Over the years, Brian De Palma has carved out an impressive niche for himself in auteurist circles, with works such as Obsession, Carrie, and Scarface generating lots of positive buzz (I’ve yet to see some of his 80′s-and-beyond canon, like Body Double, Femme Fatale, or The Black Dahlia). Sisters, one of his earliest films, also garners plenty of praise—it received a Criterion release, always an honor—and with good reason. Boasting creative camera techniques, a superb score, and sharp editing, Sisters is a spooky and thematically rich thriller, one that explores the psyche—with an evils-of-racism subtext—without drifting into heavy-handedness. It may not be a masterpiece of suspense, but it’s a taut, creepy genre entry.
Sisters opens with a chance meeting between Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) and Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson) on a game show, and De Palma plunges into a critique of race relations (less than ten years after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law)—as a consolation prize for an incorrect answer, Phillip is presented with dinner for two at the African Room, a predominantly black restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. With a knowing shake of the head, Phillip—an elegant, smoothly dressed gentleman who happens to be African American— accepts the gift with a resigned look of bemusement on his face (for her trouble, Danielle received a race-neutral set of knives). In recent years, De Palma has made waves with strong political statements, including an entire film (his most recent, Redacted) dedicated to hammering the Bush administration for its mishandling of the Iraq war and America’s complete lack of empathy for the Iraqi people (it focuses on the rape of a 14-year old Iraqi girl). In Sisters, we see De Palma’s progressive leanings begin to take shape.
Phillip and Danielle, a French model who speaks a sexily accented English, hit it off after the show and dine at the African Room together—with a brief interruption from Danielle’s jealous ex-husband Charles (Joseph Larch)—before heading back to Danielle’s Staten Island apartment complex for some very-late night fun. Come morning, Phillip—who hears a back-and-forth in French between Danielle and an unknown woman—runs out, buys a birthday cake for Danielle, and quietly slips back into the apartment…only to be brutally stabbed to death by a seemingly-sleeping Danielle on the couch. Unbeknownst to Danielle, however, Grace Collier (Jennifer Solt) witnesses the gruesome murder from her window a few flights up, and immediately calls the police….but there’s no body to be found in Danielle’s apartment. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game, as Grace, a local reporter for a small tabloid, begins to unlock clues about Danielle’s origins, her relationships, and her mysterious, missing sister. It should be noted that Grace takes matters into her own hands after the cops take their sweet time in getting there because, as the lead detective says, “those people are always stabbing each other,” a not-so-veiled reference to black-on-black violence and a continuation of De Palma’s assault on 1970′s prejudices.
De Palma cleverly uses split-screens to build suspense during the hide-the-body sequence, which shows Danielle and Charles frantically cleaning up the scene while the cops leisurely make their way to the building, chat with Grace, and eventually arrive at the correct apartment. Most directors tend to utilize this technique in short bursts, but De Palma is nothing if not ballsy, and the split-screen here lasts around four minutes. It works extremely well, with sharp editing and pacing mostly masking some flaws: a certain suspension of belief is required, for instance, to believe that the cops AND the furiously-focused Grace would miss a giant blood spot on the back of the couch. And indeed, parts of Sisters feel a bit dated—the blood, for instance, both on the couch and during the murder, is clearly fake—but the jarring sense of unease never really suffers as a result.
Most of the second half focuses on the psychological implications of the protagonists’ condition, which I won’t discuss in detail here (oddly, I think going into it in depth would be more of a “spoiler” than my earlier “reveal” of the murder, which is more of a trigger than a revelation). Suffice to say, De Palma draws some fascinating analogies between it and the aforementioned racial undertones, and the conclusion, set in a creaky mental hospital, is quite unnerving. De Palma’s known as a cinephile of the highest order, and Sisters regularly screams Hitchcock—Grace’s compulsive voyeurism conjures up memories of Rear Window, and large chunks of the final third recall Psycho. But despite the homages, there’s plenty of authenticity here—with intense close-ups from various angles (a technique he’d repeat in Carrie three years later) and energetic direction, De Palma proves with Sisters that he’s a worthy successor to some of the greats he admired so deeply, if not quite at their level.