Brian De Palma unleashes 101 ferocious Hitchcock references for this great horror opus, all bolstered by Bernard Herrmann’s nerve-jangling music score. Plus a very young Margot Kidder and the impressive Jennifer Salt. It’s a fine revisit of an early Criterion disc, with some highly amusing extras — such as a surprising 1970 talk-show excerpt with Margo Kidder, Janis Joplin and Gloria Swanson.
The Criterion Collection 89
1973 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 92 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date , 2018 / 39.95
Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Dolph Sweet
Cinematography Gregory Sandor
Production Designer Gary Weist
Film Editor Paul Hirsch
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Writing credits Brian De Palma and Louisa Rose
Produced by Edward R. Pressman
Directed by Brian DePalma
In 1971, New York Filmmaker Brian De Palma was just beginning to become well-known among the hipper cinema literati … like Martin Scorsese and Paul Bartel, he was already a legend in the East Coast film schools for his groundbreaking guerrilla-cinema movies. The director’s early Murder à la Mod was practically a joke book of crazy, student film experiments. His Hi Mom, The Wedding Party and Greetings had seen real realeases. He’d already introduced Robert De Niro to the world, but was getting nowhere. Greetings had been given a big New York opening, only to close in one week.
Sisters, De Palma’s first film in conjunction with producer Edward R. Pressman, was clearly an effort to gain commercially credibility. It directly followed a disastrous run-in with Warners that had resulted in the chopped-up disaster Get to Know Your Rabbit. Falling back to a sure-fire horror film is a gambit that worked for some directors, depending on the variables. What in De Palma’s previous work made him likely to direct a mainstream commercial movie of any kind? De Palma took no chances, and concocted what at the time was a stylistic first: a horror movie comprised of film-student references to older horror films, but particularly, a full-out homage to Alfred Hitchcock … not just a theme or two, but his whole style, from his cutting patterns to entire film plots.
New York overflows with ambitious young people. Actress Danielle Breton (a very young Margot Kidder) and office worker Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) date after appearing on the trashy TV quiz show called ‘Peeping Toms.’ Danielle’s ex-husband Emil (William Finley) is stalking her, so they have to sneak into her apartment for sex. All goes well until the morning. Danielle has mentioned her jealous and unmanageable sister, Dominique. Today is their birthday, so Philip decides to brighten things with a birthday cake.
A horrible murder follows, all witnessed by reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who can’t get the police detective (Dolph Sweet) to believe her. So she hires a detective (Charles Durning) and sets out to investigate the two sisters on her own. Grace discovers that they were actually Siamese twins scheduled to be surgically separated. The doctor was Emil, the same man who claims to be Danielle’s husband. Grace sneaks into Emil’s country asylum to learn more, a mistake that initiates a hallucination-induced night of horror.
Manic filmmaker Brian De Palma is surely the most popular mainstream director afflicted with Hitchcock-on-the-brain, a now-familiar film student malady that affects many filmmakers who think they’re working on the cinema edge. In 1971, when bonafide film students were just beginning to helm major features, the idea of doing a horror Hitchcock-o-thon was a fresh one. Sisters is one of De Palma’s best films, better than most of his subsequent horror thrillers. The later thrillers Dressed to Kill and Body Double come off as simply derivative, echoing and revisiting Hitchcock tropes. For quite some time it seemed as if De Palma had become some kind of cinema Sisyphus, doomed forever to repeat the same meaningless homages.
The nigh-perfect score is by Bernard Herrmann, who was probably the biggest item in producer Pressman’s budget. Sisters launches with a gripping title sequence consisting of a progression of macro-photographed fetuses set to Herrman’s crashing horns and screaming Moog synthesizers. One could put that music to pictures of baby kittens, and we’d know they were Kittens from Hell. Herrmann’s prestige keeps the Roe-vs-Wade baby monsters from becoming exploitative: the disturbing opening makes the neutral one-word title instantly sinister. We’re prepared for anything.
Out here in Los Angeles, Sisters ‘premiered’ in November 1972’s Los Angeles Film Exposition (FILMEX), and was acquired one month later by American International. I saw parts of it at FILMEX while working as an usher (talk about immediately recognizing music by a specific composer!) and later saw a preview screening in Westwood. Some of the filmmakers were in the lobby afterwards, and I almost walked into a wall when I caught sight of Margot Kidder, who was losing no opportunity for self-promotion.
Variety reviews could usually be relied upon to point out fresh creativity, even in exploitation films. For this show they weren’t as enthusiastic, noting the gory details but minimizing Sisters’ appeal as an ‘okay shocker for the action market.’ The reviewer rather grudgingly noted the filmic references to The Master of Suspense, adding that the ‘Hitchcock-style music’ smooths over the film’s rough edges.
I can’t imagine a 1973 film student not being energized by De Palma’s movie — many of us were in film school because we were inspired by reading about Alfred Hitchcock. As a card-carrying Hitchcock- obsessed film student, I went home and scribbled down a list of Hitchcock allusions, plot points, themes, shots, setups, etc. The only previous movie that I’m aware was consciously constructed of Hitchcock homage material is Riccardo Freda’s L’orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock (The Horrible Dr. Hichcock). It wasn’t until much later that I realized Sisters was also a veritable travelogue of witty references to classic horror films that I hadn’t yet seen: Peeping Tom, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, etc.
Here’s the rundown of what I once rudely called ‘Hitchcock Rip-Offs.’ They’re Big Spoilers, so see the film first if you have an analytical memory:
Rear Window: A murder seen by an ‘amateur’ is doubted by a police professional. Actions are observed and investigated with binoculars between apartment buildings. Durning’s detective Durning waves, ‘ain’t found nothin’ yet’ from afar.
Psycho: The major prop introduction of the butcher knives. The unexpected knife killing of a likeable character in whom we’ve invested our emotions. The murder clean-up shown in detail. A private detective that disappears from the film mid-case. The revelation that ‘Dominique died on the operating table’ (= ‘Who’s that buried up in Greenlawn Cemetary?’). Various subjective/objective walks, especially the walk leading to the mystery asylum. A trucking-zoom into the pupil of an eye. The psychiatrist blurting out essential exposition for uncomprehending audiences. Kidder’s double identity and the entire Norman Bates personality transference theme. ‘Special guest transferences’: one between psycho killer and psychiatrist, and another between killer and investigator.
Spellbound: The Dali-like dream nightmare (granted, in style it is more akin to a Fellini nightmare).
Suspicion: Philip’s walk with the cake mirrors the walk with the poisoned milk.
The Birds: The pastry clerks (including Olympia Dukakis!) argue behind the counter, just like the hardware proprietor in Bodega Bay. The ‘huh’ ending features an innocuous-sinister exterior landscape with telephone poles.
Lots of Hitch films: Grace’s troublesome Mother, arguing with the cops (calling the police always leads nowhere).
Yes, the ‘borrowed’ situations do stack up. But this is not a lifeless copycat movie. De Palma mounts several inspired set piece sequences that are wholly his own, not merely witty or clever. The Life Magazine newsreel story on the twins provides very effective exposition. But Sisters is best remembered for two killer scenes, the asylum nightmare and the split screen murder.
Enthusiastically received and much discussed was De Palma’s split-screen experiment during and after the opening murder sequence. Hitchcock never tried a split-screen sequence. He had tried many gimmicks in his long career — claustrophobic staging, ultra-long takes, subjective flashbacks, 3-D. But by the time the multiscreen movie at the 1966 World’s Fair made big news, Hitchcock was no longer tinkering with such experimentation. At the time we thought De Palma had been inspired by Richard Fleischer’s 1968 The Boston Strangler, but De Palma’s own Murder à la Mod, released first, uses the technique as well; it also featured actor William Finley.
As was also seen in parts of the Fleischer film, De Palma’s split-screen replaces standard parallel cutting: he simultaneously shows both halves of actions that would normally be intercut one with another. The suspense of the murderers cleaning away traces of the crime while investigators dawdle only a few feet away is very effective. Audiences I saw Sisters with applauded the double-vision synchronous hide ‘n seek game near the elevators.
Grace’s witnessing of the actual murder is equally effective, but brings up a glaring inconsistency, a big Hitchcock no-no cheat. Grace is shown calmly walking to her window perhaps thirty seconds after the actual murder takes place. Seeing a bloody hand writing ‘help’ on a window, she recoils in alarm, indicating that she was unaware of any problem before. And what can she (we) see? She can barely tell that the man is black. The rest of her view, which we see on one half of the split screen, is obstructed by the reflection of a brick wall on the glass. Yet Grace tells the cops she witnessed a murder, knows it was a stabbing, even describes the assailant, who never came anywhere near the window to be identified. It’s a very cute confusion – on first viewing the murder is so shocking and the events so riveting that Savant just took Grace at her word. Maybe it’s another Hitchcock reference — to the ‘lying flashback’ in Stage Fright.
Brian De Palma’s second bravura sequence is the B&W nightmare, an almost perfect horror vision visually unlike anything in Hitchcock. Assembled as a master tracking shot through a fantastic horror scene, it’s stylistically more akin to Federico Fellini. It also has a purpose, to impress on Grace’s mind a traumatic false reality, ‘Manchurian Candidate-style.’ The zoom into the eye of the drugged Grace was probably inspired by Repulsion; it also has the ‘diamond bullet to the brain’ effect of 2001. Inside the mind’s eye is a convincingly warped B&W Dali-scape of elements and characters we’ve seen earlier on, plus a menagerie of grotesques.
Our ability to take the scene literally vanishes as we recognize people that ‘don’t belong’: Grace’s mother and the famous journalist (Barnard Hughes) are among the creepy inhabitants of this asylum. The fisheye nightmare is too theatrical to be one of Polanski’s quietly disturbing dreams in Rosemary’s Baby, and is much more ‘felt’ than the remote creepshows in Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf. Of course, the spectacle is greatly enhanced by Bernard Herrmann sledgehammer music scoring. When Charles Durning is suddenly revealed holding a meatcleaver, the irrational reigns supreme. It’s the director’s doing: nothing in De Palma’s later horrors matches this moment.
Even though some of his actors are less natural than others, De Palma manages to make us care deeply for his Danielle and Grace — Margot Kidder is appealing, stumbling along in her French accent. The unsung Jennifer Salt makes a fine impression as the nervy writer that won’t give up despite official disapproval and motherly criticism. The very talented Charles Durning is practically doing a DeNiro performance. Lisle Wilson as Philip is immediately ingratiating, because De Palma introduces him so sweetly. By opting out of the peepshow ‘sting,’ which we the audience are all too eager to witness, Philip earns our respect. He is also tolerant, and smiles indulgently at the racist implications of the ‘African Room’ dinner the ‘Peeping Toms’ people seem to think is an appropriate door prize for a black contestant. De Palma had already made his counterculture shock statement in Hi Mom, with its guerrilla theater ‘Be Black Baby’ turning into an assault on the foolish white theater patrons AND us in the audience.
Yes, the film is a glossary of Hitchcock situations, but operates on its own merits and terms. Brian De Palma has not yet opted for tasteless exploitation of sex and violence — the misogynistic shower scene of Dressed to Kill, and the pointless gore games of The Fury. The director collected quite a few pictures that earned cult followings. My favorite is another Hitchcock pretzel, Paul Schrader’s transposition-pastiche of Vertigo, Obsession. But it’s a polished, big budget Panavsion affair. De Palma’s Sisters is his last picture that seems fully energized by film-student excitement.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Sisters is a new 4K digital restoration. Despite being approved by director Brian De Palma, it’s been written up at a couple of web resources as having strange, unnatural color. Nothing I see bothers me in the least. I don’t remember the print at FILMEX being all that attractive, and the A.I.P. print I saw in preview was what we called a ‘Movielab monstrosity,’ greenish, contrasty and grainy. When I saw it again a couple of months later in general release, the print was scratched and splicy, as if A.I.P. was using prints already beat-up from showings in another market.
So this release’s early-generation transfer, with its powerful Bernard Herrmann music, can do no wrong for this viewer.
Sisters was a very early Criterion DVD release. It had some special extras so shouldn’t be tossed. Disc producer Susan Arosteguy has what looks like an all-new menu of added value items. A French documentary from 2004 gives us great interviews with the director, editor, producer and actors William Finley and Charles Durning; De Palma riles at the notion that he’s copying Hitchcock, and Finley rightly asserts that De Palma is working with plenty of other references and has added his own original material. He also states that no picture since Psycho had taken the idea farther. Sisters may not go really go farther than Psycho, but it works some amazing variations on the theme. More importantly, it’s as scary as Hell.
Editor Brian Hirsch has wonderful observations about the use of split screen and great memories of being berated by Bernard Herrmann and hoping, praying that the great composer wouldn’t drop dead in front of him, from pure rage.
Margo Kidder appears on The Dick Cavett Show looking to garner attention by arriving barefoot, flirting with Cavett and talking about wearing sheer dresses with no underwear. The amazing guests are none other than Janis Joplin and movie star Gloria Swanson. Janis stays mum in this excerpt, but the 72-year old Swanson cleverly outflanks Kidder by talking about her underwear back in the day.
The best extra is a new interview with the bright Jennifer Salt, who talks at length about the group of talented young actors and filmmakers that she associated with in the late 1960s and early ’70s. She also has an interesting perspective on Brian De Palma. I was aware that Salt is the daughter of the screenwriter Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust) but didn’t know that the actress who plays her mother in the film is her real mother, and that they improvised their scenes from their own relationship.
Also present are a Brian De Palma audio discussion from the AFI in 1973. The illustrated booklet features an essay by Carrie Rickey, De Palma interview excerpts, and an article by the director about working with composer Bernard Herrmann.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: New interview with actor Jennifer Salt; Interviews from 2004 with De Palma, actors Bill Finley and Charles Durning, editor Paul Hirsch, and producer Edward R. Pressman; Audio from a 1973 discussion with De Palma at the American Film Institute; Appearance from 1970 by actor Margot Kidder on The Dick Cavett Show; Photo gallery and radio spots; illustrated insert booklet with an essay by critic Carrie Rickey, excerpts from a 1973 interview with De Palma on the making of the film, and a 1973 article by the director on working with composer Bernard Herrmann.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 28, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson