Sunday, January 29, 2012

[DVD] Sisters (1973)

I Need Me Pills

Brian De Palma's career to date is quite topsy-turvy, creating classics and commercial successes one moment, before tossing in a dud or two, then coming back right up again in subsequent films. Two of my favourite films in his filmography include Mission: Impossible, which I thought was the slickest and most sophisticated in the franchise until Ghost Protocol rolled along, and The Untouchables, one of the best Al Capone/Elliot Ness films that ooze class that never found repeated to date in other Capone films. And I have to admit that the annual 50% Criterion Collection sales at Barnes and Noble prompted me to pick up one of his earlier works, the psychological thriller Sisters starring Margot Kidder.

Kidder would be better known to most people as Lois Lane in all the Christopher Reeve Superman films, and it's quite refreshing to see her in a film that's out of that go-getting Lois Lane persona. In sisters she plays one half of a separated Siamese Twin, a model and aspiring actress called Danielle Breton, whom we see taking her blouse off in a Candid Camera inspired game show called Peeping Tom, where contestants have to guess just how the unsuspecting victim Phillip Woode (the late Lisle Wilson) would react. Bringing both the victim and the actress together on stage in the programme, they hook up, and spend the night together in her apartment after fending off what would be introduced as her ex husband Emil (William Finley), whom Brian De Palma brilliantly set up quite obviously when panning through to the Peeping Tom crowd.

Up until this point one would have thought this would go the horror route, since Siamese Twins have always been the subject of fascination of filmmakers. And Brian De Palma's story may have suggested that something's not quite right with Danielle, having to pop pills to sooth some pain before running out of more pills, and that deliberate revealing shot of a huge scar on the thigh of Danielle to hint at a separation that may not have gone down too well, with an unseen visit made by her sister Dominique. But De Palma plays on our imagination, and ups the ante to turn this into quite the Hitchcockian like film, inspired by the likes of Psycho and Rear Window to name but a few in a tense filled, violent sequence early in the film that combined fear and gore - repeated stabbings with a huge knife, groin attacks and a plunge into the mouth before splitting it - which looked quite tame by today's standards (this was made in the early 70s) with its amateur delivery and fake blood galore.

This gets seen by a reporter neighbour in the next block, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) who sees the potential in a huge story should she uncover and unravel the murder, given the cynicism by the police when she made the report, and their warrant-less search of Breton's house turning up naught. It is from this point that the real theme of Voyeurism starts to rear its head, with how we'd have this tendency to want to peer into other people's lives and making some deal out of it, baseless or otherwise, just like how the film began with the Peeping Tom game show. And there are countless of other scenes from hereon that dealt with this theme, of people from the outside always looking in, right up to the final act that takes place in psychiatric clinic, where Grace has her questions answered in the most surreal like fashion, no thanks to a dream like sequence.

It may be baffling since this dream sequence tosses up the narrative where things are never quite definitive, offering what could be one version of Danielle's origin in a frightfully covered flashback involving freakshows and the likes, containing deep hypnotism and efforts to link Grace and Danielle together through the brainwash of the former. It's suspenseful yes, with the last half hour being the creepiest moments in the entire film, but contains an unresolved plot thread that was left in very open ended terms right up to the last frame, which brings to mind a little bit of the injustice as felt in The Lovely Bones. Only the opening credits with the extreme close up of a small fetus rivaled the final moments of the film in terms of making one's hair stand, with the introduction setting up the stage of what's to come even if the story had drifted off a little when introducing the main characters.

But like most De Palma films, what it lacked in the story, it more than makes up for it in brilliance of its technical details. There's the use of the split screen, amongst the director's earliest in doing so, again tells of impeccable clockwork timing especially when characters in one crosses over to the other and here we're dealing with real time challenges involving lifts and a race against time to rid a room of tell tale blood stains. And who can forget that the soundtrack and music played such an instrumental role in elevating this film to, as mentioned, Hitchcockian heights, since the composer Bernard Herrmann did the same for classics such as Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest, amongst others.

As with most films one views that's a blast from the past, many things occur in the story that could never have happened in today's context, given technology advancements such as mobile phones and the video camera, which will sort of eliminate the constraints the characters face when needing to contact each other, or to cough up with documentary evidence to back up and justify one's accusation. Cumbersome hand signals and creative use of the land lines help to bridge communications except when geography gets in the way, but while these challenges can be overcome, much larger innate ones like the slight racism amongst smaller characters here would requite a monumental effort.

In any case Sisters was Brian De Palma's earlier feature film works, and being the technical person he is, his subsequent films will boast larger technical challenges such as Snake Eyes' long opening tracking shot, and more complex mysteries like that covered in the narrative of The Black Dahlia. Sisters showcases De Palma's more humble beginnings and shows how far he has come.

The Code 1 DVD by Criterion Collection presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen format which was a little grainy at times, with monaural audio. Scene selection is available over 18 Chapters, and subtitles are in English with close caption.

Most of the extras here are text based, with the chapter "what the devil hath joined together..." made up of The Making of Sisters; An interview with Director Brian De Palma which is conducted by Richard Rubinstein originally published in Filmmakers Newsletter, September 1973, and the article that had inspired Brian De Palma to make the film stored under the chapter of Rare Study of Siamese Twins in Soviet which talks about Masha and Dasha, a pair of Russian Siamese Twins in the 8 April 1966 issue of Life magazine.

There's also the Original 1973 press book containing some 42 pages of extracts and excerpts from ads, as well as a whopping more than 330 black and white and photo stills from Behind-the-scenes and publicity photos, before like most of the early Criterion discs, having a Color Bars presentation included for colour calibration.

The DVD insert includes an essay written by Bruce Kawin, Professor of English and Film Studies at University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as an anecdote filled article written by Brian De Palma himself in a 1973 Village Voice that details his working with renowned composer Bernard Hermann.

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