Sunday, November 6, 2011

Dressed to Kill (1980)

Directed by:
Brian De Palma

I completely understand why some viewers wouldn't really take to this psycho-thriller. Hell, I can even understand why it was showered with Razzie nominations upon release. This is not a particularly well-written film with an airtight plot or an unpredictable resolution. The story threads that tie the set pieces together are weak, trivial, even ludicrous at times and we pretty much know where it's going the entire time. Plot-wise, the film holds few actual surprises and I could also see why some were offended by its depictions of 'loose' women (an adulteress, a hooker...) as primary victims, black men as would-be rapist thugs and a transvestite as a razor-slashing psycho with a dual persona. It also rather blatantly copies PSYCHO (1960) in how it is structured and presented. However, De Palma isn't the kind of filmmaker who ever shies away from acknowledging his reference points. In fact, he all but shines a spotlight on them. And he does that consciously to use our familiarity (in this case, with the aforementioned Hitchcock classic) against us to subvert our expectations and completely throw us off guard at certain points. Audience manipulation at its finest. De Palma is also a true master of mood. Dressed to Kill has a hazy sheen, an extremely soft focus look that is downright sumptuous. Romantic, even. The director is aided to no end by both Ralf Bode's lush photography and Pino Donaggio's elegant score is setting up a calming, sensuous mood which effectively accentuates his moments of shock. He's even smart enough to use sex itself, whether it be in the form of an erotic-shower-scene-turned-scary or some rather raunchy dialogue, to both heighten the mood and up the shock factor*.

The plot? Well, it basically involves a serial killer, but it's not really all that important. Angie Dickinson (who has stated in interviews that this is her favorite of all her films) has the Janet Leigh role as Kate Miller; a wealthy, but bitter and sexually dissatisfied housewife who seeks fulfillment in the arms of a stranger, and pays the price for it when a psycho with a razor attacks and kills her immediately afterward in an elevator. Her dry, uptight and very professional psychiatrist Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine) thinks the culprit may be one of his former patients; a transsexual named "Bobbi," who's been leaving threats on his answering machine. Meanwhile, Kate's distraught electronics wiz son Peter (Keith Gordon) teams up with streetwise hooker Liz (Nancy Allen, Mrs. De Palma at the time), who witnessed the crime, to do some freelance investigating on their own. Liz will become the next victim unless she and Peter can find a way to trap the psycho.

Aside from the triumphant development of mood, this film does an excellent job of toying with viewer emotions. One of the best set of sequences in the film starts as an ordinary day about town for our short-lived protagonist Kate. While visiting an art museum, a handsome stranger meets her eye. She begins harmlessly following him from room to room, then comes to discover that he's actually following her. The two end up having an anonymous, torrid fling that begins in a taxi cab and ends at his apartment. Her embers now stirred, Kate sits down with a sheepish smile on her face to write him a note before heading home, and then finds out a very shocking piece of medical information about her new lover. She hurried runs off, and then realizes she's forgotten her wedding ring! Bad enough it itself, right? De Palma then goes a step further by having Kate sneak back into the apartment to retrieve her ring, generating a big "whew" for both Kate and the viewer, and when it appears she's all free and clear, that's when De Palma decides to hit us with the unexpected demise of what we thought was our lead character.

Made in 1980 just as the slasher film movement was starting to gain some major momentum, Dressed, strangely enough, manages to fit pretty snug with the rest of the slasher flicks from its time. It was better received, critically, but that's only because it was made by someone who actually knew what they were doing. This film is much more than a series of murder-set-pieces. It's about making us feel or think a certain way, and then suddenly taking that all away at a moment's notice.

Dennis Franz has a great supporting role as a sarcastic cop who wants to use Allen's character as bait for the killer, and Brandon Maggart (star of the underrated CHRISTMAS EVIL) shows up as one of Allen's tricks from Cleveland. William Finley (star of De Palma's SISTERS and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) provides the voice of the killer. Two Penthouse Pets also appear; Anneka De Lorenzo, one of the co-stars of the notorious historical porno CALIGULA (1979), and Victoria Lynn Johnson, who was Dickinson's stand-in during the shower scene. Because of the criticism leveled on Dickinson for using the double, De Palma followed with BODY DOUBLE (1984) a few years later.

(* To note, depictions / discussions of sex aren't so shocking to most of us these days. Considering that this was a mainstream, major studio release with well-known stars from the beginning of the Reagan Era, the nudity and overt sexual content in this particular film did actually shock people. Whether or not it still does will depend solely on the viewer.)


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