see the progress of the cover-up. Again, we are asked to integrate or balance competing feelings: a sense of wanting Danielle to be caught against a sense of wishing Danielle not be caught. De Palma's splintered composition permits and actually encourages both impulses.

In it's totality, Sisters involves a severe psychotic split. Danielle's damaged mind has "split" so as to accommodate two distinct, individual (and competitive...) personalities: hers and Dominique's. Her schizophrenic nature is reflected in De Palma's pervasive use of the split screen; and the impact of this split is revealed, in narrative terms by the myriad thematic allusions to Psycho. There too, Norman was two people: himself and his mother; an innocent and a guilty party. One individual seemed to be two in Psycho, but in Sisters the idea of doubling/twinning/splitting is carried to new heights thanks to the technique of the split screen editing. Even our ears, too, in Sisters are tuned to "register" Psycho thanks to Bernard Herrmann's score, but the visual imagination here goes brawnily beyond Hitchcock's considerable triumphs. Psycho tricked us (brilliantly), Sisters "splits" and divides our attention, mirroring the psychosis of Danielle/Dominique. Now, I'm not arguing that Sisters is a better film than Psycho (it isn't...); only that De Palma goes someplace new with the familiar building blocks of Psycho.

Sometimes There Are No Solutions: Order Not Restored in Sisters

Again, it's not where you get things from, it's where you go with them. And in Sisters, De Palma ultimately travels to a destination that Hitchcock might not have imagined.

In Hitchcockian cinema, order is almost universally, dogmatically restored. The static, lengthy, psycho-babble coda of Psycho proves this hypothesis, at least to a large extent. It slowed down the film's pace, it was mostly unnecessary in terms of understanding the narrative, and it ended a pioneering film on a placid, peaceful note, instead of with a jarring shock.

Contrarily, as the lead-in back to normal life outside the movie theater, this coda was just perfect. It was what the doctor might have ordered in 1960: reassuring, easily understandable, and rational to the point of being pedantic. Audiences would not leave the theater feeling debauched after Psycho, because that very important sense of decorum or order had been restored.

By contrast, De Palma apparently has zero qualms about leaving the audience to return to daily life unsettled. Consequently, he leaves his protagonist, Grace "hypnotized" at the end of the film. She even states that there have been no murders (a result of Emile's intervention). Now remember, this is the dogged reporter who has spent the entire film screaming to the heavens, Cassandra-like, that murders are afoot. Yet the film ends with Grace completely muddled.

This development, I believe, reflects two things. The first is De Palma's sense of humor: I think it strikes him as funny to undercut the protagonist we have followed for much of the picture. But more importantly, Grace's sad state at the finale is representative of De Palma's anti-establishment streak. Grace is a single-woman who, in the course of her profession, takes on entrenched male power in the form of the city police force. While reporting Philip's murders on the phone, Grace notes to irritated cops, "I'm sorry you feel that way, Detective, but I have to write it the way I see it. Sometimes the police are wrong." Grace has thus had the audacity to question the status-quo, the order of the establishment, and thus spends the entire film scorned and disbelieved, a deliberate reflection, perhaps of Nixon's "Silent Majority," (circa 1969) viewpoint. The "Silent Majority" was a law-and-order, right-wing demographic that the conservative president saw as loyally backing American institutions, such as the police...often at the expense of the individual liberties. Unmarried, liberated and liberal, Grace is treated rather shabbily by conservative male authority figures in Sisters, a clear reflection of the turbulent times.

What is the viewer to take away from this conclusion? Perhaps that Grace is now as schizophrenic and mentally damaged as another woman treated badly by the same cadre of men: tragic Danielle.

De Palma once stated, of Hitchcock: "He is the one who distilled the essence of film. He`s like Webster. It`s all there. I`ve used a lot of his grammar."

Indeed, and in Sisters, De Palma uses that grammar to write a completely new sentence, one that is "split" into several modes: social commentary, suspense and black comedy. It's not that De Palma actually outdoes Hitchcock (you can't do outdo grammar...); it's that -- again and again -- he's written the next chapters in the great American thriller.


  1. That shot of the knife being thrust RIGHT at the camera still freaks me out to this day. what a great film and an excellent post! Hmm.. methinks it is time to dust off the Criterion edition and watch this film again.

  2. Hey J.D.!

    Thanks for the comment.

    Sisters is fantastic; so bizarre, so creepy and so "of" the 1970s. I still think it's a great De Palma film, and as a first thriller, it's more than astonishing.


  3. Lucky for me, a couple of weeks back I picked up the Criterion Collection of this film on a Amazon sale. You've inspired me to tee this up this weekend with your examination of this De Palma classic. And I'd forgotten that the movie poster had that critic's quote alluding to Hitchcock's 'Psycho'. Great review, JKM.

  4. What a truly great review. I've seen a little portion of De Palma's films ('The untouchables', 'Scarface' etc.). His work is definitely of interest to me, so I will check this film out :)

  5. I'm loving this DePalma retrospective. "Sisters" is a film I didn't expect to like when I first saw it in the early days of home video (I don't miss VHS, but I do miss those old mom 'n' pop rental shops with all those great old horror movies)but what won me over was the humor... and the politics. Like John Carpenter, DePalma came out of the counterculture (both got their starts with hippie-favorite "Midnight Movies")and like J.C. his heart remains there... his politics may have changed in small ways, but not in large ways, as we see in "Redacted". Yes, the subtext of "Sisters" reflects its era... but DePalma continues to explore these same issues.