Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sisters (1973)

... aka: Blood Sisters

Directed by:
Brian De Palma

French-Canadian model and aspiring actress Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) meets the chivalrous Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) on the set of a Candid Camera-like show called "Peeping Toms." He wins dinner, drinks and dancing for two at the African Room. She wins a set of Reynold's stainless steel cutlery. The two meet up after the show, decide to go to dinner together and return to her Staten Island apartment later that evening. All the while, Danielle's ex-husband Emil (William Finley) makes his presence known; first making a scene at the restaurant and then "standing guard" outside of the building. To throw him off and hopefully make him leave, Phillip moves his car around the block, sneaks back over and spends the night. The next morning, he awaken to discover that Danielle's twin sister Dominique (also Kidder) is also there visiting... and she isn't too happy about something. Though he doesn't actually see her, he can hear the two arguing (in French). He learns it's their birthday and, after Danielle sends him down to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription for her, he decides to lighten the mood by getting the sisters a birthday cake. When he returns to the apartment, Dominique viciously stabs him to death.

Across the courtyard in another apartment house, struggling reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who usually writes fluff for the disreputable Staten Island Panorama paper, witnesses flashes of the murder and sees Phillip trying to write out "help" with his own blood on a window. She calls the cops and immediately heads over there to wait on them. Meanwhile, Emil shows up at Danielle's, the two hide the body inside of the sofa, clean up Dominique's mess and remove all traces of evidence so that by the time Grace and a pair of detectives show up to look around, there's nothing to be found. Still, Grace knows what she saw and, though she no longer has the help of the police, she decides to do some investigating of her own. Her editor pairs her up with low rent private eye Joseph Larch (Charles Durning) and the two get to work looking into matters, which turn up disturbing revelations about the twins (who were at one time conjoined and one of whom may have died on the operating table during separation years earlier) and other shady dealings at a secluded mental hospital that may include hypnosis and mind control.

Filmed on a low-budget of half-a-million dollars, Sisters was a critical and financial success in its day. It was also De Palma's first feature of many done in tribute to Alfred Hitchcock; a cycle that would later include the thrillers Obsession (1976), DRESSED TO KILL (1980), Body Double (1984) and others. Each of these films wore their influences on their sleeves, with direct reference paid to the likes of Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) not only in the plots, but also in their visual style, direction, music and camerawork. Sisters is no different. It extracts its central premise from Window, with a voyeuristic lead character witnessing a murder but being unable to convince the authorities of it. The first abrupt, brutal and shocking murder sequence is the movie's Janet Leigh "shower scene" and a sequence where cops search Danielle's apartment as a corpse lies hidden inside the couch right in front of them hearkens back to Rope (1948), which featured a murder victim's body hidden inside a chest while the killers are hosting a party. The connection is solidified with a commanding, eerie score from Bernard Herrmann, who of course also did the music for Vertigo, Psycho and numerous other Hitchcock films. The real question is: Does Sisters make it as both a tribute to "The Master of Suspense" and as its own movie? For the most part, I'd say yes.

Derivative as this and his other Hitchcock-inspired efforts may be, the real joy of De Palma's early thrillers isn't so much in the stories themselves, but in the film-making techniques used to tell those stories. He's quite well-known for utilizing split screen, and we see it here too during several sequences. It's used particularly well during a suspenseful sequence that simultaneously shows us Emil and Danielle hurriedly hiding the body and trying to tidy up while Grace and the cops head toward the apartment. Toward the end, there are some wonderfully stylish and imaginative sequences where Grace is drugged and envisions herself as one of the twins (still attached to the other). Instead of just simply cutting to flashback mode or doing something like putting a waver-effect on the screen, De Palma chooses to zoom in on Salt's pupil until all is lost to black. The image then pulls back from the darkness to reveal a a circular, eye-shaped black-and-white vision of an earlier time. These sequences are extremely odd and somewhat surreal; hazily blending hallucination with reality in a very neat and inventive way. How the Grace character is able to see these things - or what kind of unknown drug she's been shot up with that allows her to see them (granted it did) - muddies up the finale a tad, but there's still much here to enjoy.

The acting all around is pretty good, with Kidder (who was dating De Palma at the time she made this) in a particularly showy role, Finley memorable as her creepy lover and Salt fine as the assertive heroine. Showing up in small roles are Barnard Hughes (The Lost Boys) as a LIFE Magazine writer who'd previously done a story on the twins, Mary Davenport, Salt's real-life mother playing same here, Dolph Sweet as the disbelieving detective and an unbilled Olympia Dukakis as a baker. De Palma (who co-scripted with Louisa Rosa) was inspired to write the film after reading an article about real-life Siamese twins Dasha and Masha Krivoshlyapova.

After its initial theatrical run in the U.S. and in Europe, Sisters played at the Venice Film Festival in 1975, made its TV debut on NBC in 1976 and then saw a VHS release through Warner in the 80s. Criterion picked it up for DVD distribution in 2000; offering up a digitally-remastered "special edition" in widescreen. In 2006, it was remade by Douglas Buck (Cutting Moments) on a paltry 60,000 dollar budget that somehow afforded a cast that included Chloë Sevigny (as the reporter), Stephen Rea (as the doctor) and French model Lou Doillon (as the twins). The film received a direct-to-DVD release in 2008 with almost no buzz whatsoever created for the film. Few ended up watching it and most of those who did don't appear to think too highly of it.

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