Monday, January 20, 2014

SISTERS (1973)

Brian De Palma, 1973
Starring: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley

After appearing on a reality TV show together, French-Canadian model Danielle and a contestant on the show, Philip, go out to dinner together. They are briefly accosted by Danielle’s ex-husband Emil, but successfully spend the night together in her apartment. The next morning Philip hears Danielle fight with someone, which turns out to be Dominique, her disturbed twin. It is their birthday, so Philip goes out to get them a cake, but is brutally stabbed to death by Dominique when he returns. A neighbor from across the street, a reporter named Grace, witnesses the murder and contacts the police. Emil shows up to help Danielle hide the body in the pull-out couch and clean up. The police don’t find anything, though Grace is insistent and privately figures out that Danielle has a twin. 

Though the detectives tell Grace to forget about everything, she decides to investigate the murder on her own. She hires a private investigator, who sneaks into the apartment and comes to believe the body is hidden in the sofa. Unfortunately it is taken out in a moving van. Grace also learns from another reporter that the twins were once conjoined, but that Dominique may have died after their separation. Larch, the private detective, continues to track the sofa, while Grace breaks into the mental hospital that may have more information about Danielle and Dominique. 

Sisters has received both praise and criticism because of its clear adoration of Hitchcock. De Palma obviously borrows from Rear Window and Psycho, but I think that rather than being derivative, De Palma does a number of interesting things here that foreshadow some of his more complex future films, particularly his ‘80s thrillers like Body Double and Dressed to Kill. De Palma also used Hitchcock’s long time collaborator Bernard Herrmann to write a moving score for Sisters.

This was his first feature length horror film and he previously made a number of comedies. Sisters would mark a major change in his career and for the rest of the ‘70s he primarily made thrillers or horror films. As with the later Carrie, De Palma cleverly used a split screen technique in order to show different events happening at the same time and also to create a visual links to Danielle’s fractured psyche. In addition, there are a number of clever techniques that draw attention to another of the film’s other main themes, voyeurism, which is first introduced in the opening sequence on the set of a Candid Camera-style show called Peeping Tom. This is, of course, a reference to Michael Powell’s powerful film of the same name about a serial murderer. 

With moments of brutality violence and occasional nudity, Sisters was clearly a somewhat low budget affair and lacks the meticulous design and robust set pieces of De Palma’s later films. The plot certainly has some hiccups, such as the issue of Grace exaggerating the phone call - all she saw was a bloody hand on the window, not the rest of the murder that she describes to the police. I can’t help but feel that this is intentional, though De Palma never bothers to explain it to us. The central theme of a woman succumbing to madness isn't nearly as richly as explored as it is in some '70s films I've reviewed recently, such as Images, 3 Women, or Let's Scare Jessica to Death, but it is a great introduction to De Palma's thrillers. 

Margot Kidder (Black Christmas) is the film’s roughest point as Danielle/Dominique. Her French-Canadian accent makes her sound drunk for much of the film. She is compelling as the confused, innocent Danielle, but does not have enough presence to really carry both of the twins the way Jeremy Irons did in Dead Ringers, for example. Fortunately she is not really the film’s sole protagonist, which is divided between Kidder and Collier. There is also a excellent appearance from William Finley (the star of De Palma’s later Phantom of the Paradise), who puts in a small, but memorable role as Danielle’s creepy ex-husband, Emil.

Grace Collier (Gargoyles) gives a good performance as determined reporter and amateur crime fighter Jennifer Salt. She is so ridiculously earnest that her role helps increase the film’s elements of comedy, such as a great scene where she first discovers evidence that Danielle might have a twin - the birthday cake with both their names on it - but she drops it on the detective’s leg. Jennifer also has a strange, unexplained dream where she learns about Danielle and Dominique. Multiple personalities and doubles figure strongly throughout De Palma’s work and Jennifer’s odd psychic link to Danielle seems to be an early example of this.

A combination of psycho-sexual horror akin to a giallo film, a Hitchcockian thriller, and dark comedy, Sisters comes recommended. There is plenty of perversity and weirdness, which makes the film well worth watching, even though I don’t think it is as developed as De Palma’s later thrillers. It was released on DVD by Criterion, though this edition surprisingly lacks the robust special features normally included in their releases. Hopefully they will revamp this sometime soon for a Blu-ray release. 

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