The Films of Brian De Palma: 'Sisters'

Photo: Montreal Film Journal
The Staten Island apartment of lovely model Danielle becomes the scene of a grisly murder that is witnessed by her neighbor, Grace, a reporter. But the police don't believe her story, so it's up to Grace to solve the murder mystery on her own.

It's impossible to talk about Sisters without first acknowledging it's Hitchcockian roots. De Palma, of course, was probably the most significant purveyor (or imitator, depending on your viewpoint) of the style that Hitchcock mastered. At the very least, this is true of De Palma's early works, and particularly the likes of Sisters, Obsession (1976), Carrie (1976), Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984). In some of these, De Palma's obsession with the craft of Hitchcock often triggered perverse narrative environments, compulsively frantic characters, and also more overt dabblings in the sociopolitcal realm.

Released in 1973, Sisters was De Palma's first distinguished foray into Hitchcockian horror-thriller-mystery territory; it's essentially his postmodern prototype. He wastes no time in setting the tone, with longtime Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Hermann on board to compose the score that's featured extensively over the ominous title sequence. Hermann's score is unsettling and abrasive and altogether chilling, and it works as well here as it did for it's use in Hitchcock classics such as Vertigo and Psycho.

More after the jump...

Without De Palma's presence, Sisters would likely serve as nothing more than cheap, B-grade '70s cult genre fare. It's elevated by De Palma's crafty camerawork and handling of suspense -- his sly, satirical wit, and of course, the musical aid courtesy of Hermann. It also avoids genre trappings as it shifts gears and explores an array of different styles and sensibilities. In fact, it takes about a half an hour for the film to truly take on any identity, as the lengthy setup, though ominous, doesn't commit to any overly-familiar genre conventions.

The lengthy first act, which culminates with a brutal and cleverly stylized murder sequence, bares quite the resemblance to Hitchcock's Pyscho. Furthermore, after this murder sequence, the narrative POV abruptly shifts and the film takes on an investigative murder-mystery styling, much like in Psycho. If this goes unnoticed, surely the Rear Window references won't, as the entire film is stylistically and thematically a reworking of the Hitchcock classic.

The film's third act, which takes place at a madhouse, fittingly takes a wild turn into psychological horror. De Palma's trippy, hypnotic vision takes over and a surrealistic flashback-dream-hypnosis sequence, also powered by Hermann's brooding score, takes hold. The twisty-turny narrative investigation comes to die here, as an everything-is-not-as-it-seems identity revelation is made (hint: Psycho), which ultimately leads to De Palma's grotesquely amusing ending.
Photo: IMDB

A lesser director wouldn't of been able to handle the over-the-top plotting and characterizations with any maturity, but De Palma infuses subversive satire with incongruous tongue-in-cheek humor in ways that mess with the psyche of viewers. It may not be as sly as when Hitchcock did it, but it's probably just as misunderstood; it's their way of playing with and bewildering the audience. The humor is there to offset the fear and anticipation, but in a way that ultimately blurs the line between the three reactions. It exposes the viewers' pysche in ways that most films and directors cannot.

Sisters, to some, may feel like cheap Hitchcock imitation, but there's something to be said of De Palma's understanding and implementing of classic Hitchcock tropes. There's probably no other post-Hitchcock director that's been able to faithfully render his trademark sardonic wit, suspense, and grotesquery into a package that also showcases original talent. De Palma's nifty and innovative camerawork elevates him to the top of the list of Hitchcock heir-apparents, and it's this film that laid the groundwork.

  • During an interview with star Jennifer Salt, she was questioned about the meaning of the film's strange, open-ended conclusion. Salt admitted that she didn't understand the meaning of the film's bizarre conclusion either.
  • The "Peeping Tom Show" segment that the film opens with was inspired by the Candid Camera television series.
  • To indicate the musical effects that he wanted, Brian De Palma put together an edit of his film that was dubbed with music from the films from the composer he most wanted to hire, Bernard Hermann. While he was showing it to Hermann, the composer stopped him with, "Young man, I cannot watch your film while I'm listening to Marnie."

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