Director: Brian De Palma
Year of release: 1973
by Jericho Cerrona
Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Brian De Palma’s stylish 1973 horror thriller, Sisters.
Brian De Palma’s early work was marked by satirical commentary and zeitgeist-defining wit. Just look at 1970’s Hi Mom! starring a young Robert De Niro, which morphs from a sleazy soft-core comedy into a pointed satire on race relations in America, and 1972’s Get to Know Your Rabbit, which takes on corporate greed and dehumanization. 1973’s Sisters was his first legitimate genre film, and the one where the Alfred Hitchcock influences which would unfairly dog the rest of his career really took center stage. In many ways, the film is about voyeurism (one of Hitchcock’s pet themes) and how media can desensitize. This is glimpsed from the very first scene, in which a blind woman Danielle (Margot Kidder), enters a dressing room where a man, Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson), is changing. Of course, the woman isn’t really blind, and the whole thing is revealed to be a Candid Camera-style prank show called Peeping Toms (a clever wink to the Michael Powell film, Peeping Tom).
Though Sisters is superficially a horror thriller; complete with Danielle’s stalker ex-husband, Emile (William Finley), the eventual murder of Phillip, and a nosy neighbor/reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) on the case, De Palma layers in social commentary along with genre thrills. Philip is African-American, and the early scenes involving the TV show being watched by an all white audience is telling. Additionally, Phillip wins two tickets to a place called The Africa Room for playing along with the show, and the way he timidly smiles and brushes it off locates the dehumanizing effects of institutionalized racism.
Though many claim him to be an empty technician, skillful with the camera but out of his element otherwise, what is often missed in discussions about De Palma is his razor-sharp sense of humor. The obvious fusion of Psycho and Rear Window here is intentional, of course, but Sisters is also hip to the understanding that we are familiar with this cinematic language. Therefore, much of the pleasure of the film is not in anticipating the plot twists, but in admiring the finesse in which the picture executes them. To wit, there’s an all time classic split-screen sequence here involving two 9-minute simultaneous shots contrasting the hiding of Philip’s body with Grace’s attempts at exposing the murder that is among the best directing of De Palma’s career.
If Sisters lacks some of the outlandish artistry and auto-critique brilliance of De Palma’s later works such as Dressed to Kill and Body Double, it more than makes up for it with social satire, an antic horror-fused finale, and Bernard Herrmann’s lively score. But perhaps the film’s biggest hat trick is allowing Kidder, best known for playing Lois Lane in the Superman series, an opportunity to cut loose; essentially playing dual roles as a woman trapped inside a fractured psyche. It’s her inner trauma that ultimately lingers; along with savage post-60’s cynicism, technical craftsmanship, and the sight of a lonely birthday cake strewn across the ground. Bravo, Mr. De Palma.