d. Brian De Palma (1973)
The Criterion Collection
Happy Halloween, everyone! In my neck of the woods, it feels just like Halloween is supposed to. There’s a chill to the air, but a sweater is enough. The leaves on the ground are still charming. Everything is orange and brown, and just a bit creepy when the shadows grow long. It’s also the only time of year when my wife will indulge in a little horror. Notice the qualifier: little. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken is usually her suggestion, but sometimes I can get her to do something with a bit more bite. Did she watch Brian De Palma’s Sisters with me? No.
Brian De Palma’s work famously pays homage — or rips off, depending on your perspective — the work of his cinematic hero, Alfred Hitchcock, with a particular emphasis on Hitchcock’s Psycho. I don’t mind it at all because I think De Palma usually provides his own spin on it. Indeed, I think he assumes we are familiar with Hitchcock’s work so he can toy with us while he’s reworking Hitchcock’s magic. Sisters is where De Palma truly embraces his inspiration, creating a movie that clearly calls to mind Psycho, with clear nods to Rope and Rear Window, all underlined with a score by Bernard Herrmann, who scored so many of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, including Psycho. It’s here De Palma found a groove he’d stay in for multiple films: the psychological thriller. While I think De Palma goes on to make better and worse films in the genre, Sisters is a great treat if you’re looking for something fun and interesting for tonight.
The film stars Margot Kidder as a French Canadian model named Danielle.
We first meet Danielle when she performs in a very strange game show called Peeping Tom (De Palma does not limit his cinematic homages to Hitchcock, here calling to mind Michael Powell’s 1960 film). An early candid camera show, Peeping Tom puts an unsuspecting person, here a man named Philip (Lisle Wilson), in a situation where he has an opportunity to be a voyeur. The gameshow contestants then try to predict if Philip will be a gentleman or a Peeping Tom. Philip, who has the opportunity to spy Danielle, comes off as a gentleman. For his sportsmanship, he is gifted dinner for two. Danielle, for putting herself in the situation, gets a nice set of cutlery.
Both prizes are ominous. Neither is good for either winner.
Danielle has obviously been through . . . something. At Philip’s dinner for two, which he uses with Danielle, a man (Bill Finley) comes up who claims to be Danielle’s husband. Danielle admits they were married, but suggests they are no longer together. She’s very anxious to get away from the past, and Philip offers a momentary escape. Philip gladly takes on the role of momentary savior. He even gladly purchases a birthday cake for Danielle after learning it is her birthday and the birthday of her twin sister Dominique.
One of the things about such a clear homage to Hitchcock is that we know where this is going. Philip isn’t long for the world. The thriller begins.
From a window across the way, an activist journalist named Grace Collier (played by Jennifer Salt) thinks she sees Dominique commit a murder. She doesn’t hesitate a moment, calling the police she doesn’t trust, she marches over to her neighbors to enact some kind of justice. What she finds, instead, is a mystery that will engulf her.
At this point in the story, De Palma embraces duality, using split screen to tell synchronous events from different places.
Or to show us the same scene from different perspectives:
It’s a nice technique that explores some of the movie’s themes while also advancing the story’s thrills. De Palma doesn’t over-indulge. Soon we move away from Danielle and follow her from the outside, from Grace’s own investigation, which is its own voyeuristic exercise.
Again, if we’re familiar with the films De Palma references, we may see some of the ways the film will resolve. However, De Palma goes further and creates some genuine horror as Grace’s journey takes her deeper into the tragedies that Danielle and Dominique have experienced. In this way, Sisters approaches the themes of Persona and Mulholland Dr., where female identities start to blend and blur, in this case under the terrifying supervision of Bill Finley’s strange doctor.
The Criterion Collection recently released a new edition of the film, sourced from a 4K restoration, on home video. It’s a great way to watch the film, first off, but the supplemental features also offer a good amount of context that I found helpful in appreciating the film more than I did before. For example, I had not seen all of the ways De Palma was exploring the masculine forces that are threatened by and that defy strong women, but, of course, I now see that Grace, Danielle, and Dominique are all women who have pushed the boundary and found that it pushes back. I still think De Palma was on his way to making better films, and Sisters offers a great look at De Palma’s development as an auteur in his own right, but Sisters also stands on its own as a creepy thriller.