Thursday, October 08, 2015

'70s Horror Poll: Sisters

#18 (tie) - 4 Votes

It's remarkable how, early in Brian De Palma's filmmaking career, the preoccupations, fetishes and visual trademarks that would run throughout his career were already fully formed. In the opening scene of Sisters, a blind woman in a dressing room disrobes in full view of a male customer; as the man watches her, we're also invited to gawk against the character's will. However, De Palma quickly reverses the situation, upending our expectations and making us feel a bit self-conscious about the act of watching the movie. It's the same trick De Palma would find countless, endlessly inventive ways to play on us throughout his career; as he's probably best known for paying homage to another filmmaker, it's worth noting that De Palma is a nakedly personal filmmaker, and possibly the most underrated of his generation.

I'll admit that, the first time I saw Sisters, I'd seen and loved a few De Palma movies, but the movie's many twists and turns lost me. The murder that happens about 30 minutes into the movie is a brilliant setpiece, employing what would soon become a signature De Palma device, the use of splitscreen to observe the action simultaneously from two perspectives. But from there, the story becomes increasingly convoluted, as the focus shifts from disturbed model Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) to investigative reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt). Grace's investigation expands to include not only Siamese twins but also multiple personalities, mind control and a mysterious mad doctor played by William Finley (a frequent De Palma collaborator and an incredibly underrated actor). By the time the movie arrives at its oddly anticlimactic, deadpan final shot, I was wondering if it was supposed to be funny.

Having seen most of De Palma's films, I feel confident that, in fact, it is supposed to be funny. De Palma would repeat this story structure several times, piling one increasingly absurd development on top of another. Quentin Tarantino once observed that Raising Cain was De Palma's admission that he could only get interested in making another thriller if he focused on amusing himself rather than playing to the audience's expectations. Sisters is clear evidence that De Palma has always done things that way - taken literally, it's a fun, weird, ultimately frustrating whodunit, but I realized that De Palma is having a laugh and letting us in on it, I found it perversely hilarious, especially as Salt (who currently writes for American Horror Story) makes for an entertainingly atypical thriller heroine. Though, in retrospect, Bernard Herrmann's gleefully bonkers score should have clued me in.

U.S. Release Date: March 27, 1973 (Also released that week: The Devil in Miss Jones)

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