SISTERS (2008)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on April 3, 2008, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

In a cinematic environment where too many horror remakes are being done simply because the past features’ storylines (or even just their titles) attracted some box-office interest, it’s nice to see one that demonstrates the new filmmaker’s genuine interest in reshaping the material. Grafting his own concerns onto Brian De Palma’s first venture into Hitchcock-homaging thrills (which upped the ante by combining the voyeuristic concerns of Rear Window and the dual-identity-with-butcher-knife-play from Psycho), director/co-writer Douglas Buck takes additional inspiration from both David Cronenberg and ’70s Italian horror cinema, but the result doesn’t feel like a pastiche. Instead, his Sisters is a mostly engrossing and occasionally quite frightening film that adopts a somewhat lower-key tone than De Palma’s showier original.

It’s perhaps a bit too low-key when it comes to Chloe Sevigny’s performance as Grace Collier, a reporter trying to get the goods on the suspicious Dr. Lacan (Stephen Rea). While snooping around a party at the doc’s Zurvan Institute for children, Grace witnesses the tense relationship between Lacan and his current assistant/former lover Angelique (Lou Doillon), and the more passionate one that quickly develops between the latter and handsome doctor Dylan Wallace (Dallas Roberts). That’s not the last Grace sees of the burgeoning couple, because when she breaks into Lacan’s apartment the next day, she discovers that he has hidden cameras placed all around Angelique’s home across the street, through which Lacan had spied on his old flame and her new beau getting down and dirty the night before. Grace witnesses something much more shocking on Lacan’s monitor, plunging her into the middle of a mystery with psychological and physical elements that prove very twisted indeed.

Updating De Palma’s exploration of watchers and the watched with modern video technology, yet without getting gimmicky about it, Buck reworks the most striking setpiece from the 1973 Sisters and makes it his own here. Those who squirmed their way through his previous short Cutting Moments will also appreciate the similar emphasis here on mayhem with small household objects, plus a bit involving a medical syringe guaranteed to make you cringe. Toward the end, he indulges in hallucinatory imagery and flashbacks that up the horrific mood, and also help add dimension to Grace’s character. That’s appreciated, since she comes off as a bit remote up to that point; faring better are Doillon, who’s by turns enigmatic, sexy and scary as Angelique, and Rea, eschewing mad-doctor clichés to create a character whose surface concern for his subjects masks some dark obsessions beneath.

Buck’s visual palette ranges from lush and naturalistic to chilly and monochromatic depending on the setting, and it all looks quite good in the Image Entertainment DVD’s 1.78:1 transfer, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that augments the eerie, sometimes off-kilter mood. The movie is also loaded with visual signifiers echoing the themes of duality, birth and feminine identity—all of which Buck points out during his very in-depth commentary, right down to a number on an apartment door that serves as a “numerical literalization” of his concepts. Throughout his track, the filmmaker explains his use of “the gaze” between the characters, symbolism in props and costumes, his influences (Grace is intended to be a “giallo character”—hence her yellow coat?), etc.—heady stuff, but nicely balanced with anecdotal material, like the fact that this film opens with what is surely the first and will probably be the last credits sequence to combine elements from Tarkovsky’s Solaris and the Wicker Man remake. A good deal of Buck’s discussion concerns the time and other pressures he was under, and the resulting movie is remarkably cohesive given that he had to cut 11 pages from the script he wrote with John Freitas just a week before filming began.

For her part, Doillon feels quite invested in her role considering that she was cast only three days prior to the cameras rolling, as is revealed in a behind-the-scenes featurette. Buck finds fresh ground to cover in his interview segments here, such as his rejecting of product placement to allow Sisters a timeless quality, and all his key collaborators have the chance to discuss Buck’s approach and their own contributions as well. There’s more intellectualizing from Buck as well as Freitas about both this script in particular and the horror genre in general, and a good amount of on-set footage. The DVD is rounded out with deleted/extended scenes (nothing too revelatory here) and two separate still galleries that are so similar in content, the inclusion of both can only be seen as one more reflection of Sisters’ central conceit.

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