“Sisters – De Palma’s First Foray into Horror”

First and foremost, I would like to let all of my readers on the east coast know that I hope you, your loved ones and your friends are all safe and sound, and that you stay that way. I’ve been watching the devastation on the news and following along from postings on Facebook. I am originally from Long Island, and the type of damage to places I am so familiar with, that I am both hearing about and seeing in pictures, is surreal. Before getting to this week’s blog, it is important to me to let all of you know my thoughts and prayers are with all of you, in New York, or anywhere else that has been hit by this storm, as you ride it out and begin to recover from any damage you, or any of your friends and loved ones, might have suffered.

The harrowing, at times, voyeuristic, Brian De Palma film “Sisters,” is his first entry into the genre of horror. The ninety-three minute film was released on March 27, 1973 and was written for the screen by De Palma and Louisa Rose (Monique). It was based on an original story by De Palma. The director was inspired by a 1966 Life magazine article and pictures of Siamese twins, Dasha and Masha, from the Soviet Union who had successfully undergone a surgery which separated them. The thing that captured De Palma’s imagination about one of the photographs was that one twin seemed to be full of life and in good spirits, while the other twin looked like she was upset about something and didn’t want to be in the picture. These differences in moods that the twins exhibited in the photograph would remain constant through the remainder of their lives.

The film, which had an estimated budget of $500,000 and features a gripping score, one of the last composed by Bernard Herrmann, (Citizen Kane) is often described an as homage to the work of director Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo). There are valid reasons for this thinking which I will get to shortly. The film opens with a series of pictures of human fetuses being shown, as Herrmann’s score, in this blogger’s opinion, takes hold of the viewers and draws them into wondering what those particular images foreshadow in regard to the movie. Next, De Palma tricks the viewers into believing they are in the role of voyeur by introducing the characters of Danielle Breton and Phillip Woode.

In the men’s locker room, Phillip, played by Lisle Wilson, (The Incredible Melting Man) is changing his clothes, when Danielle, an apparently blind woman, portrayed by Margot Kidder (Superman) walks in and begins to undress. Phillip is confronted with two choices: Does he stand quietly by as the attractive Danielle undresses? Little does he know, she is really not visually impaired, and is a French Canadian model and actress working in New York; or does he do the gentlemanly thing and inform her she is in the wrong changing room? Phillip opts for the latter, but soon afterwards the viewer learns that both he and Danielle are part of a show styled after “Candid Camera” called “Peeping Toms.” Not only have you, the viewer, been watching what was transpiring, but when the camera pulls back it reveals both a television host and a lively studio audience that have also been watching. For their participation, Danielle wins a set of cutlery while Phillip wins dinner for two at a bar / restaurant, which he takes Danielle to. William Finley (Phantom of the Paradise) plays Danielle’s ex-husband. He has been following her, and while she and Phillip are at dinner, he shows up to speak with her. This is the second time he has been shown to the viewer, the first was as a member of the “Peeping Tom” audience.

 

After dinner, Phillip accompanies Danielle back to her apartment. Emil is still following them; in fact he is standing in front of Danielle’s building. Deciding to throw Emil off track, in an effort to get him to go away, Phillip makes a pretense of leaving. He gets in his car and drives away, which does in fact get Emil to leave, not knowing that Phillip is merely driving his car around to the back of the apartment building. Rejoining Danielle, who is waiting for him in her bathrobe, the two begin to make love. As they embrace, while Phillip is moving his hand up her leg, the viewer sees that she has a large scar on her hip.

The following morning, the viewer sees two pills on the sink in Danielle’s bathroom, which Phillip accidently knocks down the drain while changing his shirt. A short time later, he hears Danielle talking to someone and, when he asks her about it, she informs him that she shares the apartment with her twin sister Dominique. That morning is a special one for the twins because it happens to be their birthday. With that in mind, Phillip goes out to a bakery to get the twins a cake; at the same time Phillip is doing something nice for the sisters’ birthday, De Palma shows the viewer that Danielle is in her bathroom and is having a fit. Upon returning to the apartment, Phillip takes out the cake, along with one of the new knives Danielle won on the show, intending to surprise the sisters. He goes over to a sleeping Danielle to give her the cake, but inexplicably, Dominique begins to stab Phillip in the mouth, groin, and back.

A severely wounded and bloodied Phillip makes his way to the window. The viewer can easily ascertain that there is little chance that Phillip could be saved even if medical help were to arrive immediately. He attempts to write the word “HELP,” on the glass of the window in his own blood. De Palma, at this point of the movie, employs one of his signature filmmaking trademarks – the use of the split screen. It focuses on Jennifer Salt’s character of stubborn and persistent journalist, Grace Collier, who is looking out the window of her apartment building, which is directly across the street, as well as allowing the viewer to see things from Phillip’s point-of-view from inside the apartment. Grace leaves her apartment and runs downstairs to get the police.

Once the police arrive, she tries to explain what she witnessed, but at the same time Emil has arrived with medication for Danielle, who after experiencing a blackout, has woken up in her bathroom. Emil discovers that a murder has taken place, and when Danielle sees what happened she says Dominique’s name. Not wasting a second, Emil begins to clean up the blood that is seemingly everywhere. While we, as viewers, get to witness the efforts of the cleanup, at the same time, Grace is attempting to convince the police to find out what happened in Danielle’s apartment. With no time to spare Danielle and Emil hide Phillip’s body in the sofa bed. Afterwards, Emil places all the evidence that a crime has been committed into a garbage bag and goes outside to get rid of it. Again, De Palma makes excellent use of the split screen to continuously build tension. He shows Emil leaving with the evidence, getting further away from the scene of the crime, while simultaneously, the police and Grace are making their way to the apartment and arrive mere moments after he has left. The Herrmann score once more is utilized in an excellent way during these scenes as De Palma uses multiple quick edits and fast shifting points-of-view to, in this blogger’s opinion, keep the viewer caught up in the will they, won’t they, get caught aspect of the scene.

Of course, while the police and Grace search the apartment, Danielle denies that anything took place there. The police and Grace don’t find a single shred of evidence to suggest that anyone has been hurt, let alone murdered. What the viewer sees, that Grace and the police fail to notice, is the ever widening blood stain that is expanding on the back of the sofa bed. Due to a lack of evidence, the police thinking is that Grace must have imagined what she saw and they leave the apartment. Salt’s character is reprimanded by them; they are already not too happy with her due to a scathing exposé she has written on police brutality. Grace, however, is far from finished with her pursuit of finding out what exactly took place because she knows that she didn’t dream up the incident.

Grace hires a private detective, Joseph Larch, acted by Charles Durning, (Tootsie) to investigate further in order to confirm what she witnessed. Breaking into Danielle’s apartment to look for clues, he doesn’t find anything; Grace is watching him from her own apartment with binoculars the entire time. Grace and Larch come to the consensus that Phillip’s body was hidden in the sofa-bed; the same sofa-bed, which they both witnessed being loaded onto a truck. Detective Larch decides to follow the truck to its destination in an attempt to prove not only that the murder was committed, but to also ensnare Danielle’s accomplices. While, Durning’s character is involved with the truck, Grace begins to put her reporting skills to work and starts to investigate Danielle’s past. What will she discover about Danielle, and, perhaps even more importantly, her murdering twin Dominique? Will Detective Larch be able to vindicate Grace by proving her allegations to be true? What is really going on with Emil? Why is he so involved in his ex-wife’s life? All of those questions and more will be answered if you take the time to watch this absorbing and interesting early gem from director De Palma.

The film, as mentioned earlier, is often described an as homage to the work of director Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train). There are valid reasons for this thinking: Firstly, for the creation of the original score is De Palma’s choice of Bernard Herrmann, who created some of his most memorable music while working with Hitchcock on films such as “North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “Vertigo.” Next, there is the introduction of a character at the beginning of the film, only to have them killed off within the first part of the movie, the same as Janet Leigh’s (The Manchurian Candidate) character of Marion Crane in “Psycho.” Phillip’s death by mad slashing also draws a direct correlation with the famous shower scene in “Psycho,” where Crane is violently slashed to death with the blade of a knife. Another element related to Hitchcock is Phillip’s murder being witnessed by Salt’s character, as well as her participation in trying to solve the murder; those are plot points from which one can draw a direct link to the voyeurism of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” Lastly, the film “Rope” comes into play when Emil and Danielle hide the body out in the open, in this instance a folding sofa-bed, where the body of the murder victim could have easily been discovered.

In conclusion, I would like to say that I had a great deal of fun focusing all of the blogs this month on movies that could be watched and enjoyed up to and on Halloween, or anytime of year for that matter. I have decided that I am going to be making the Halloween Blog month on Robbins Realm Blog.com an annual occurrence from now on. I got a little bit of a late start this year, but next year I hope to write more blogs throughout the month: I hope to be able to review a few more films, and write separate blogs on a actor, actress and author that have each made a name for themselves in the world of horror, as well as a blog spotlighting a famous horror director. Tomorrow, I will be sending out one more blog on a famous horror director. I hope you enjoy not only that particular blog, but all of the previous ones. I greatly appreciate and value your readership. Keep reading, sharing the blogs and of course commenting. I am always keenly interested in what you guys have to say.

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About robbinsrealm

I was born in Smithtown, New York, and grew up, worked, and lived in various areas of Long Island before moving to Boca Raton, Florida where I now make my home. In addition to being an aspiring writer, I am also an English teacher. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s Degree in Education, both from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. In my spare time you will find me engrossed in books, watching movies, socializing with friends, or just staying active.
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