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We are joined by the multi-hyphenate, uber-talented writer, actor, director, producer Sujata Day. You may know her best from her role as Sarah on Insecure. But she also recently wrote, directed, and starred in her debut feature Definition Please, about a former spelling bee champion who must reconcile with her family and her past. She joins Katie Walsh to discuss Brian De Palma’s severely underrated Sisters. Katie and Sujata gush over the “bonkers” quality of the film. But Sujata goes further and points to De Palma’s use of split-screens and imaginative filmmaking techniques that directly inspired her work. Sujata also discusses scrappy filmmaking (she shot her film in two weeks), utilizing Indian music, and having complete creative control over low-budget projects.
If Obsession was de Palma’s riff on Vertigo, this is his riff on Rear Window, if, at first at least, from a different perspective. The film opens with a strange ‘Peeping Tom’ quiz show in which a real person is tricked into a compromising situation involving opportunities to prey on a vulnerable woman, here played by the iconic Margot Kidder. She pretends to be a blind woman for the show, and in a secretly filmed scenario, contestants have to guess whether the person being covertly filmed is going to grope her or not as she undresses, supposedly unaware of his presence. He doesn’t, and respects her privacy. After the airing of the game show they have a date together that’s going great until Kidder’s ex-husband, played by the phantom himself William Finley being, stupendously creepy, shows up.
What follows is a 45 minute set piece that plays like a one act play for half the movie. It involves a slow build to murder and then an investigation when a neighbouring journalist sees the murder. It is unquestionably one of the most tense things I’ve ever seen as de Palma utilises his trademark split screen with the utmost aplomb with amazing visual storytelling. It at many moments plays out like the opening of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, which de Palma had already homaged in his movie Phantom of the Paradise, except it uses edits to juxtapose two separate plotlines playing out tangentially in real time, (where Phantom of the Paradise uses much longer takes), this lets the audience make the sums in their head as to who will get away with what, winding the tension like a ratchet. The actual editing on show here, by Hollywood legend and editor of Star Wars, Paul Hirsch, is astonishing. If you know anything about Star Wars‘s making, Paul Hirsch and Brian de Palma, amongst several other people who are not George Lucas, are the sole reason Star Wars is a well edited film, and their skill comes together here in a showcase of some of the best editing you will ever, ever see. I almost think this would be my favourite de Palma if the whole movie played out like this first half, keeping in one apartment, as a journalist who has justifiably criticised the police force is constantly ignored by them until she can uncover murder, which is what the plot of this first half is, and it’s insane and it’s intense.
The rest of the movie is still par excellence as you’d expect from de Palma. It plays out for a time almost like a preemptive to Argento’s Deep Red, with our protagonist trying to make it as a female journalist and bumping up against colourful characters who she negotiates to try to get to the bottom of this mystery. She eventually makes it to a mental ward where Margot Kidder is now becoming institutionalised and things get… weird…
So where to describe the appeals of this movie? In order to do that you somewhat have to talk about it as two different movies.
In the movie it is for most of its runtime and first, it’s a tense, knuckle-whitening thriller that explores typical de Palma themes of police corruption. Part of the reason the cops are loathe to investigate this murder is that it’s the murder of a black man, reported by a woman who we are introduced to, looking for all the world like Jane Fonda in the middle of her revolutionary period, with columns pinned on the wall about how police have failed at their jobs and suppressed people of colour in America. The storytelling is impeccable, making sure, in the way that de Palma does, that each and every element is kept track of for the audience at every moment. It means that as an audience you have to do virtually no work but it’s still at atmosphere you could cut like a knife, in part because you’re wondering how this all plays out, but also because it just plays out like a Swiss watch in how each element moves absolutely perfectly. Margot Kidder as usual plays beautifully with a challenging role in a genre picture, making the most of some very difficult scenes. Even after the first 45 minutes end and we follow a more conventional mystery narrative, the storytelling is beautifully maintained, leading up to the climax, at which point very few of the remaining threads matter too much as it takes on a whole new tone…
So, I want to talk about the third act, but to do so would be majorly spoiler heavy, so I’m going to try to keep this brief and vague. The third act gets… psychedelic. It changes to flashbacks filmed in black and white that, while trying to evoke real photography we’ve been shown earlier in the picture, takes place entirely in the mental space of a character. So much of the third act revolves around breaking down the boundary between reality and fantasy. Breaking down the boundaries between what is imagined and what is real, and how much that boundary even matters. It involves hypnosis leading to not one, but two fascinating and haunting codas. What’s fascinating about this climax is how much it moves into pure psychological space. It’s a film that starts as an incredibly grounded riff on The Bird With The Crystal Plumage via Rear Window, and ends more like Carnival of Souls… It’s mildly astonishing, if over-exposited for my tastes, and made with a killer eye to style, within quite low budget confines.
So that’s Sisters, it’s the first movie where de Palma tried to make a movie with the kind of polish that he’d make his own and it is the perfect meeting between the anarchist, revolutionary, unconventional and difficult de Palma that I love, and the more straightforward and stylish de Palma that I like and everyone loves. Its appeals are hard to describe in words, because they are purely visceral. Sisters is a film you watch, not explain, so go watch it. It’s [f**king] great.
Meanwhile, earlier today, Collider's William Bibbiani posted a chronological list of "The 25 Best Psychological Thrillers of All Time." In his introduction, Bibbiani explains that there was "only one caveat: there’s only one film from each director, because some filmmakers make a cottage industry of this genre, and it’s important to share as many brilliant films from as many different perspectives as possible." And so when it came to Brian De Palma, Bibbiani chose Sisters:
Brian De Palma crafted the majority of his career around acrobatically photographed, labyrinthine psychological, and frequently sexual thrillers. But although Dressed to Kill, Obsession, Body Double and Raising Cain are all stellar, whirlwind shockers, it’s his first foray into Hitchcockian suspense that stands out. Sisters is a twisted, grotesque, unexpected delight.
The story of Sisters takes many sharp turns, beginning with an amusing anecdote of voyeurism, segueing into young love and jealousy, careening into murder, and then returning once again to voyeurism. From there on out we’re in Nancy Drew territory, as a plucky young reporter, played by Jennifer Salt, investigating a murder she’s sure was committed by an aspiring actress, played by Superman’s Margot Kidder, or possibly her identical twin sister. That is, until De Palma’s Grand Guignol climax, where the rules go out the window and so does the mystery, as though the filmmaker couldn’t wait to show you just how disturbing and fascinating his imagination is.
What elevates Sisters above a standard Hitchcock rip-off, and makes it authentically De Palma, is its typically unsubtle and scathing social critique. Latching on to the disillusionment of late-1960s America amid the broadcasting of the Vietnam War, he makes his concerns about morbid fascination apparent. By framing the game show scene as a television studio set, De Palma positions us as the live audience, making it impossible to ignore his on-the-nose satire.
As evidenced in this scene, the act of looking is central to the plot of Sisters and is unavoidable as a by-product of its Psycho-meet-Rear Window narrative. Crucially, budding investigative journalist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) is introduced as the lead character through a voyeuristic episode: the viewing of Woode’s murder at the hands of psychologically unhinged Dominique, Danielle’s since-separated Siamese twin and ulterior personality.
After a frenzy of blood and Bernard Herrmann’s screeching score, Collier’s identity as Danielle’s distant neighbour, and witness, is revealed via a tantalising zoom out. De Palma uses his notorious split-screening to show this ordeal unfolding from both apartments simultaneously, suggesting that no one is immune to being spied on in this twisting, slasher escapade.
This begins the reporter’s story of female crisis as distrust haunts her at every turn: whether it’s the police, her own mother, or a private investigator she hires. De Palma makes this disbelief as frustrating to watch as possible, to both point at a repressive patriarchy and indicate the dangers of her invasive, suspense-fuelled investigation.
He achieves this by frequently positioning the audience as voyeurs of the story rather than being immersed in one character’s perspective: effectively punishing them for peeping too. One excruciating split screen sequence shows Grace’s fracas with the police side-by-side with Danielle’s ex-husband Emil (regular De Palma collaborator William Finley) hurriedly covering up the murder and hiding the body in a sofa bed.
Collier’s persistence heightens upon viewing a Breton Twins exposé, reminiscent of the exploitative real-life documentaries that fed perverse curiosity in the sixties. Her own morbid fascination leads her into captivity under Emil and she is forced to witness the journey of the twins whilst sedated in a harrowing dream sequence.
This is where De Palma really flexes his directorial muscle, physically launching Collier into the perspective of Dominique through her own pupil, which transitions to become a peep hole into the twin’s nightmarish history. Switching from 35mm to 16mm, colour also ceases to exist as she witnesses life on the other side of the lens, including the invasive recording of the documentary and the neurotic behaviour of the general public.
Such an explosive crescendo rounds up what De Palma was saying all along: our voyeuristic tendencies are unhealthy, perverse, and ultimately dangerous. The final shot and the last act of looking is one of obsession and zero resolution. Through binoculars, the private investigator observes the sofa bed intrinsic to the murder. No one is coming for it and the case is dead in the water. Still, he watches on.
Sisters opens with a double-bluff. First, as the credits roll to the instantly recognisable dramatic strains of a Bernard Herrmann score, we see up-close stills (courtesy of Lennart Nilsson) of a foetus developing in utero, before it is revealed that there is a second foetus hidden behind the first. Next, in the opening scene, ad man Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) is shown in a changing room watching as a blind woman enters and starts undressing – only for it to be revealed that this is a sting operation, with Phillip’s moves and moral choices being filmed by hidden cameras for a television show called Peeping Toms. By turning away, Phillip passes the test of chivalry, and is rewarded with dinner for two at Manhattan’s nightspot. The ‘blind’ woman – in fact, a perfectly sighted Quebecoise model called Danielle (Margot Kidder) – puts herself forward to join Phillip at the club, and then invites him back to her apartment on Staten Island. The following morning, Phillip is murdered there, stabbed with a knife from the cutlery set that had been Danielle’s prize on the show.
These two openings, one short and one much longer, introduce what will prove key themes in Brian De Palma’s first thriller: twins (and other doubles), and voyeurism. It turns out that sweet Danielle is a Siamese twin, surgically separated from her more disturbed sister Dominique (also Kidder) as an adult, and still bearing scars (both physical and psychological) from that traumatic rupture. Linked by their otherness – he is African-American, she is French-Canadian – Phillip and Danielle are brought together by a television show devoted to wandering eyes, and as they spend the night and morning together, they are still being observed – by Danielle’s ex-husband, Emil Breton (William Finley), who possessively stalks the model, by Dominique, who lingers jealously in the next room, and by budding journalist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who lives in an apartment opposite and is partial eyewitness to Phillip’s murder. Even the newspaper for which Collier currently works is called the Staten Island Panorama – that last word signifying the full view of the film’s plotting which, in the end, the audience can see even if the surviving characters remain blind.
It is no coincidence that Herrmann was hired to provide the score. For Sisters, like so many of De Palma’s subsequent films, pays homage to, even makes pastiche of, the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock. Grace snooping from her apartment replays Rear Window (1954), while the killing and cover-up that unfold in Danielle’s apartment come with echoes of Rope (1948) and a gender-reversed Psycho (1960). If these allusions represent one kind of doubling, there are certainly others, from De Palma’s expert use of split screens to divide the film’s narrative perspective in two to the convergence of Danielle’s and Grace’s storylines until they become hypnotically conjoined. Sisters is a film of two halves, with Phillip’s murder and disappearance followed fast by Grace’s amateur sleuthing – in which she is paired with professional detective Joseph Larch (Charles Durning). Their two-pronged investigation will lead to some crazy places, and indeed to a place for the crazy, where one man’s gaslighting ways are made to coalesce with a psychiatrist’s clinical use of mesmerism, and two very different women will find themselves trapped in the same Shock Corridor.
Both Grace and Danielle are trapped. Grace may have high ambitions to pursue her career as an investigative reporter independent of any men, but voices around her, like the urgings of her mother (Mary Davenport) that she give up her “little job” and get married, keep driving her to conform to the prevailing, male-oriented system, while the policemen and Detective Larch broadly patronise and ignore her. In a different way, Danielle is even more trapped, still mentally conjoined to her now-separate sister as though she were a phantom limb, and caught in her ex’s abusive web of control. The two murders in the film are both presented as acts of revenge – one tragically misdirected – against patriarchy itself. Indeed, both begin with castrating slashes at the male groin, the seat of phallocentric power. Yet, by the end of the film, Grace has thoroughly internalised a male voice that undermines her own best interests – and prevents her from ever being able to publish her big journalistic scoop. For this is a film where sisters, and the sisterhood, are shown to fail in their bid for success or freedom, all thanks to a domineering, manipulative Svengali who gets into their heads and brainwashes them to meekness, madness and murder.
“There’s nothing simple about any of this,” complains perplexed police detective Kelly (Dolph Sweet) near the close of Sisters, unable to comprehend how or why the once determined and dogged Grace is now “just not quite herself” and insists that no crime has even been committed. Perhaps the reason is that the real criminal here, patriarchy, is able, not unlike Danielle’s twin, to continue exerting a malign influence long after it has been cut out of the scene. In any case, De Palma’s brassy, bonkers film will have you seeing double.
The period from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960 through to the Reagan '80s constitutes a "golden age" of horror cinema, an era that saw the breakthrough work of directors whose notion of horror constituted a radical challenge to bourgeois society and a rejection of middle-class notions of normality. Films like George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Brian De Palma's Sisters, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Larry Cohen's It's Alive were made and released during the turmoil of the Vietnam conflict and the Watergate scandal, and it is no coincidence that these and other horror films of the period contain some form of social and political critique.
Responding to this phenomenon, in 1979 Wayne Clarkson — who had recently been appointed executive director of the Festival of Festivals (later TIFF) — invited film critics Robin Wood and Richard Lippe to program a series of 60 horror films for the Festival's fourth edition. Opening with F.W. Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu and concluding with John Carpenter’s recently released Halloween, the programme featured onstage interviews with a number of the featured directors (including Carpenter, De Palma, Hooper, Romero, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, and Stephanie Rothman) and an accompanying book of essays. Although it had a small initial printing of only a few hundred copies, The American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film was a pioneering work that set the terms for critical study of the horror genre for decades to follow.
Ironically, following the publication of this landmark study the horror genre began to experience a period of exhaustion. Making once-fresh innovations stale by repeating them ad nauseam, the largely unimaginative and conservative movies that emerged in the 1980s effectively removed the radical frisson from horror, draining it of social criticism and turning their characters into mere targets for whatever weapon the respective killer happened to be wielding. That drought persisted for a long time: even as many of the foundational films of the genre's great period were remade (sometimes repeatedly), it is hard to think of many horror films from the last few decades that approach the allegorical resonance of Romero's remarkable zombie movies, the greatest film series in the history of American cinema.
In the last few years, however, horror has entered another period of revival and experimentation, as a new generation of filmmakers — including Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, and Robert Eggers — has mobilized the genre's basic conflict between normality and the monstrous Other in distinctive and provocative ways. It thus seemed to us appropriate to revisit one of TIFF's pioneering programmes now, as the horror genre is once again becoming a vehicle for progressive awareness in a mainstream cinema that, for the most part, continues to pretend that ideology and entertainment are two distinct entities.
The first of Brian De Palma's Hitchcock homages conceals a more serious, and ultimately more truly horrific, layer beneath its jocular salute to the Master. From the opening of the film, De Palma invokes familiar Hitchcock themes from foundational works like Rear Window and Psycho (voyeurism, normality vs. the monstrous, etc.) in tongue-in-cheek ways, as a one-night stand between French-Canadian model Danielle (Margot Kidder) and a fellow contestant on a voyeurism-based game show called Peeping Toms ends in morning-after murder — an early-act killing that invokes Psycho's shower murder, but is considerably more brutal and explicit. Our identification then shifts to Grace (Jennifer Salt), an intrepid but occasionally overzealous reporter who witnesses the killing and tries to get to the bottom of the subsequent cover-up. Her quest leads her to a delirious, narcotically stimulated hallucination in a sinister medical clinic, where she relives a traumatic incident from Danielle's past at the hands of a creepy surgeon (William Finley). Abandoning Hitchcock and radically shifting tone in its final movements, Sisters finds its horror not in the masterful manipulation of audience expectations, but in patriarchy's pervasive control over women.
Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive.
In the interview, Tarantino chooses his ten favorite records, and includes Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack score for Brian De Palma's Sisters:
“This is from a Brian De Palma movie. It’s a pretty scary film, and the soundtrack… ok if you want to freak yourself out, turn out all the lights and sit in the middle of the room and listen to this. You won’t last a minute. When I’m first thinking about a movie I’ll start looking for songs that reflect the personality of the movie, I’ll start looking for songs which can reflect the personality of the movie. The record I think most about is the one which plays during the opening credits, because that’s the one which sets the tone of the movie. Like in Reservoir Dogs, when you see the guys all walking out of the diner, and that bass line from ‘Little Green Bag’ kicks in – you just know there’s gonna be trouble.”
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