Saturday, September 28, 2013

SISTERS (Brian DePalma, 1973, USA)

Danielle is victim to a parasitic fission, relentlessly stalked by her own shadow whose umbilical umbra eclipses her life. Director Brian DePalma’s psychological thriller shares its stem cells with Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, giving birth to a delightfully gruesome celluloid twin. A magnificent Bernard Herrmann score evokes the raging strings of PSYCHO and the quiet pathos of VERTIGO, his music not only setting the mood but also becoming an active participant in the drama: it is a perfect companion to the moving pictures.

DePalma begins the film with a humorous wink, as Danielle is introduced as a model on a TV program called Peeping Tom (another tribute to a classic horror film perhaps?): it is a Candid Camera type show where she portrays a blind woman who undresses in front of an unsuspecting mark. The show’s participants must guess how the man will react: will he take advantage of the situation, walk away, or make his presence know? This conflict between reality and perception, that things are not what they seem, is the focus of the entire narrative.

The film begins as a burgeoning romance between Danielle and her one-night stand: a man who is sincere and kind, who stands up to her abusive “ex-husband” and shields her from harm. Here, DePalma shows us that perceptions and truth are sometimes one and the same; his chivalrous deeds a reflection of his actions on the game show. But his tryst with Danielle becomes a gruesome spectacle of bloodletting. Unlike Hitchcock, DePalma revels in the gory details and the murder is filmed in quick-cut montage (like PSYCHO) but reveals the gruesome injuries. As he crawls away leaving a thick congealing blood trail, he is able to scrawl “help” on the window. The scene is horrific though not surprising, as we know that the knife-set in the first act is a prop just waiting for its mark.

Grace is a civic-minded reporter who witnesses the murder…or does she? She avers to the police that she saw a black man stabbed to death but DePalma’s camera angle is contrary to this possibility: she could not have seen anything as her window looks down into Danielle’s apartment with a sharp glare on the glass. The police are generically apathetic and the slow procession towards the crime scene is shown in split-screen: a wonderful effect that heightens the tension as the “ex-husband” disposes of the evidence.

Grace is unconvinced when no body or blood is discovered and begins an investigation of her own. The writing on a cake leads Grace towards a first clue and her mother complains about another hint: DePalma’s slick narrative wastes no time in giving the audience information that remains ambiguous to the characters. It seems as if Grace could be exaggerating the assault to get her first “big story”, and even her Private Investigator is skeptical. Soon, the PI is off chasing a rather heavy sofa and Grace’s research leads her to the halfway house…where Danielle and her doppelganger are concealed. The ex-husband is actually a world renowned Doctor and in a surreal and insane pre-Lynchian nightmare, he hypnotizes Grace and Danielle into believing they are twins. This sequence looks like it is shot in 8mm, a low-grade black and white film stock, giving it an immediate and unworldly quality of chiaroscuro logic. Finally, the bad Doctor’s good intentions are revealed and his love is bled onto the bed sheets. But Grace denies any knowledge of the first murder…while the PI silently watches a large box standing sentinel at a rural train station.

Final Cut: (B+)