THE SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS IN DE PALMA'S 'SISTERS' FEEL AS RELEVANT AS EVER, WRITES URSULA MUNOZ-SCHAEFER
At Neon Splatter last week, Ursula Muñoz-Schaefer wrote about Brian De Palma's Sisters in an "Added To Watchlist" column:
If you spend any amount of time online, you’ve probably engaged in — or, at the very least, come across — conversations about the supposed politicization of popular media. Whether it be meddling right-wingers or snooty leftists, everyone seems to be under the impression that, for better or worse, genre films have evolved to reflect the increasing awareness of environmental issues, economic inequality, and race and gender politics that characterize our turbulent times. The horror genre in particular has become the target of much discussion between recent remakes of existing IP such as this year’s CANDYMAN and last year’s THE INVISIBLE MAN, the widespread acclaim of diverse new creators like Jordan Peele, and the wave of less successful knockoffs his films seem to be inspiring. Although many of these themes have certainly become increasingly overt in recent years, horror media has always been rife with blistering social critique, and the 1970s were proof of that. Brian De Palma’s psychosexual horror-thriller SISTERS is proof of that too.
Released in 1972, four years prior to his meteoric success with CARRIE, SISTERS remains a somewhat underrated gem in De Palma’s filmography, which also includes SCARFACE, BLOW OUT, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, and the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE among its many hits. Taking place in Staten Island, the movie follows a woman who attempts to investigate a murder case that goes ignored by the police. Suspecting her neighbor of the crime, she falls into a tangled web of dark secrets concerning said woman’s medical history and her caustic relationship to a mysterious twin.
There are several reasons De Palma’s fourth-most-popular horror scratches an itch few films can satisfy for me. For starters, its social implications feel as relevant as ever. Spoiling as little as possible, the man (Lisle Wilson) whose murder our protagonist Grace (Jennifer Salt) witnesses, is black. A hard-hitting journalist who’d previously written about corruption in the local police force, her claims are brushed aside by the detective who does not make an attempt to properly search the neighbor’s apartment for a body. He constantly belittles Grace and threatens to have her arrested for petty charges if she doesn’t lay off. The man’s race is brought up many times over the course of the film, with Grace implying that the police are racist for not taking the murder seriously and instead siding with the white woman (Margot Kidder) she accused of deadly assault.
Unbeknownst to the other characters, said white woman, Danielle, suffers from an undisclosed psychiatric illness, and lives under the medical and emotional care of her controlling husband, Emil (William Finley). Like in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, the initial murder victim is followed closely during the film’s first act, which establishes him as a decent man unfazed by the microaggressions he undergoes in his day-to-day life until he is brutally killed off. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the characters are being failed by what the film portrays as oppressive social and structural forces meant to protect them — resulting in a domino effect with catastrophic consequences.
SISTERS is also just a treat for movie and history buffs. As a big Hitchcock junkie, there are few things I love more than a good modern retelling of his work, from MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993) to STOKER (2013). SISTERS is unique in that it pays homage to the revolutionary narrative and audiovisual techniques from the Master of Suspense’s entire career through obvious references to scenes from his most iconic films.
Read the rest at Neon Splatter.