Warning: this review gives away major plot twists and contains narrative spoilers.
Voyeurism has been a central concern in most of the best work of Brian De Palma, and figures as a theme even in early independent efforts as diverse as the little seen arthouse murder mystery pastiche “Murder a la Mod”, released in 1968, and “Hi, Mom!”, his leftist black comedy from 1970, which featured the young Robert De Niro in one of the actor’s earliest screen roles. De Palma’s thrillers have consistently dealt fearlessly (some might say foolhardily) with scenarios that hinge on playing out to their logical extremes the social and cultural ramifications that attach themselves to the objectifying politics of the male gaze, particularly with regard to its perceptions of female sexuality – a fact that was to cause him no end of troubles in the early-eighties when lush, mainstream but semi-ironic thrillers like “Dressed to Kill” controversially addressed sexuality and transgender identity issues within the context of glossy bravura thriller set-pieces entirely founded on enacting the cinema of pure spectacle.
De Palma’s films achieve their spectacular and often bloody effects through the inventive use of Steadicam, extreme slow-motion and split screen, to create dazzling visual opulence, with the latter technique in particular having been a favoured method of attack with the director ever since -- having been influenced at college by Any Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s three hour underground art piece “Chelsea Girls” -- he first used it extensively throughout his avant-garde documentary on the New York experimental theatre troupe The Performance Group, “Dionysus in '69”, released in 1969.
When considering many of the director’s most popular films, such as “Carrie”, “Dressed to Kill” and “Blow Out”, one might well be perfectly justified in interpreting De Palma’s heavy use of split-screen and deep focus lenses as mainly decorative effects, in which the viewer’s voyeurism is deliberately courted and indulged for the benefit of the construction of highly elaborate suspense scenes, filmed from a multitude of angles and presented simultaneously, so that they often mirror in their effect the motifs of doubling and transference of guilt which always seem to come bundled up with the voyeurism theme in most of De Palma’s thrillers, cementing an enduring link between them and the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, for a large part of his career it did indeed appear to be the case that Brian De Palma’s craft lay chiefly in his ability to situate the aesthetic rigours of Michelangelo Antonioni’s cinematic eye for urban spaces within the bounds of a knowing, artfully constructed set of post-modern narratives that adroitly and intelligently re-cycled and recombined tropes, plot developments and storylines knowingly borrowed from Hitchcock’s formidable oeuvre, where they were often rendered in highly original but strikingly artificial new forms that seemed entirely unconcerned with maintaining believability in the manner usually requisite for the suspense genre; indeed, De Palma’s thrillers almost dare the viewer not to take them seriously, so macabre and outré are their balletically performed variations on the many familiar horror and suspense narratives they draw upon. Perhaps the apex of De Palma’s cinema of spectacle during the highpoint of his career comes at the conclusion of his psychokinetic espionage/action drama “The Fury” (although there is plenty of competition from the likes of “Scarface”, etc. too), when one of the main characters meets their demise by being blown to smithereens: a split second instance of extreme violence that is captured then displayed in slow motion … and then repeated again, and again, innumerable times, from half-a-dozen different angles!
1973’s “Sisters” wasn’t the first time Brian De Palma’s cinema openly flirted with the specific modes of Hitchcock’s thriller-making while echoing its frequent preoccupation with voyeurism; for “Murder a la Mod”, one of his earliest films, had already indicated the high esteem in which the director held “Psycho”, even if De Palma’s Hitchcock reverence was at that stage still contained by his Greenwich village intellectual arthouse inclinations. However, the film does constitute the moment at which De Palma also allowed himself, at least partially, the possibility of a mainstream hit. In the act of crafting a teasing plot that derives many of the visceral thrills fundamental to its scenario from a blatant referencing of “Rear Window” and “Psycho” (and, less frequently cited but also integral to the film’s fixation with extreme psychopathologies, “Marnie”) “Sisters” is able to successfully function as a modern thriller that is intimately informed by the exploitation elements that were now proliferating in the genre, and which allowed its director the luxury of dealing much more openly with sexuality and to display more on-screen bloodshed than Hitchcock could have ever gotten away with through most of his career (“Sisters” does make for an interesting double-bill pairing, though, with “Frenzy”). Although he was still working with many of the same colleagues -- such as actors Jennifer Salt and William Finley, and co-writer Louisa Rose – he’d met whilst under the tutelage of William Leach as a student in the theatre department of a major New York college of liberal arts, this was a film that could be watched and enjoyed by any cinema fan of horror or mainstream thrillers from the period, and which also managed to find space to accommodate De Palma’s early aptitude for comedy, even if it was often of the mordantly dark variety.
The plot starts out as if it’s aiming to play out a warped variation on the standard good twin/evil twin narrative, but soon turns into a much more peculiar psychodrama. Amiable black advertising executive Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) hits it off with quirky French-Canadian model/actress Danielle Breton after they’re brought together on a cheesy Candid Camera-themed quiz show. The morning after she takes him back to her Staten Island apartment (all the while tailed by Danielle’s creepy ex-husband Emil, played by De Palma regular William Finley), Woode accidently discovers his new lover is actually one half of a pair of identical twins after overhearing Danielle bickering with her possessive sister ‘Dominique’, who has just arrived in town and is now staying in another room in Danielle’s apartment. When Danielle tells him it’s the twins’ birthday, Woode goes out and buys them a joint birthday cake from a store downtown, and offers Danielle a kitchen knife from the set she recently won in the quiz show they both appeared in to cut it with. Unfortunately, in the meantime, Dominique has taken her sisters place and turns out to be a homicidal maniac, who, while suffering a deranged fit, proceeds to stab Woode in the groin and then viciously to death with the sharpened blade!
Watching the whole gory episode unfold from the upper-storey window of her apartment block across the street is local journalist/columnist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt). However, she is unable to get the Staten Island police authorities (whom she has regularly chastised in her newspaper column for their alleged racism and corruption) to take her claims seriously, as all evidence of Dominique’s existence is cleared away by Danielle and Emil, and Woode’s body hidden in a fold-up sofa bed, before she can convince them to search Danielle’s rooms. Frustrated, Grace sets out to solve the case herself, with help from avuncular private detective Joseph Larch (Charles Durning), whom she persuades to break into Danielle’s apartment and look for incriminating clues. The pair’s determined efforts lead to the revelation that Danielle and Dominique are in fact the Blanchion sisters – formerly conjoined twins with very different personalities, who lived most of their lives together in a medical institute, where they were intensively studied by teams of researchers well into adulthood; until, that is, Danielle fell in love with one of her doctors –the sinister Emil – and, against her sister’s wishes, requested that the pair be separated in order for her to be able to pursue her romantic relationship. However, Grace’s murder hunt seems to hit a brick wall when she finds out from the journalist who originally covered the story for Life magazine, that Dominique did not survive the operation to separate her from her twin sister! The trail eventually leads to a recently opened mental institution, run as a community home where the patients are encouraged to live out the routines of a normal life, and where Emil now secretly treats Danielle for her ‘separation issues’.
Of course, the big secret, the result of the reveal that comes in a hallucinatory piece of dream sequence exposition late in the film, is perfectly obvious pretty quickly to most viewers, especially to anyone sufficiently cine-literate to have picked up on the numerous scenes modelled on Hitchcock’s best known works, especially the idea taken from “Psycho” of having the apparent central character killed off in the first forty minutes, and also set-pieces picked up from Hitchcock classics such as “Rope” and of course “Rear Window”: like Norman Bates adopting the identity of his mother to murder any woman who threatens to replace her, Danielle has developed a split personality and takes on the dead Dominique’s man-hating murderous persona whenever sex threatens to cement a new relationship between herself and a man, and thus make unavoidable to her fragile psyche an unwanted acknowledgment of the irreplaceable loss of her sister.
The role of Emil in all of this -- with his trench coat and his pencil thin moustache -- as the doctor who first encouraged the separation, and thereafter tries to manage and control Danielle’s disintegrating reality through medication and hypnosis, also harbours echoes of “Marnie” and the way in which Sean Connery’s character uses psychiatry as a patriarchal tool to manage the femininity of his patient in that film (often condemned for its misogyny, “Marnie is actually a pretty sophisticated expose of it). But the most interesting thing about “Sisters” is the manner in which it acts as a bridge between the arthouse detachment that defines De Palma’s early period works and the bravura cinema of spectacle that came to dominate his mid-period and later films: this manifests itself in the rigorously formal way in which De Palma uses his split screen here, as a thematic tool to foreshadow the later reveal about Danielle’s split personality, and to highlight Grace’s struggle to maintain her independence in an aggressively male environment that uses the tools of law enforcement and psychiatry to entrench a false consciousness. This is in contrast to the technique’s much more free-style uses during “Carrie” or “Dressed to Kill”, for instance, where the emphasis there seems to be placed more on creating a diverting spectacle around the concept of simultaneous occurrence, aided by the recent addition of extreme slow motion to De Palma’s filmic took-kit. De Palma’s editor Paul Hirsch puts forward the idea in one of the interviews featured on Arrow’s superb new dual-format special edition release, that De Palma’s work can appear cold and detached, as though he were remotely examining his characters under a microscope, because of the way in which the split screen technique tends to remove you from the action and ‘take you out of the moment’. In this case, the detached voyeuristic nature of the film’s point of view merely echoes the predominant motif of a film in which everybody is surveying everybody else throughout, and where scenes often begin by adopting a detached gaze, and then pull back to reveal someone else is also observing the same event. By the end of the film, even private dreams contain shadowy observers making notes in their pads, or reporters recording the event with intrusive cine-cameras.
The split screen imagery kicks in at the moment during the murder when Woode attempts to scrawl the word ‘help’ in his own blood on the window of Danielle’s apartment. It adds to our sense of urgency to see the victim desperately trying to attract the attention of a distant woman he can see in the window of the apartment across the block, and for us to also experience, from that same woman’s own point of view, the exact moment she becomes aware of what is going on in the apartment opposite. This is also our first introduction to Grace.
But the film then maintains the split-screen technique -- with one half of the screen devoted to Grace’s attempt to get the police to investigate Danielle’s apartment and the other to Emil’s arrival and subsequent efforts to clear away any incriminating evidence at the scene. Both are structured as suspense sequences running in parallel with each other, but they force the viewer to switch back and forth between a gestalt of differing loyalties, as we can’t logically root for both Grace and Danielle at the same time, since their interests are diametrically opposed in the situation. Thus, a fracture is created in our narrative identification, which is only made ‘whole’ again at the end of the film when Emil hypnotises Grace after trapping her as a patient in the mental institute, and she begins to experience Danielle and Dominique’s backstory as if it were her own memory, with herself now replacing the role of Dominique in the muddled narrative.
This bizarre scene was allegedly inspired by the central dream sequence in Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, but filmed in grainy black-and-white, and with many surreal tableaux that incorporate parades of strange characters wandering in and out of the frame, it most resembles a Fellini-esque pastiche of “8 ½” and represented De Palma’s flawed attempt at making the plot’s necessary exposition look a bit more interesting on the screen. By creating a false memory that binds Danielle with Grace, Emil also robs the investigative reporter of her independence and her agency. A theme running throughout the film concerns Grace’s mother being unable to comprehend her daughter’s independent single lifestyle – her lack of interest in ‘settling down’ and her insistence on working for a living. However, by the end of the film, Grace has been reduced to an infantile state, subliminally instructed by Emil to recite the phrase ‘there was no body because there was no murder’ whenever asked about it by the police. The film ends on an ironic note, since the police by now believe Grace’s story, and yet she herself has no memory of what she originally witnessed and is made, through hypnosis, to actively obstruct the recovery of Woode’s body. This film feels like a feminist statement, then, but ultimately it’s a pessimistic one, in which there is no hope of overcoming the dominant patriarchal paradigm.
Arrow have put together an imaginative and diverse selection of extras for their “Sisters” dual format package that, when taken in combination, manages to archive everything that would normally be expected from the standard ‘Making Of’ DVD documentary usually found accompanying such a release, and a lot more besides … but delivered in a much more stimulating form than the bog standard set of talking heads which usually suffices. Kicking things off and intriguingly described as a visual essay, Justin Humphries’ monologue “What the Devil Hath Joined Together” might sound theoretically like rather a dry prospect, being simply a recorded essay, read by Humphries over a selection of illustrative stills, photos and clips; but in fact it constitutes an utterly engrossing and detailed study of the movie, which sets out to view De Palma’s work from almost every perspective conceivable, starting with a specific anatomy of the panoply of Hitchcock references De Palma draws upon to frame the film’s macabre narrative: here Humphries examines not just its obvious debt to “Rear Window” and “Psycho” but also the host of other situations, themes and characters that crop up during the film which also shadow various ideas taken from Hitchcock’s filmography. Humphries even indulges in shot comparisons between “Psycho” and “Sisters” to highlight when and where De Palma specifically resorts to the exact same techniques as the master of suspense, as well as a very perceptive look at the way in which the director expands on the usual suspense thriller iconography with his innovative use of split screen, etc. There’s also an acute analysis of the film’s themes of voyeurism and doubling and even a list of technical faults and continuity bloopers, as well as a thorough production history of the film. Running at over forty-seven minutes, this is as in-depth a look at any one film as could possibly be wished for and is always throughout intelligently augmented with images that back up Humphries’ various points and arguments. The ‘visual essay’ genre potentially marks a significant development in the production of film extras, especially when the results are as of high a quality as this. Hopefully Arrow will be looking at continuing and expanding their use of this type of extra feature for future releases.
Having laid the groundwork with a superlative introduction to and examination of the narrative themes and visual ideas at play in “Sisters” it falls to the always dependable High Rising Productions to supply a solid accompaniment to Humphries’ efforts with a fine selection of cast and crew interviews, each presented separately from a sub-menu but totalling 50 minutes worth of interview material when taken together, and when included alongside an audio clip from an interview with the late William Finley, also recorded by Justin Humphries. Jennifer Salt, so memorably tenacious in her role as crusading newshound Grace Collier is well placed these days to offer expert opinion on the production (she’s moved on from acting to become an executive producer and writer for, among others, “American Horror Story”) and recalls how she and Margot Kidder received the script as a Christmas present from De Palma. Despite this being a much more tightly scripted and disciplined piece than much of his previous work, Salt recalls filming the scenes with her character’s mother (played by her own real-life mother, who went on to appear in several other films for De Palma) and those opposite Charles Durning and reveals that they were actually allowed to semi-improvise them. She describes Brian De Palma (whom she is still in contact with) as someone who always has a concrete vision of exactly what he wants. Like Jennifer Salt, the film’s co-writer Louisa Rose, was a fellow student in the theatre department of New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, which is where both of them met the director. Rose talks about her early training as an actress and how she came to be commissioned to write the screenplay for “Sisters”, which was adapted from Brian De Palma’s original idea.
Both of these interviews last for a little over ten minutes while editor Paul Hirsch explains what made him suggest the idea of getting Bernard Herrmann to score the film, and offers interesting though not always fair opinions on why he thinks De Palma’s work often comes across as ‘cold’ and uninvolving (see above) in a substantial interview lasting for nearly eighteen minutes. Unit Manager Jeffrey L. Hayes offers briefer reminiscences of his time on the film in a five minute piece, while William Finley recalls how De Palma and he deliberately constructed his character in “Sisters” -- Dr Emil Breton -- as a red herring, giving him comically outrageous physical quirks, like the massive bruise on his forehead, to make him look even more sinister and suspicious.
Finally critic Mike Sutton contributes a film-by-film overview of De Plama’s entire filmography under the banner “The De Palma Digest” for an absorbing thirty minute critique of every film the director has ever produced from his early arty black and white murder thriller “Murder a la Mod” (1968) and his anti-establishment beginnings as a politically engaged film-maker informed by his college connections to radical theatre groups and New York’s avant-garde community, to later works as varied and sometimes maligned as “Wise Guys”, “Carlito’s Way” and “Mission to Mars”, Sutton traces De Palma’s gradual emergence as a mainstream artist who, nevertheless, has always remained on the outside of the Hollywood film-making establishment, even after his contemporaries Scorsese, Coppola and George Lucas (who ‘borrowed’ De Palma’s regular editor Paul Hirsch to work on “Star Wars”) became some of Hollywood’s main players.
This discussion rounds off a terrific trio of special features, but the disc also includes a poster gallery (“Sisters” was graced with a wide selection of extremely artistic and striking poster designs) and a grainy theatrical trailer; and Arrow Video of course present the dual format package with the usual reversible sleeve option featuring a choice of either the original artwork or a new piece by artist Graham Humphreys.
The accompanying booklet is also a diverting read and is led by House of Psychotic Women author Kier-La Janisse’s erudite and nuanced reading of the film in a newly written piece called “Seeing Double in De Palma’s Sisters”, where she considers the film’s place along the spectrum of his work, situated between De Palma’s early countercultural indie period (represented by the likes of “Greetings” and “Hi, Mom!”) and his later Hollywood hits as she explores how he adopts a familiar thriller form and yet plays with its tropes in order to address ‘political issues and outsider themes’ while operating from within a stable genre construction. Janisse looks at how, like in his next project “Phantom of the Paradise”, the film explores the theme of personal identity being compromised and undermined by authoritarian institutions, and implicitly references the anti-psychiatry movement of the late ‘60s, as well as addressing the director’s own unhappy experience in Hollywood after being sacked from his first major feature.
This fine essay is followed by a revealing interview with the director carried out by Richard P. Rubenstein and originally printed in the September 1973 edition of Filmmaker’s Newsletter, where De Palma is disarmingly open about what he set out to achieve with the movie and about the elements of it he feels didn’t quite work, or even where he felt he hadn’t really succeeded in his goal for a particular scene. “Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill” is an often hilarious account, written for Village Voice by De Palma himself in 1973, of the director’s intimidating first meeting with the infamously tetchy and then semi-retired Bernard Herrmann, when he arrived at the New York screening rooms to see for the first time this low budget independent film he’d agreed to score only to be outraged that, thinking he was being helpful, De Palma had repurposed cues from “Marnie” as a guide track. Despite his grouchiness and an unsparingly blunt manner, the septuagenarian composer turned out to have impeccable judgement and came up with a classic score, incorporating duelling moog synthesisers and some instantly recognisable spiralling Herrmann cues.
Finally, the booklet includes the original 1966 Life Magazine article about real-life Russian Siamese Twins Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova, who were raised and studied by Soviet medics from birth to young adulthood. This is the article which accompanied the photographs of the twins that first planted the seed of the idea for the picture in De Palma’s mind. The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1 with mono audio, from a HD master prepared by Criterion on which additional work has been carried out in London by Deluxe, Digital. The transfer retains the film-like grain of the original film while providing firmer textures and colours than previous DVD releases; all in all it’s a substantial improvement, and along with its excellent extras, goes a long way to confirming this as the definitive release of an flawed yet still essential piece of early De Palma magic.
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