Midnight Screaming: Sisters

A Brian De Palma double-feature this week on Midnight Screenings. 

Brian De Palma has always fashioned himself a Hitchcock connoisseur, a bravura stylistic showman who cruelly and soullessly played with his actors (especially his actresses) without care or concern. Specifically, he updated Hitch by adding a touch of giallo-era crimson paint and a laxer standard of violence that allowed him to show what Hitch had to imply. A fact that sacrifices some of the naughtier, more suggestive implications of Hitch’s best works, and for his part, De Palma’s morbid fascination with death never reached the caustically challenging heights of Hitch at his best. He was always more of a surface-level lurid showman, a sideshow ringleader interested in puritanically wowing his audiences with sights of lusty blood and enough macabre thematic perversion to scare the devil himself.

A lurid, exploitative quality he brings to his first mainstream thriller, 1973’s Sisters, his most overtly Hitchcockian work ever released and a work torn between its playful homage and its inability to ever move beyond playful homage. Opening on Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson), who is tempted by a blind woman (Danielle Breton, played by Margot Kidder) who wanders into the wrong changing room and starts stripping, we are soon made aware that this is in fact a game-show where contestants must guess whether Lisle will inform the blind women, leave, or stay silent and keep watching. At which point, De Palma (who writes and directs) is already informing us of his cheeky attitude toward playing with ’70s pop culture and the gluttonous onset of game show culture around this time.

From there, both participants (Danielle is not actually blind, but a model in on the joke) go on a date to a restaurant (the ridiculously racist “The African Room”, a prize afforded to Philip, who is African-American, and his knowing facial expression upon receiving the gift is the single best moment in the film). Eventually they go home and …well, let’s not spoil things from there, except to say that other characters include Danielle’s ex-husband Emil (William Finley) and investigative reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who will be our main character for the night.

Certainly, Sisters shows the eye and hand of a stylist dragging himself out of the womb, piling on voyeuristic gestures that are a little too on the nose, but they get points for courage. De Palma plays with POV shots and split-screen images (a technique he would refine and enhance to the point of pure cinematic delirium three years later with Carrie), liberally quoting from Hitch’s own Rear Window (although cleverly subverting the gender roles, with the female as the observer and the male as their pawn forced to enter a dangerous apartment). Some of the gestures are a little obvious, with the Rear Window pile-ons specifically growing old, although the film certainly aims for an identity of its own.

A sensational, fluorescent identity that gleefully cavorts past common sense and tackles gender, race, psychoanalysis, and Siamese twins most directly and does nothing of substance with any of them except turning them into feed for a parlor trick of a film. The entire film operates more like a showpiece than a complete product, but that off-the-cuff, rough-and-tumble quality to its unhinged dementia is the film’s fascination, gleefully changing focus mid-way through (Pyscho is a heavy narrative cue as far as bifurcated structure goes). Depending on your mood, it either devolves or evolves (they may not be so different after-all) into a fever-dream of silent-cinema eye-hole black-and-white images that preface the more unholy work of rabble-rousing hypnotic New Hollywood obscurity De Palma would envision just one year later with Phantom of the Paradise. Add to this a heaping helping of Bernard Herrmann’s score, which quotes, exaggerates, screws with, destroys, burns, mocks, and takes to court all of the famed scores he wrote for Hitchcock back in the day, before it out-and-out erupts in giggle fits of Atomic Age saucer-sighting warbles. All this in tow, not to mention the kitchen sink, and you’ve got a film that is positively out of its mind, making Sisters a screw-loose Hitchcock mash-up without any real rhyme or reason, but it has a lot of fun avoiding rhyme and reason entirely.

There are, at least, a few intriguing gender subversions, with the normally abusive-to-women De Palma recasting his film over time as a critique of classically chauvinist men who refuse to empower or accept women as legitimate social actors or social victims. On at least one front, De Palma openly reprimands the male police force who refuse to believe Salt’s reporter due to a latent combination of quiet racism and slightly-less-quiet misogyny. A greater trick might be the way he initially implicates Kidder’s model character, inviting men to doubt her and to indulge in viewing her as a delusional woman in a long-strain of such characters in horror fiction. That is, before De Palma turns the tables by placing that doubt as the product of mankind’s unique ability to abuse women, coercing women to become delusional themselves, Kidder’s character eventually becomes a sympathetic figure destroyed by male power, while Salt’s character becomes an active, empowered woman afforded the respect that the world around her won’t.

It isn’t transformative, nor is it as daring as the works De Palma would set about to immediately after his first entry into the big-time leagues of thriller-dom. Films don’t have to be transformative however. They merely have to be good at what they are, and if Sisters doesn’t hold a candle to Hitch’s great works, it’s still a thoroughly involving carbon copy. Certainly, it is the exact film that Brian De Palma probably wanted to make, and seeing an aspiring auteur lash out at cinema with the full force of his own untempered acid-trips is never less than a worthwhile cinematic experience, even if it isn’t cohesive in the end. For all it does well, there’s a desperate sense that Sisters only works in reference to other films, rather than as a contained unit all its own; it is sometimes so smothered by its homages that it never fully breaks out from underneath their weight, and that is a disappointment, if only a small one.

Score: 7/10

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