in Shocktober

Sisters (1973)

I wanted to write a De Palma review without too much reference to Hitchcock, but after watching Sisters again I don’t think that’s possible. Right from the get-go this film hits you with a healthy dose of Hitch in a visually striking opening credit sequence set to music by who else but Bernard Herrmann. Though instead of dynamic Saul Bass animation, it’s colorful photos of fetuses in utero. This is where De Palma sets himself apart. He’s far more explicit than Hitch ever was. Partly because he was younger, partly because it was later in time and partly because he’s one sick fuck… but in the best way.

De Palma wears his influences on his sleeve. Hitchcock was infamous for his obsession with voyeurism, so what better way for De Palma to open his film with a voyeur themed candid-camera TV show? On the show, a man named Philip (Lisle Wilson) is caught on camera peeking at a woman, Danielle (Margot Kidder) undressing. Meanwhile, contestants back in a studio vote on whether the man will keep watching or walk away. It’s gross but Philip turns out to not be a creep and walks away. The two are then introduced to the audience where we learn Philip is an advertising salesman and Danielle is an aspiring actress from Quebec.

Philip and Danielle hit it off after the show and decide to use Philips prize “a fancy dinner for two” for the two of them. At dinner, the two are interrupted by Danielle’s ex-husband Emil (William Finley), who I would describe as looking like a nightmare Ned Flanders with a Gorbachev birthmark on his forehead. Emil is confrontational and offensive and is kicked out. The two slink away and make love back at Danielle’s apartment.

The next morning, Danielle freaks out complaining about her twin sister visiting. Philip accidentally knocks Danielle’s pills down the drain and says he’ll make it up to her by buying her more pills and a cake for her and her twin sister, Dominique. When he returns he is instantly stabbed to death by Dominique, and this is visceral stuff. The death is long and drawn out, Philip gets stabbed in the mouth, blood is dripping. It’s the kind of stuff Hitchcock wished he could do but never could. It’s a nice call back to Psycho by killing off your main character barely half-way into the film. Philip tries to flag for help from an open window and the film goes to split screen. One view showing Philip clawing at the window. The other a view of Philip’s window from across the street.

Though I’m not normally a fan of gimmicky visual techniques it suits this sequence well. On the non-Philip screen, we are introduced to a woman, Grace (Jennifer Salt), a determined reporter who immediately calls the police and tries to make her way to the apartment. As she goes through all the police bullshit on her screen, Danielle comes to on the other and finds the body of Philip. Emil comes over and they attempt to hide the body in the mattress and clean up before the cops arrive. The suspense is palpable as we can literally see what’s happening every minute Danielle and Emil attempt to hide their mistake. Of course, they do and Grace must find another way to reveal what she witnessed.

Convinced that Danielle is the murderer, her editor teams her up with a private detective named Larch (Charles Durning). Wherein a Hitchcock movie this character would be a suave Farley Granger-type, in this film he’s a fat, slime-ball that drives a dirty truck. Larch sneaks into the apartment and concludes the couch looks like it’s hiding something due to its unnatural weight. The problem being he has to escape when moving men show up before he can find out what’s inside. Grace continues to dig for dirt on Danielle and discovers from a TV studio that Danielle and Dominique were Canada’s first conjoined twins. She watches a short video on their tough upbringing and then the procedure that separated them. Except… Dominique died.

Emil, who was a doctor at the hospital, took advantage of Danielle’s fragility and became romantically involved with her. The problem is whenever Danielle gets angry or is ready to make love, she turns into Dominique and tries to kill people. Emil sedates the persona with pills but has overtime lost his grip on Danielle. I won’t reveal how it all ends but its a grisly mind bender. I would expect no less from De Palma.

My only issue with the film is the whole “split personalities” story gimmick has never felt like a convincing plot device. It didn’t work for me in Fight Club, it didn’t work for me in Shutter Island and it doesn’t work for me here. Luckily, they don’t have as much back-and-forth with the personas or have the personas separately interacting with the outside world too much. It’s a self-contained story with a small cast. Jennifer Salt is compelling as the street-smart newspaper woman hero and Margot Kidder is great despite playing a character with a silly accent.

It’s a small film but the characters and mystery are engaging and tightly constructed. I can’t believe I’ve put off giving De Palma the time of day for so long. That must come to an end… A bloody one.