Brian De Palma’s Wild Thriller ‘Sisters’ Returns to the Criterion Collection

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Sisters Criterion

Following the troubled production of Get To Know Your Rabbit, which the director feuded with his star and the studio, Brain De Palma needed a hit. After breaking out with some independent hits that caught the attention of legendary film critic Paulene Kael, it seemed that the studio career of Brian De Palma would be over just as it was beginning. He would change his fortunes by making a low budget horror film that would utilize his vast array of talents with Sisters, which reenters the Criterion Collection with a new Blu-ray edition featuring a new 4K transfer of De Palma’s twisted work of horror. Sisters features all sorts of trademarks that would define De Palma’s career, from technique to his obsessions – ranging from voyeurism to the works of Alfred Hitchcock.

Sisters opens with a clever bit of misdirection from the crafty De Palma. A blind woman walks into a men’s locker room and begins to undress. Phillip (Lisle Wilson) ponders whether to sit back and enjoy the show or inform the young woman that she’s in the wrong locker room. He makes the right choice and informs her of the error. It turn out that the blind woman wasn’t blind but was  Danielle (Margot Kidder), a model and actress, and this was all a set up for a Candid Camera-styled game show. This unusual opening for a movie establishes a certain playful sensibility that De Palma brings to Sisters, the first of many instances of toying with audience expectations.

Phillip won a dinner and a set of knives on the game show and is able to take Danielle out on the town with him. After dinner, he escorts her back to her apartment in Staten Island. In her apartment, Phillip can hear Danielle arguing with her unseen twin sister Dominque. Danielle apologizes to her guest and informs him it’s her birthday. Phillip runs out to get a cake for Danielle. Upon his return, he’s stabbed multiple times by Danielle’s twin Dominque. In the apartment building across the street, the violent act is witness by journalist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who immediately informs the authorities.

From there the sequence unfolds in split screen, a De Palma trademark. In one single take we watch as Grace Collier exits her apartment and marches down to confront the killer while accompanied by the police. Another single take occupies the other half of the frame featuring the lanky and wild-eyed Dr. Emil Breton (William Finley) as he cleans up Dominique’s homicidal mess. By the time Grace and the cops arrive, the apartment is spotless, not a single sign of murder most foul. Not willing to take no for answer, Grace continues to dig and enlists the help of private investigator Joseph Larch (Charles Durning). As Grace digs to uncover the truth she will discover many more nefarious secrets that best kept between sisters.

Sisters represents the first major turn for De Palma in toying with cinematic voyeurism, something he’s brought to other films of his such as Body Double and to a lesser extent Mission: Impossible. We’re watching these characters from afar as De Palma masterfully build suspense by giving the audience information that the characters don’t have. It’s the origins of De Palma’s tinkering with Hitchcockian filmmaking, complete with a score by the great composer and frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Hermann.

The screenplay for Sisters was co-written by Louisa Rose plays out like a straightforward murder mystery style of thriller. Then the film goes off the deep end and proceeds to twist the audience in all sorts of different directions as deep buried secrets are exhumed. As the story grows more bizarre as does De Palma’s style, as he and cinematographer Gregory Sandor go with extreme lenses and shifts to black and white film stock during a drug-induced hallucination by Grace once she’s in the clutches of the nefarious Dr. Breton. It’s a balancing act where you can see the experimental side of Brian De Palma work in conjunction with his classical, Hitchcockian sense of storytelling and suspense. As Sisters goes further and further crazed it’s made all the more unsettling because of the hypnotic score by Bernard Hermann, which utilizes plenty of Theremin.

Accompanying the brand new 4k transfer of the film approved by De Palma himself, the new Criterion edition of Sisters boasts a brand new interview with actress Jennifer Salt. There are other interviews on the disc that have been moved over from the 2004 Criterion edition of film, including a documentary on the film featuring De Palma, William Finley, Charles Durning, editor Paul Hirsch, and producer Edward R. Pressman. Archival materials on the disc also include a 1970 Margot Kidder appearance on The Dick Cavett Show where the actress is a guest alongside Gloria Swanson and Janis Joplin. Audio from a 1973 discussion with Brian De Palma at the American Film Institute serves as the disc’s audio commentary track. As well as having vintage radio spots, the disc has an extensive booklet featuring an essay by critic Carrie Rickey as well as old articles featuring De Palma and his working with Bernard Hermann.

Sisters isn’t the greatest film by Brian De Palma. It’s a low budget horror film made for the schlockmeisters at American International Pictures. But it’s an important film in the filmography of Brian De Palma because this the movie where you can see him finally gaining control over all of his stylistic tics and obsessions that would become trademarks to his career. Maybe some of the stuff about conjoined twins doesn’t age too well for 2018 sensibilities, but that doesn’t negate that this is a fun, twisted work of horror and suspense. Sisters has a B-movie brain and an A-list style, and none of it disappoints. It’s only appropriate that Sisters should get two editions within the Criterion Collection.

Sisters
  • Overall Score
5

Summary

A wild B-movie thriller with A-list style, Brian De Palma started to come into his own thematically and stylistically with Sisters, which is De Palma’s first foray into Hitchcockian suspense and returns to the Criterion Collection with another stellar edition.

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