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Savant Review:

1973 / Color / 1:78 / 16:9
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

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

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, like Hi Mom, and Greetings. 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 in conjunction with producer Edward R. Pressman, is clearly a move to be a commercially successful director, something De Palma has seemingly never been comfortable with. It directly followed his disastrous run-in with Warners, which resulted in the chopped-up disaster Get to Know Your Rabbit. Falling back to a sure-fire horror film is a gambit which works for some directors, and not others. 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 made what at the time was a stylistic first: a horror movie full of film-student references to older horror films, but particularly, a full-out hommage to Alfred Hitchcock ... not just a theme or two, but his whole style, from his cutting patterns to entire film plots.


Actress Danielle Breton (a very young Margot Kidder) and office worker Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) date after appearing on the trashy TV show, 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 says she has a jealous and unmanageable sister, Dominique, and today is their birthday, so Philip decides to brighten their day with a birthday cake.

A horrible murder follows, witnessed by reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who can't get the police to believe her. So she hires a detective (Charles Durning) and sets out to investigate the two sisters. She discovers that they were actually siamese twins scheduled to be surgically separated by a Doctor who is Emil, the same man who claims to be Danielle's husband. Then Grace sneaks into Emil's country asylum, a mistake which initiates a hallucination-induced night of horror.

Brian De Palma most likely had Hitchcock-on-the-brain, a now-familiar film student malady that affects so 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 any of his subsequent horror thrillers. It's so good, in fact, that later attempts like Dressed to Kill and Body Double, lacking both the novelty and the inspiration of Sisters, come off as derivative and devoid of imagination, as if De Palma had become some kind of cinema Sisyphus, doomed forever to repeat the same meaningless hommages.

The nigh-perfect score is by Bernard Herrman, who was probably the biggest item in producer Pressman's budget. Sisters has one of the most gripping title sequences ever filmed, a simple progression of macro-photographed fetuses set to Herrman's crashing horns and screaming Moog synthesizers. Herrman's prestige keeps the Roe-vs-Wade baby monsters from becoming exploitative: its a perfectly disturbing opening.

Savant saw Sisters at a Westwood preview where he was, ahem, ushering at the time. One blast of the title theme, and I dropped my litter bin and spent the next 90 minutes of my shift playing hooky in the back row of a packed house that was startled and thrilled by the shocking gore and cinematic surprises. After the screening, I even remember telling Ms. Kidder that she'd be a big star, I was so excited. Being a starstruck Hitchcock obsessed film student myself, I went home and scribbled down about 50 Hitchcock allusions, plot points, themes, shots, setups, etc. It wasn't until much later that I realized Sisters was also a veritable travelogue of classic horror films that I hadn't yet seen: Peeping Tom, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Boston Strangler, etc. ... I suppose the split screens could have been inspired by Scorsese's Woodstock as much as by Fleischer's serial killer movie, but the other two are very direct quotes.

The only previous movie Savant I'm aware of to be consciously constructed of hommage material is Riccardo Freda's L'orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock (The Horrible Dr. Hichcock).

So here's the Savant rundown of what at the time I called Hitchcock Rip-Offs - and they're Big Spoilers, so see the film first if you have an analytical memory:

Psycho: the major prop introduction of the butcher knives, the knife killing of a likeable character in whom we've invested our emotions, the private detective who disappears mid-case from the film, the 'Dominique died on the operating table' revelation (= 'Who's that buried up in Greenlawn Cemetary?'), the subjective/objective walk to the mystery asylum, the trucking-zoom into the pupil of an eye, the psychiatrist blurting out essential exposition for uncomprehending audiences, the murder clean-up shown in detail, Kidder's double identity and the entire Norman Bates personality transference theme, including 'special guest transferences': one between psycho killer and psychiatrist, and another between killer and investigator.

Spellbound: the Dali-like dream nightmare (okay, okay, its more like a Fellini nightmare).

Suspicion: the walk with the cake is like the walk with the poisoned milk.

The Birds: the pastry clerks arguing behind the counter like the Bodega Bay hardware proprietor, the 'huh' ending featuring an exterior landscape with telephone poles.

Lots of Hitch films: Grace's troublesome Mother, arguing with the cops (calling the police always leads nowhere).

Rear Window: the doubted murder observed and investigated with binoculars between apartment buildings, with detective Durning waving 'ain't found nothin' yet' from the windows.

De Palma has several clever sequences that seem wholly his own, for instance, the Life Magazine newsreel story on the twins that provides very effective exposition. But Sisters is best remembered for two killer scenes, the asylum nightmare and the split screen murder.

The split screen sequence of the apartment murder is like nothing in Hitchcock, who tried every other gimmick in his long career but was probably finished with such experimentation by the time the '66 World's Fair and its multiscreen movie made big news.

De Palma's split-screen 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 seconds away is very effective, and audiences always applaud the double-vision synchronous hide 'n seek game near the elevators. (This year's Time Code is a feature-length investigation of this exact gimmick). The actual witnessing of the murder is chillingly effective too, but brings up a glaring inconsistency in the film. By no means spoiling the movie, it is nevertheless a big Hitchcock no-no cheat. Grace is shown calmly walking to her window perhaps 30 seconds after the actual murder takes place. She sees a bloody hand writing 'help' on a window, and recoils in alarm, indicating she was unaware of any problem before. An 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.

The second sequence is the nightmare, an almost perfect horror vision visually unlike anything in Hitchcock and more akin to Federico Fellini. The zoom into the eye to reveal the trauma within, being impressed 'Manchurian Candidate-style" on Grace's drugged brain was probably inspired by Repulsion and 2001. Inside the mind's eye is a convincingly warped b&w Dali-scape of elements and characters from earlier on. The tendency to take the scene literally melts as we recognize Grace's mother and the famous journalist (Barnard Hughes) among the creepy inhabitants of this asylum - it's too show-offy to be one of Polanski's perfectly observed dreams in Rosemary's Baby, but much more 'felt' than the remote creepshow in Bergman's Hour of the Wolf. It's a bravura spectacle, once again drawing much of its power from the Bernard Herrman score.  1 When Charles Durning is suddenly revealed raising a meatcleaver, the irrational reigns supreme, and it's De Palma's doing. Nothing in his later horrors matches this moment, to Savant's eye.

Even though some of his actors are less natural than others, De Palma manages to make us care deeply for his Danielle and Grace. 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 to 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 shows a sensitivity he didn't show 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.

Criterion's DVD of Sisters is a nigh-perfect transfer, with a LOUD soundtrack the equal of the theatrical release, and a image much better than American-International's cheap prints. The 16:9 enhancement gives the film a very clear look on a large projection televison, and totally blows away all previous vhs releases. It's a very nice thing that this film fell into Criterion's hands!

The attractive menus (with a throbbing heart noise) lead you to some interesting supplements: two articles on the film and De Palma, and the original Life Magazine article which inspired the film. Just about every photo ever shot on the set is here, mostly in the form of the actual contact sheets of the original photography.

Yes, the film is a glossary of Hitchcock situations, but operates on its own merits and terms. You never get the feeling of mindless exploitation that accompanies the misogynistic shower scene of Dressed to Kill. Brian De Palma stumbled along for a few pictures that all have cult followings now, and did at least one other inspired hommage film, a transposition of Vertigo with Paul Schrader, Obsession. After that there's a slide into commercialism unrelieved by bigtime comebacks that didn't gel: Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars. In Sisters we have a special case indeed.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Sisters rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Supplements: trailers, docus, original LIFE magazine article, huge still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 19, 2000

1. Listen carefully to the light 'birthday cake' theme that is repeated for the sofa surveillance ending ... especially its melody. Then listen to Howard Shore's score for The Silence of the Lambs. Does anyone else think it is almost the same? Savant's ego is at stake. I cut the first promo for Silence in late 1989, from a few scenes sent from the cutting room,(including one seen nowhere else, and an amusing gag Lecter scene that Anthony Hopkins performed for me on his first day of work. Needing music for the promo, I used Herrmann's ending 'birthday cake' cue. One of the Silence producers asked me over the phone where I'd gotten it ... and complimented it. Return

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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