“They were joined at birth by the devil and the evil never left them!”
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning
Synopsis: A journalist witnesses a brutal murder in a neighboring apartment, but the police do not believe that the crime took place. With the help of a private detective, she seeks out the truth.
This pre-Carrie horror movie from Brian De Palma demonstrates his usual preoccupation with everything Hitchcock, with particular ‘homage’ paid to Psycho and Rear Window. I’m not one hundred per cent sure where I stand on De Palma. He’s a talented director, but he has a tendency to over-embellish, and his obsession with Hitchcock inevitably dilutes any style of his own that he might have developed. Sisters is typical of De Palma’s work in the way that he seems to have developed a story around a few key ideas from his favourite director’s most famous movies and attempted to expand on their themes such as the human propensity for voyeurism, and the plight of the murder witness whose own life is placed in jeopardy when his story isn’t believed.
The tone of the movie is set with a truly unsettling opening credits sequence in which still shots of foetuses in the womb are shown in extreme close-up against the score of Hitchcock’s regular composer, Bernard Hermann. There’s nothing out of the ordinary about these unborn —and barely formed — children, but De Palma’s use of that score make them look positively menacing. The opening scene then misleads the audience by showing us a shot of a man spying on an attractive young blind woman who appears to have mistakenly wandered into the changing room in which he is dressing as she begins undressing. But what we see is an illusion. The girl is Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) a model, and the scene is from a hidden camera TV show in which contestants must decide whether a person placed in a voyeuristic situation will take advantage of their situation or walk away. The man, Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) eventually does the honourable thing, and wins a dinner for two as a reward for his honourable behaviour, while Danielle receives a knife set which you just know is going to play a prominent part in later plot developments.
These two run into each other outside the TV studio and go an impromptu dinner date — ‘I’ve brought my own cutlery!’ Danielle cutely declares when proposing the date — during which her jealous ex-husband, Emil (William Finley) is forcibly ejected after attempting to drag her home. After dinner, a drunken Danielle invites Woode home for coffee and the usual, an offer which he’s understandably keen to accept — after first driving around the block to con Emil, who has been lurking outside Danielle’s flat, into believing he has gone home. As Danielle and Woode start getting down to business, De Palma closes in on her naked thigh, and in particular the strange scar that resides there. Now, at this point you’d be forgiven for thinking that Danielle and Woode — or at least one of these two — will be the main characters of the story, but that’s not to be. In fact the first twenty minutes act as a prologue for the main thrust of the story, which revolves around highly-strung newspaper reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who lives in an apartment opposite Danielle’s, and who witnesses Woode’s murder.
The police are noticeably reluctant to take Grace’s report of the murder seriously. It seems her columns are frequently less than complimentary to New York’s finest, and so they feel justified in stubbornly refusing to believe her report — which sort of supports her contention that they aren’t quite as professional as perhaps they could be. Nevertheless, Detective Kelly (Dolph Sweet) eventually accompanies Grace to the alleged scene of the crime, but he has taken so long prevaricating that Danielle, aided by her ex-husband, has had time to hide all evidence that anything untoward has taken place.
Although it takes its cue from Hitchcock’s Psycho, Sisters is possibly the first movie to explore the idea of two people residing in one body and the potentially deadly consequences of such overcrowding. It’s an idea that’s been refined and done to death in the forty years since Sisters was released, and De Palma flirts with the idea with all the focus of a writer (he co-wrote with Louisa Rose) who can’t quite decide just what sort of story he wants to tell. Sisters sets out to be a psychological horror story before unaccountably switching tack to become an investigative thriller. Unfortunately, the horror story, which is undeniably where the movie’s strength lies, takes second place to the more predictable investigative strand, leaving the script with far too much explaining to do in the final reel.
Salt, who takes centre stage, is a much less accomplished actress than Kidder, even when the latter actress is struggling with an unnecessary French accent. Throughout the movie her character remains in a constant state of agitation that quickly wears thin, and for a supposedly smart cookie she does some incredibly stupid things. Meanwhile, Kidder all but disappears for long stretches of the movie, or is occasionally briefly glimpsed through her apartment window, and her presence is sorely missed. Despite these shortcomings, Sisters does possess a pace and energy that smooth over many of the plot inconsistencies, and manages to deliver some genuinely creepy moments. A director with a surer touch and more distinctive style could undoubtedly have made something special out of Sisters, but a young De Palma still three years from his breakthrough movie, wasn’t quite up to the job at the time that it was made.
(Reviewed 7th October 2013)