Oct 15, 2017

OCTOBER 2017 HORROR – SISTERS (1973) Directed by Brian De Palma

SISTERS is very De Palma in that his fascination with the work of Alfred Hitchcock shines through clearly.  This is aided especially by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s musical score which I had never heard before, but have become an instant fan of.  As usual with De Palma’s work (RAISING CAIN or DRESSED TO KILL for example) it delves into psychological horror – an element I can’t get too deep into without spoiling the picture – but it’s so effective here and well set up that even the over-the-top approach that is taken works perfectly.

Creepiest concept for a game show ever created.

The picture begins with a very uncomfortable 1970s game show called Peeping Toms - which will come into play tonally later on.  De Palma's REAR WINDOW fetish can be found in all of his work...BLOW OUT, BODY DOUBLE, etc. as a central theme is that of voyeurism that ultimately leads to bad things for all involved.  In this instance, contestants watch as a man (Lisle Wilson) is present while a “blind” woman (Margot Kidder) begins to undress in front of him unaware of his presence.  We discover that she is an actress and he is just a bystander as the contestants on the show are asked to guess what he will do next.  Will he just let her undress, or reveal his presence?  They pick wrong and Kidder and Wilson win prizes – she a set of steak knives (which will come in handy later) and he a free pass for two to the unfortunately named African Club.  Given that he is an African American male, he shakes his head bemusedly at the ironic racism that is happening to him.  One must wonder if the prize was geared to him or was it a coincidence?  Race does play a part in this picture and it has an uncomfortable presence given that the poor guy never had a chance – even though there are so many warning signs for him to run, he does what every male does and sticks around when sex is very clearly going to happen.

Lisle Wilson and Margot Kidder.

[SPOILER ALERT] – not a major one, but enough that may annoy so consider yourself warned.

Kidder plays a French-Canadian model (she is Canadian in reality) who we discover has a sister that is never seen on-screen.  That sister - which is spelled out on the one-sheet \as well as the trailer promoting the picture - was a conjoined or Siamese Twin that she was separated from.  Kidder is also harassed by her obsessively stalker (and insanely creepy) ex-husband (William Finley) who interrupts her date with Wilson at the African Club, then hangs out outside of their apartment while they have sex.  Kidder is seen taking pills, and reveals that she and her sister are celebrating their birthday.  Out of pills, Wilson heads out to replenish her supply and picks up a birthday cake for the sisters as well.  Arriving back at the house he is stabbed repeatedly by the prize steak knives, an act that is observed by Grace (Jennifer Salt) a reporter for the Staten Island Panorama who lives next door and acting as the REAR WINDOW Jimmy Stewart character (just way more annoying).  It seems Grace isn’t well liked by the police, and when she calls them they are hostile towards her.  She drags them to the murder scene only to find it completely cleaned up.  Grace is a reporter and convinced something is up, forces her way into the story determined to undermine the police (who she constantly refers to as idiots) and solve the murder herself.  It seems that everyone is a Peeping Tom of some form in this picture.

Jennifer Salt as Grace being a Peeping Tom herself.

Grace is truly an annoying human being.  She is intrusive, belligerent and it is no surprise that the police dislike her.  For the audience, she’s not the most likable protagonist and is in fact she is so grating that you kind of hope she fails (although you still feel sorry for poor Lisle).  The police make racist statements like “these people are known to stab each other” and Grace jumps on that assuming the police don’t care that another African American man has just been murdered.  That may or may not be the case, you get the sense that their annoyance is directed completely at her, and without a body, tough for them to investigate anything.

Jennifer Salt with Charles Durning, who is reduced to a paid Peeping Tom.

One of the things that is unique about this picture is that the first half hour focuses entirely on Kidder and Lisle, only to completely switch over to Grace once the murder occurs.  Grace writes for a small Staten Island newspaper, but seems to be accorded respect as if she were writing a column for the New York times.  Charles Durning appears as a private detective, and the only person to believe that a murder has in fact taken place.  Durning is reduced to a paid Peeping Tom as he follows what he believes to be the place where the body is hidden, waiting for someone to come and pick it.  The final image of the movie solidifies this, summing up the entire theme and tone of everybody watching somebody.  As their investigation heats up, that’s when De Palma goes into full De Palma mode and delves into the psychological taking us from sexual thriller to horror.

Margot Kidder looking somehow virginal after having sex.

One of the scariest things ever to be portrayed on screen – in any movie – is that of a mental institution.  In the movies, you can be institutionalized just because the doctor says you’re nuts.  After that happens, anything the victim says sounds crazy – even if they are completely sane.  Grace’s investigation leads her to just such a place and that is when things go off the deep end.  Zooming into her eye, De Palma takes us on a wild psychological journey with imagery that will haunt you long after the picture is over.  De Palma doesn’t hold back at all here, and this is where the tone transforms fully from Thriller to Horror as Grace is taken on a journey through Kidder’s mind, experiencing her past first-hand.  It's here you notice the subtle hunchback on Finley's back.  De Palma transforms us into Peeping Toms as we look into the mind of Margot Kidder, and the nightmare he is creating for Grace.

Never go to a mental institution in a movie.  It never goes well for anyone.

This being a De Palma picture, things do not end well for anyone.  It’s a film like this where De Palma’s techniques really shine.  His use of split screen (shortly after the murder) is extremely effective here and gets across more information and creates tension that makes it appear that everything is happening in real time.  Made early in his career, the smaller scale works in his favor, unlike later like with DRESSED TO KILL or BLOW OUT (which I know have their supporters) which feel bloated and over-produced (although I am starting to finally warm up to BLOW OUT).  A perfect double feature would be this and De Palma’s 1984 thriller BODY DOUBLE which also features peeping-tom activities and a witnessed murder. 

SISTERS is available as a Criterion Collection DVD, as a digital download through iTunes and from Arrow as a region B Blu-ray disc.


A movie that I find not enough people have seen is WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968).  It’s a World War II action-thriller starring Richard Burt...