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.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Shock of the New?

So...I received a pleasant reader e-mail this morning from a fellow who had read my bio at "Meet the Horror Bloggers" and insisted that in terms of my movie reviews, I tend to like old movies and dislike anything and everything new. His point was that nostalgia was the quality that seemed to most impact my perception of a movie. He then asked me my opinion on this.

Not to be defensive or anything, but I politely disagreed with the reader's assertation. Still, the question has nagged at me, and it got me thinking over the last few hours. Could the reader be right? Do I hate everything new?

Well, a little research, a little counting and -- Voila! -- I've arrived at an interesting tally. For these purposes, I'm defining everything circa the years 2000 - 2009 as "New." I also counted movies that I was sort of on the fence about (such as Midnight Meat Train or Spider-Man 3) as "negative reviews," just to be sure I didn't game the system to arrive at the answer I sought.

Here are the results, based on my blog reviews: It's just about even money. So, you may agree with my conclusions, or you may disagree with them, but it's not accurate to state that, overall, I dislike "new" movies.


Positive Reviews (2000 - 2009)

1. Drag Me To Hell (2009)
2. Star Trek (2009)
3. Knowing (2009)
4. Religulous (2009)
5. The Ruins (2008)
6. The Strangers (2008)
7. Quantum of Solace (2008)
8. Splinter (2008)
9. Cloverfield (2008)
10. Speed Racer (2008)
11. Wall-E (2008)
12. Iron Man (2008)
13. Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (2008)
14. Let the Right One In (2008)
15. Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)
16. X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)
17. The Orphanage (2007)
18. 28 Weeks Later (2007)
19. 300 (2007)
20. Sunshine (2007)
21. Rogue (2007)
22. Vacancy (2007)
23. Primeval (2007)
24. [REC] (2007)
25. Superman Returns (2006)
26. Casino Royale (2006)
27. The Host (2007)
28. Snakes on a Plane (2006)
29. Hostel (2005)
30. King Kong (2005)
31. Dark Water (2005)
32. Silent Hill (2006)
33. Slither (2006)
34. The Descent (2006)
35. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
36. The Aristocrats (2005)
37. United 93 (2006)
38. Serenity (2005)
39. District B13 (2004)
40. Last Exit (2003)
41. Femme Fatale (2002)
42. Kill Bill, Volume 1 (2002)
43. John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars (2001)
44. Mission to Mars (2000)

Negative Reviews:

1. A Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
2. My Bloody Valentine 3-D (2009)
3. Friday the 13th (2009)
4. Fanboys (2008)
5. Midnight Meat Train (2008)
6. Twilight (2008)
7. Righteous Kill (2008)
8. Mirrors (2008)
9. Death Race (2008)
10. Wanted (2008)
11. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
12. Diary of the Dead (2008)
13. 10,000 BC (2008)
14. Mirrors (2008)
15. The Eye (2008)
16. One Missed Call (2008)
17. Skinwalkers (2007)
18. Hatchet (2007)
19. P2 (2007)
20. AVP - Requiem (2007)
21. Hostel Part II (2007)
22. Transformers (2007)
23. 30 Days of Night (2007)
24. The Hitcher (2007)
25. Halloween (2007)
26. The Messengers (2007)
27. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
28. The Omen 666 (2006)
29. The Wicker Man (2006)
30. An American Haunting (2006)
31. Texas Chainsaw: The Beginning (2006)
32. Doom (2006)
33. Stay Alive (2006)
34. The Da Vinci Code (2006)
35. X3 (2006)
36 Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)
37. When a Stranger Calls (2006)
38. The Cave (2006)
39. Feast (2005)
40. The Fog (2005)
41. Blade: Trinity (2004

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Meet the Horror Bloggers meets...Me!

One of the best professional experiences I've had in the last year or so is my membership in The League of Tana Tea Drinkers, a cadre of highly-dedicated, highly-talented horror bloggers. I've discovered many amazing blogs through this association, and encountered some great writing, and some remarkable thinking about the genre too.

Iloz Zoc, the founder of the League, and an outstanding blogger himself, has been running a series called "Meet the Horror Bloggers" for the last few weeks, posting biographies of some of these intrepid bloggers. I've read them all with avid interest since, as a critic, I believe context is vitally important to understanding literature, film, television...everything, really. Reading this blog series, you get that invaluable context behind many blogger perspectives, and it's made for fascinating reading.

Anyway, today Iloz Zoc posted the last entry of the series, I believe, and it happens to be my bio. Here's a snippet:

It was a Saturday in 1975, and close to Halloween. As dusk approached, my parents sat me down in front of the TV and, in particular, an episode of a new series called Space: 1999. The episode airing that night was titled “Dragon’s Domain” and it concerned a malevolent, tentacled Cyclops entrapping and devouring hapless astronauts in a Sargasso Sea of derelict spaceships. In an image I’ve never forgotten, this howling, spitting monster regurgitated the astronauts’ steaming, desiccated bones onto the spaceship deck. The episode was one part 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and one part precursor to Alien (1979). But the direction of this five year old boy’s life was set in stone during those 50 minutes.

By the time I was in sixth grade, a viewing of Tobe Hooper’s intense The Funhouse (1981) at a girlfriend’s Friday night movie rental party – a big thing in those days -- deepened my obsession with the horror genre. The film terrified me on a level I had never before experienced (or even imagined, frankly…), but I survived it. And afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about the nerve-tingling experience of being really frightened by a film, or about the specific details of Hooper’s grisly narrative. I wanted to know more, to understand more, and most importantly, to talk endlessly about the experience and what it had meant to me. Many of my friends thought I was nuts."

You can read the rest of the piece
here, and I hope it provides some context for regular readers of this blog too. I want to thank Iloz Zoc for including me in the series, and for running the series in the first place. It's been indispensable.