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Brian De Palma’s “SISTERS” (Arrow Blu-ray Review)

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SISTERS just might be the most important movie in Brian De Palma’scareer. Though his first feature MURDER A LA MOD laid down hints of what was to come, SISTERS was the first time De Palma ditched his satirical, political, Godard-influenced romps in favor of self-consciously accepting Hitchcock’s crown as a new master of suspense. That’s not to say that the movie is serious, of course. De Palma’s deep appreciation and understanding of Hitchcock extended to Hitch’s dark humor and refined sense of irony. So, what Pauline Kael’s once famously referred to as De Palma’s “alligator grin” is in full effect.

Though very clearly a low budget effort, all of the humor, horror, style, and substance that defined what we all know of as a “Brian De Palma film” debuts in SISTERS fully formed. In fact, it’s almost shocking to see how assured De Palma was when he burst onto the scene with the thriller. It’s unlikely the director knew he’d basically be twisting and remaking all of SISTER’s tropes in thrillers for the rest of his career, but that’s what happened. And if you need a starting point for delving into the filmmaker’s bizarre filmography, then the ground zero of Sisters is as easy and strong a place as any. I guess that’s why the good folks at Arrow decided to add the flick to their year-long De Palma revival, following up such classics as BLOW OUT, THE FURY and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.

The plot of SISTERSis as joyously and buoyantly convoluted as you’d expect from De Palma whenever he doubles up on writing and directing duty. It starts with a hilarious parody of both voyeurism and bad game shows that bring together Lisle Wilson and Margot Kidder as an unlikely couple. She’s French Canadian, he’s African American and they have a charmingly awkward date. In the morning, Kidder fights with an offscreen twin sister, and then quietly reveals that it’s her/their birthday. He pops out to get Kidder some pills and a birthday cake and upon returning is rewarded for his kindness with a butcher knife to the crotch, face, and a few other sensitive areas. Then Kidder’s presumed husband and possible doctor (played by the great William Finley) shows up to clean the mess as we’re introduced to our new protagonist (through split-screen, of course) Jennifer Salt, a plucky journalist with a knack for irritating authority. The movie switches to Salt’s perspective as her and her private eye buddy Charles Durning set out to discover Kidder and Finley’s inevitably twisted past. Of course, the answers are weird, wacky, creepy, and ridiculous (in the greatest possible sense).

The tone of SISTERSis particularly flippant for a thriller. Though De Palma doesn’t slouch on the violence or suspense, he came into the movie a satirist and seems to be poking fun at his own creation and the audience’s desire for such silly entertainment throughout. The opening thirty minutes are filled with hilarious jabs at 70s culture, while in the subsequent hour DePalma has as much fun mocking suspense tropes and genre storytelling as he does delivering such lurid pleasures. Margot Kidder’s hysterical French/Canadian stereotype (as well as her non-verbal sister) and William Finley’s almost slapstick portrayal of the mysterious doctor are delivered with their tongues so deep into their cheeks that it’s amazing they can deliver dialogue. On the other side of the equation, Jennifer Salt plays things completely straight and manages to sell the absurd plot acting as an outside observer. It’s that split between performances that defines SISTERS as a whole. De Palma is both crafting a more graphic Hitchcock movie for a 70s audience and lovingly mocking those very conventions. It’s somewhere in this balancing act between genre sincerity and parody that the legendary director found his house style.

Given SISTERS was an early, independently produced effort, you can’t expect the same relentless string of glossy tracking shots from the director at his peak. Still, the film is still just as visually sumptuous as you’d hope from the filmmaker. De Palma borrows liberally from the Hitchcock playbook to create a meticulously crafted bit of visual storytelling. Colors are lurid and ludicrous, always building towards explosions of blood red—like all De Palma joints, the actual onscreen violence is minimal, but so much screentime is dedicated to building up the threat of violence or dealing with its aftermath that it feels more violent than it truly is. The centerpiece set piece is a brilliant bit of split screen staging that introduces Salt investigating a murder and follows Finley covering it up simultaneously. The director also flips from 35 mm to 16mm for a truly twisted dream sequence filled with bizarre surrealism so effective that it’s a shame De Palma never really dabbled in it again. To top off the bloody cake, the director tosses in a spectacularly bombastic Bernard Hermann score that suits the visuals and nails home the homage so effectively, you’ll wish Hermann’s music backed all of the director’s pictures.SISTERS might be a crude, cheap, and silly thriller that doesn’t come close to matching De Palma’s later efforts in storytelling or execution, but that Hermann score somehow smooths over all the gaps in the film’s richest moments.

Arrow brings the movie into HD for the first time and their transfer is truly stunning. The cheap, dated source material and occasional use of 16mm might limit what the studio can achieve, but it’s still a fantastic Blu-ray restoration. The colors are vibrant and details never previously visible in any home video release pop off the screen (even the old Criterion DVD pales in comparison). The audio mix is also cleaned up, which really comes through in Bernard Hermann’s extraordinary score.

The special feature section is also fairly robust. First up comes a collection of interviews with Jennifer Salt, William Finley, co-writer Louisa Rose, editor Paul Hirsch, and unit manager Jeffrey Hayes, all of which are lively and filled with fond remembrances of the production, as well as further collaborations with the director. Next up are a pair of video essays by film critics Justin Humphreys (on the production, references, and influence of SISTERS) and Mike Sutton (on De Palma’s career as a whole). Running 50 minutes and 30 minutes respectively, that sounds like it might be a slog, but both are incredibly informed, detailed, and entertaining pieces that fill in plenty of gaps about the making of the film and De Palma’s career. Toss in a trailer, poster gallery, and the usual thick booklet and brilliant original cover artwork and you’ve got another stellar release from Arrow.

Of all De Palma’s thrillers, SISTERS may be his most overlooked, but it is also one of his most amusing Hitchcock riffs and one very much deserving of the lavish treatment Arrow has given it.  You officially don’t have an excuse to lack SISTERS in your collection (especially since this sucker is even Region Free).

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About the author
Phil Brown
Phil Brown is a journalist, writer, and wiseacre who rattles his keyboard from somewhere in Toronto. He writes about film and comedy for a variety of websites/publications like Fangoria (duh!), Now Magazine, The Toronto Star, Comics And Gaming Magazine, Toro, Critics Studio, and others. He’s also been known to whip up the occasional comedy sketch or short film. If you feel like being friends, go ahead and find him. He doesn’t bite (much).
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