Friday, June 4, 2010

#86: Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)

(Warning: Nostalgic childhood anecdote precedes movie review. I apologize if any of you find this irritating. I usually do, but this anecdote is forever tied in my memory to this movie, so suck it.)
I have a long and strange history with this movie. My first exposure to it was late at night at the age of eight, on one of those formative childhood weekends that sticks with you forever. It was late in the summer, and my parents and most of my aunts and uncles were out of town at the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota. My father and my uncles on my mother's side are avid motorcycle riders, and Sturgis used to be a yearly routine for them. Since the oldest of the kids was only 11, the entire bunch of us got farmed out to various grandparents and family friends while our parents were out of town for four days. My brother and sister stayed with friends, and I ended up on the couch at my maternal grandparents' house. My cousin Pat got the spare bedroom. This was a sweet deal for me. My late grandmother was a lot of fun and a great cook, her house was across the street from the local bike trail and lake, and my older, much cooler cousin Pat was staying there with me. Not only that, his older friend Greg was staying there, too, on Saturday night. Greg was in junior high, which was almost high school. High school was as cool as you could get. This was going to be a weekend of awesomeness. Little did I know that this weekend would imprint the close-up image of creepy doctor Emil Breton (William Finley) on my brain and haunt my childhood dreams forever after.

My cousin Pat is three years older than me, and the oldest cousin on my mom's side of the family. Despite being very quiet and shy, he was the most popular kid in school because he looked a lot older than his years and was good at everything. He got straight As, was great at basketball and track, knew how to build shit, pulled some legendary pranks with his friends, was ahead of the curve on music trends, was interested in a wide variety of stuff, had friends from all walks of life, and never seemed to fuck up in public. Most of his friends were older than him, but they idolized him, and he couldn't walk ten feet without getting hit on by an older girl. He was even a good dancer. (He currently lives in an amazing log house, which he built himself, with his beautiful family.) I thought he was cool, but he also seemed to be everything I wasn't. I was a scrawny, young-looking, bookish, non-athletic, awkward, overenthusiastic dork. I wouldn't shut up about rock music and horror movies, and I sucked at basketball. True story: an older kid once demanded that I publicly apologize to him and give him five dollars for irritating him. (Excellent scam, by the way.) When I told him Pat was my cousin, he got down on his knees and begged me not to tell him. Can you imagine that kind of playground cachet?
Anyway, the day was a good one. I believe my grandmother made Mexican pizza, or maybe Denver omelets, Pat and Greg took me with them to buy candy and soda pop and illegal fireworks from a friend of Greg's, Greg thought I was hilarious for some reason, and I watched pro wrestling with my grandfather. After my grandparents went to bed, the real fun started. We watched some music videos, Pat and Greg wrestled while I acted as ring announcer and referee, and then they left while cryptically telling me to possibly expect a few more people to come over and not to tell my grandparents. Greg also dropped this line, which I have never forgotten: "I get the one with the big chi-chis." Being eight, and not being in the habit of calling breasts "chi-chis," it took me longer than it should have to realize they were going to sneak some girls into the house. About an hour later, they came back with two girls. They hung out for a bit, watched some more videos, then they all went into the spare bedroom and closed the door. Left to my own devices, I turned my attention back to the television. And that's when I saw it.
I flipped the channel to KWGN, a local Denver station that was seemingly created just to please me. With the exception of its local news and Denver Nuggets coverage, everything on this channel was of great interest to me. There was Blinky, a local clown who always seemed to be drunk or hung over. Imagine a cross between Krusty the Clown and Nicolas Cage's character in Leaving Las Vegas. They regularly showed horror films and gritty '70s movies. They showed Geraldo's specials about Al Capone's vault and the Charles Manson interview. They played classic Tex Avery and Chuck Jones cartoons, and Keaton, Chaplin, Three Stooges, and Little Rascals shorts. In the days before infomercials turned late-night TV into total garbage, KWGN showed strange, strange movies, cartoons, and old comedy shorts in the wee small hours. I loved this channel.

On the night of the living chi-chis, when I was frozen out of the adolescent make-out session, KWGN was playing De Palma's Sisters, though I didn't find out the title of the film until I was in my early twenties. The movie was about two-thirds over when I started watching it that night when I was eight. I happened to pick up on the film at a particularly memorable scene. Jennifer Salt's character is walking toward a large house in the country at night. The house, which is a home for the severely mentally ill, is ominously shot from below. Salt moves closer to the house and the camera pulls up for a medium shot. Salt stands next to a large picture window, eavesdropping. She sees a strange, bug-eyed man (William Finley) plunge a hypodermic needle into a struggling, disturbed woman (Margot Kidder). I was transfixed. The image was unlike anything I'd seen before. Though I've loved monster movies and horror since I could crawl, I hadn't seen anything that really frightened me until that moment. I was thoroughly creeped out, and exhilarated by my fear. The image was such a strong one. The combination of light and darkness, the characters' prominent facial features, the thrill and terror of voyeurism, the chance of the woman being caught, the lack of information about the characters or what happened in the film so far, the strangeness of the whole experience. Voyeurism is one of the great film subjects, and I was getting my first taste. I watched the rest of the film, not knowing what the hell was going on, but fascinated anyway. At one point, one of the girls came out of the spare bedroom and watched some of it with me. She was the pretty, slender blonde one (not the one with the big chi-chis), and I remember her commenting on how creepy the movie was and if it would give me nightmares. I said it wouldn't, she laughed, watched a little more, and went back in the make-out room. I spent the next several years fruitlessly waiting for the movie to reappear on television, sometimes wondering if I'd dreamed it, never forgetting William Finley's face. That scene stuck in my mind forever, and I was often frustrated at not being able to find out anything about the movie, including the title. When the Internet became available to me, I thought I might solve the mystery. Not knowing any of the actors' names, however, and relying on memories of childhood, my searches turned up nothing.
Finally, at the age of 24, I rented Sisters, unaware that it was that formative, unnamed movie from my childhood. I was interested in '70s movies, and I wanted to check out more De Palma. Watching the film, I began to get a creepy, familiar feeling whenever Finley appeared onscreen. Finally, that scene appeared, and I almost leaped out of my seat. Holy shit! That's it! That's the movie! A 16-year mystery was solved. I became much more excited than I should have been, but I thought I was going to go to my grave not knowing the name of the film that blew my eight-year-old mind.

Sisters, Brian De Palma's second foray into suspense (after the underrated, little-seen Murder a la Mod), is a thoroughly entertaining exercise in audience manipulation, black humor, Hitchcock homage, and horror. De Palma is a master visual stylist and one of the great entertainers, and he deserves more credit than he gets from most serious critics. De Palma, like most filmmakers whose primary subject is the medium of film itself, takes a lot of flak for being contemptuous of his audience and for lacking human feeling. Quentin Tarantino and the Coens catch the same hell constantly. Admittedly, there is a little bit of truth in this criticism, and there is some suspended adolescence in all of these filmmakers, but the process of filmmaking seems to me just as suitable a subject for film as any other. While these guys may not reach the heights of the all-time greats whose primary subject is human experience and/or the mysteries of life (Renoir, Bresson, Cassavetes, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Fassbinder, Mike Leigh, Charles Burnett, early Scorsese, early Herzog, Vigo, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Kiarostami, Fidanzati, Panahi, Ford, Hawks, to name just a few in my upper echelon), it's like saying Dashiell Hammett is no good because he's not Tolstoy. Fun is also highly important, and there are plenty of floors in the tower of great filmmakers. Many canonized filmmakers are primarily interested in filmmaking as a stylized comment on film-watching (Hitchcock, in particular) or favor image over character (Kubrick) or seem to dislike people intensely (Lang), but they escape most of the drubbing that De Palma et al. regularly receives. Maybe the problem is Pauline Kael, a loud and proud De Palma supporter. One of the most powerful film critics ever, Kael made plenty of enemies and detractors among some of the most thoughtful critics, and this may explain some of the De Palma hostility. Whatever it is, I think De Palma's run of films from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, and a handful of his later works, are some of the most eminently watchable movies ever made. However deep he is or isn't, his ingenious mixture of Hitchcock, Godard, exploitation trash, Pop Art, voyeurism fetish, and black humor is thrilling and exciting.
Sisters opens with a nice, tongue-in-cheek red herring. A blind woman (Margot Kidder) enters a changing room and begins taking off her clothes. A man is already in the room, watching her. This proves to be a segment from a Candid Camera-style game show called Peeping Toms, and the guests have to guess if the man will stay and watch or politely leave. Kidder is a plant who's not really blind. Her and the unsuspecting man strike up a friendship and mutual attraction after the show and decide to go to dinner, then head back to Kidder's apartment for some casual sex. That's about all I will reveal of the twists. Part of the film's pleasure is not quite knowing what will happen next. All I will say is that the story involves twin sisters, murder, experimental mental health treatment, private detectives, and lots and lots of voyeurism. Kidder is fantastic, giving a physical, complex performance, and the rest of the cast is pretty good, too. De Palma regular William Finley (the phantom in The Phantom of the Paradise) is unforgettable, as usual, and the film is both unsettling and hilarious, with an excellent Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, Taxi Driver) score.
I really, really like this movie.


Plop Blop said...

That's a great story.

Anonymous said...

Great read.