THE REVELATIONS OF RAISING CAIN RECUT
When Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain bowed in American theaters during the summer of 1992, it was anticipated by fans of the director as a welcome return to the sort of formalist genre contraption he hadn’t indulged in since the creative blow-out (forgive me) of Body Double eight years earlier. However, when the lights came up, even within the ranks of the De Palma faithful there was polarization. A handful defended it as one of the director’s masterpieces, while a greater number seemed to consider it at best middle-tier De Palma, a fully committed attempt to deal with typical De Palma-esque narrative elasticity and thematic concerns such as time, chronology and dream logic, all in the context of an examination of the morphing perimeters of American masculinity and parental responsibility which somehow, in the end, seemed as out of balance as its psychically fractured protagonist. Meanwhile, the general public largely shrugged and Raising Cain was left behind as a flawed but fascinating artifact, another redheaded stepchild within a directorial career in which the misfits seemed to be beginning to outnumber the prodigies.
Slow, insinuating lap-dissolve to 2012. Enter Peet Gelderblom, a film and television director based in the Netherlands who has, since his earliest experiences with the De Palma <oeuvre,> remained unrepentant in his admiration for the filmmaker. Here I’ll disclose that Gelderblom, who founded and administered the well-respected (and now shuttered) film site 24 Lies a Second, was the very first person I “met” online, after he wrote to express support for my writing and my fledgling movie blog. Gelderblom offered me a chance to write something for 24 Lies a Second, an experience which deepened my confidence and our friendship, and we spent a lot of time in those early days of the blogosphere enthusing and debating our love for Brian De Palma’s films. (We once had a memorable exchange over the merits of Body Double, Gelderblom for the defense and me serving as the prosecution.) Some 20 years after the release of Raising Cain, Gelderblom, who had always thought the film vastly underrated, found his interest in it piqued once again.
De Palma had mentioned in the press on several occasions over the years his disappointment not only with the audience’s tepid reception of Raising Cain, but also over his experience with the film itself, more precisely his own decision to juggle the original chronology of the story, a bet-hedging move based not in his instincts but entirely on the preview audience testing scores. In the theatrical version of Raising Cain De Palma shows his cards almost immediately, beginning the film with a kidnapping sequence that reveals the twisted nature of his lead character, child psychologist Carter Nix (John Lithgow), right out of the gate, consequently assigning the film’s chronicle of Carter’s wife’s Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) and her extramarital romantic entanglement to subplot status. But an original draft of De Palma’s screenplay demonstrated to Gelderblom that the director had originally intended, before being infected by the influence of those audience test screenings, to begin Cain with Jenny’s story, creating an illusory gossamer of trust and stability on which to project Jenny’s ongoing deception, a scrim which would mask the frightening familial schism yet to be exposed by the revelation of Carter’s dual nature.
So, following his own inquisitive directorial impulses as well as his curiosity as a true believer in De Palma and Cain, Gelderblom uploaded the theatrical cut of the movie from a DVD and, using the digital tools at his disposal, began to rearrange the pieces of De Palma’s elaborately designed but structurally compromised puzzle according to the master’s original plan. The result was made available online for casual cinephiles as well as fellow true believers who would, thanks to Gelderblom’s efforts, now have a chance to see and judge Raising Cain not by the weak tea of the theatrical cut, but instead by a version which would, as intended by its writer-director, seduce the viewer with a sly deconstruction of romantic desire, hint at underlying marital/familial tension, and then lower the boom. The film’s subliminal preparation preserves the impact of the somewhat unexpected explosion of Carter’s violent behavior (if you pay any attention to the film’s advertising, you’ll know going in that Carter’s placid and caring fatherly exterior is not the whole story), but also makes that explosion less inexplicable, more connected to what is going on with the Jenny story—it’s the piece of the puzzle which has finally found its place.
Even De Palma himself noticed, proclaiming that Gelderblom’s cut was “what we didn’t accomplish on the initial release on the film. It’s what I originally wanted the film to be.” That’s a pretty heady reception for what is essentially a fan edit, albeit one much more seriously intended than what one usually associates with such a label. So much so that De Palma insisted Gelderblom’s labor of love and passion, now dubbed Raising Cain Recut, be included on Shout!/Scream Factory’s splashy deluxe Blu-ray release of Raising Cain, which was released last week.
Were the theatrical cut the only element on the Blu-ray, it would still be something for only De Palma’s most ardent fans to get excited over. But with the inclusion of Gelderblom’s recut, the Blu-ray has been elevated to the level of an event that anyone interested in cinema ought to find compelling and fascinating enough to want in on, a rare opportunity to see an alternate cut that speaks to the filmmaker’s actual vision, a cut which isn’t simply an opportunistic marketing tool comprised mostly of gore shots extended by a second or two or filler scenes whose cutting-room-floor destiny is revealed to have been entirely appropriate. (Gelderblom necessarily had no access to deleted scenes and could only work with material in the existing cut.) By reordering Raising Cain in such a way, Gelderblom has not only provided evidence for the elevating of the film within the De Palma filmography, but has also shown how De Palma’s original vision more organically connects the film with other works from the director’s past and, speaking from the perspective of 1992, his future.
The placement of Jenny’s romance-novel story front and center, with its long buildup and apparent lack of concern for anything remotely sinister, immediately recalls the surety with which De Palma teased out the first 45 minutes of his masterpiece Dressed to Kill. (Would that Cain had a moment in store nearly as shocking as the fate of poor Angie Dickinson.) Cain refers back to Dressed to Kill thematically, echoing familiar De Palma concerns and, maybe even more importantly, how we as an audience perceive and process those concerns. In any given moment, Cain, like many a De Palma failure and masterpiece before it, seems to challenge its audience on simultaneously levels of operatic excess, parody, social commentary and self-conscious stylistic analysis.
But it also refers back specifically to Dressed to Kill in more apparently superficial ways, which may stand out a touch more now that the two films seem more structurally akin. Midway through Cain we’re introduced to Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Waldheim, a psychologist with ties to Cain’s sinister father whose function is largely as the director’s delivery system for his usual boatload of unwieldy exposition. But De Palma signals a wit designed to distract from the character’s obvious purpose. Waldheim is revealed to be a slightly cranky cancer patient in a long, unnatural looking wig which she tugs at and complains about almost immediately: “It makes me look like a transvestite.” (Calling Michael Caine!)
And she delivers that exposition during a beautifully sustained traveling shot during which she constantly has to be prompted by police detectives to stay on the prescribed path, lest she proceed along in one direction while the camera continues to travel another. It’s one of De Palma’s best visual jokes, and it’s enlivened by the new cut’s priming us to connect back to Dressed to Kill, a film whose own parody of Psycho’s conclusion— Nancy Allen’s meticulously detailed woman-splaining of the intricacies of replacing a penis with a vagina during a transgender medical procedure while a horrified woman eavesdrops from the next table– was also pretty hilarious.
The entirety of Cain’s nature as having been constructed as a puzzle of slippery perceptions, self-projected identity crises, shifting directorial perspectives and the lies or half-truths those perspectives conceal or reveal, directly connects it to the gleefully contrived, deliberately deceptive raison d’etre of Femme Fatale (2002), perhaps the last De Palma to receive anything resembling critical acclaim. Cain’s constant doubling back on itself, especially as recontextualized by Gelderblom’s cut, is a modus operandi most definitely in harmony with Femme Fatale’s sophisticated visual gamesmanship. (Detractors might also suggest that Cain and Fatale also share a lack of the sort of emotional power which characterizes De Palma’s deepest work.) Even the conclusions of the two films seem similarly composed, twin geographical mappings of the manipulation of vehicles and bodies through man-made and natural obstacles (the blinding sun on city streets in Fatale, thunder and pouring rain in a motel parking lot in Cain) that end on supernaturally distended encounters with heavily foreshadowed and very sharp objects of impalement. And in his own appreciation of Gelderblom’s repositioning of Cain, critic Sean Axmaker describes the conclusion of Cain’s climactic sequence as coming close to an absurdly amplified castration joke, and as such it certainly works as further foreshadowing of the movie’s final gender-flipping zinger.
Of my own objections to Raising Cain, the only serious one that Peet Gelderblom’s otherwise astounding Recut cannot fully address is my occasional aversion to the overt theatricality of John Lithgow’s performance, as Carter Nix, but also as his brother Cain (the part of Carter that does all the dirty work) and especially dear old dad, Dr. Nix—Lithgow in old age makeup that, especially on Blu-ray, reveals just how good Dick Smith’s job on Max Von Sydow in The Exorcist really was. Lithgow is an actor who often seems constitutionally incapable of dialing anything down, and I’m sure he gave De Palma precisely the level of baroque that was asked for, perhaps even a bit more. However, much like Jack Nicholson’s embodiment of Jack Torrance, Lithgow already seems crazy at the outset, when we’re supposed to be relaxing into the honeyed voice and manner of reason and “normalcy” he supplies for Carter in caring-daddy mode. He signals the revelation of Carter’s awful secret just as much as De Palma’s flawed ordering of scenes in the theatrical cut did.
However much we may want to back away from Lithgow in the early running, De Palma’s deep focus and fish-eye lenses shove us ever closer as Carter morphs into Cain, who is admittedly at least more fun to watch. And subtracting that makeup job, Lithgow has the look to make Dr. Nix a terrorizing and intimidating presence. But his thickly applied Norwegian accent as the sinister paterfamilias, several degrees too ripe, put me in mind of Lithgow’s insanely over-the-top Dr. Emilio Lizardo from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. I know Lizardo was supposed to be funny, but I was never sure about Dr. Nix or, if he was, what the joke was.
Lithgow as the Nix boys doesn’t fully undermine De Palma’s vision though—at times you can almost feel De Palma getting off on how far his actor is willing to go, perhaps even being inspired by him, and Lithgow is certainly a vivid contrast to the lovely but slightly bland Lolita Davidovich, who has almost as much screen time as her leading man does. Lithgow’s Carter makes you uncomfortable for the wrong reasons, and even if the actor’s performance reflects Cain’s overly emphatic efforts to maintain the illusion of fatherly concern and normalcy does start to make makes sense within the fulfilled schematics of Raising Cain Recut, I couldn’t help but speculate on what a slightly less eager Carter might have been like– say, if he had somehow been cross-pollinated with the more quiet purposefulness of Lithgow’s shadowy assassin in Blow Out to stand as a more stark contrast with the mental circus eventually overseen by Cain and company.
Perhaps it’s easy to overstate the unique import of what Gelderblom adds to the legacy of Raising Cain, but I think the most telling observation might be how swiftly the recut version seems to have eclipsed the original in my mind. In preparing to write about the Blu-ray, I had originally intended to watch the two versions of De Palma’s 1992 film back to back. But after finding Raising Cain Recut to be so much more satisfying and well-sustained, I realized that my interest in that compromised theatrical cut was fast dwindling and that further visits to the world of Carter Nix and his demented approach to child psychology would have to come courtesy of this richer, more dramatically complex version.
I don’t suspect that Gelderblom’s efforts will convert anyone who has a serious aversion to Cain’s gleeful mixture of narrative absurdity, flaunting of dramatic convention, fascination for the blurring of the line between conscious and dream states, and unflappable indulgence of its creator’s conspicuous directorial perspective. (Gelderblom, in his video essay on the recut, also included in this wonderful Blu-ray package, correctly describes De Palma as “the polar opposite of an invisible narrator.”) But for those compelled by De Palma’s methods and curious about the relative ease with which a filmmaker’s intentions can be undone or watered down the inclusion of Peet Gelderblom’s Raising Cain Recut will elevate this new Blu-ray package to a standing among the best and most important releases of the year and will certainly provide ample grist for further fascination, focused both on De Palma as a singular cinematic visionary and the passion among his audience that vision can inspire.
And if it proves nothing else, the recut throws into relief just how ahead of its time Raising Cain, even in its jumbled form, really was, seen 20 years on, in the wake of time-shifting classics like Memento and Pulp Fiction. How fortunate then that this controversial director’s vision can now be reintroduced to a new generation and perhaps more thoroughly appreciated on its own terms, all thanks to Peet Gelderblom, who has taken De Palma’s misfit child and, like a good father, ushered it to full maturity, split personality and all.