Thursday, July 09, 2015

An early De Palma thriller takes a Hitchcockian crack at sister bonding

An early De Palma thriller takes a Hitchcockian crack at sister bonding 

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s Siblings Week at The A.V. Club, so we’re recommending movies about sisters.

Sisters (1973)

These days, it’s difficult to discuss Brian De Palma without mentioning Hitchcock. That would not have been the case in 1973, when De Palma’s Sisters came out on the heels of some oddball comedies he made with a young Robert De Niro. But the first of De Palma’s mainstream thrillers catches up in no time, riffing on Hitchcock films from three previous decades in just 90 minutes. As its story twists and turns, Sisters emulates elements of RopeRear Window, and Psycho. (Hitchcock’s only film of the ’70s to this point, Frenzy, had just been released the previous year.)
Those reference points don’t spoil anything; part of the fun is watching De Palma recombine Hitchcock plots with his own voyeuristic obsessions. The latter are apparent from the start, when Danielle (Margot Kidder) meets Phillip (Lisle Wilson) on the hilariously unlikely yet still vaguely plausible game show Peeping Toms; she pretends to be blind, undressing in from of Phillip as hidden cameras film them, and participants bet on his reaction. He excuses himself like a gentleman, but they go out together afterward—and woe betide the De Palma hero who appears on a game show where one of the prizes is a set of cutlery.
Danielle first mentions her sister only in passing; it’s only during the beginning of a sex scene, as the camera pushes in from an overhead shot to find the scar on her midsection (Bernard Herrmann’s score shrieking in the background, naturally), that the film reveals her status as a formerly conjoined twin, now separated from her counterpart Dominique. Dominique remains offscreen for much of the movie, but her presence lingers as Grace (Jennifer Salt), Danielle’s neighbor in Staten Island (where a surprising majority of the movie is set) starts to notice something strange afoot.
De Palma is more interested in thriller mechanics than exploring sisterly dynamics; the relationship between Danielle and Dominique doesn’t have much detail beyond its broad outlines, delivered largely via expositional video footage. But Sisters does portray a familial bond so intense—and further intensified by male oppression and attempted domination—that it manifests even when the two sisters are apart. That aspect alone gives the movie a creepy charge, enhanced by De Palma’s skill in turning the Hitchcockian screws on his characters. Frequent homages, a couple of great split-screen sequences, and gruesome violence: What more could a De Palma fan ask for?
Availability: Sisters is available on Criterion DVD, which means it’s also streaming on Hulu Plus. It’s also available for rental or purchase from other digital outlets.

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