Starring: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt
Director: Brian De Palma
Shot cheaply for American International Pictures, Sisters (1973) was Brian De Palma’s first thriller. Until then, he had made freewheeling, experimental, politically aware comedies, most notably the anti-Vietnam satire Greetings. But with Sisters, an entirely different De Palma seemed to jump fully-formed into existence – the cool, elegantly twisted formalist whom film critics and cinema goers have been arguing about ever since.
It’s a film which contains almost everything that we think of as quintessential De Palma in embryonic form, so it’s perhaps fitting that embryos are also at the heart of the lurid plot, which revolves around Dominique and Danielle (Margot Kidder), separated conjoined twins. A crusading journalist (Jennifer Salt) who lives across the courtyard thinks she has seen a crime in Danielle’s apartment, but the police are disinclined to investigate because they have the hump with her over one of her previous stories. However, now with the bit well and truly between her teeth, the bolshy journalist teams up with a long-suffering private eye to prove to everyone that she was right.
At first glance, Sisters is a typical low-budget movie of the period. There’s the grainy 16mm film stock, the rather uncertain performances (Kidder’s French Canadian accent is a bit iffy – this is a role that cried out for Genevieve Bujold), a certain clunkiness in some of the dialogue (the scenes which new seem the most fresh, characterisation-wise, are the ones where the actors were allowed to improvise). But there’s a striking disparity between this rough and ready surface and the bold, crisp sureness of construction, leading the viewer up the garden path and then throwing in a sudden reverse. Anyone steeped in De Palma’s work (or Hitchcock’s, of course) will see the various twists coming, but they must have been pretty impressive at the time, and there’s still an almost ritualized satisfaction in watching them play out.
In particular, there’s one well-constructed, elaborate and very gory scare gag which is as memorable as anything in this later work, and the use of split screen to build tension shows great flair. Elsewhere, though, De Palma’s imaginative verve feels dampened by the low budget as he has to content himself with relatively static, talky scenes; it’s a film that’s short of a set-piece or two.
Nonetheless, for fans, it’s all highly fascinating. Not only do you get the expected references to Psycho and Rear Window, but there are also foreshadowings of De Palma’s own later work, especially Dressed to Kill. The shock horror B-movie psychology, the convolutions of plot and cinematic technique, the adoration of Hitchcock, it’s all here in prototype, like a zip file waiting to be unpacked. On top of that, an extra frisson is provided by the Moog-drenched score courtesy of Hitchock’s regular collaborator, the great Bernard Herrmann, for whom working on this film must have felt like deja vu all over again.
In a way, Sisters is exactly what you would hope it would be: a promising early work by a director who went onto bigger and better things. It’s good, but not so good that there wasn’t room for improvement. As for this HD transfer, the picture is inevitably grainy and a little soft because of the 16mm source material, but the colours are vibrant and the sound is good. Two thumping great video essays (voice-over plus stills and some movie clips) make up the meat of the extras. Justin Humphrey’s What the Devil Hath Joined Together is an exhaustive 46-minute look at Sisters, exploring its themes, leitmotifs, casting and Hitchcockian ingredients. In the 30-minute The De Palma Digest, Mike Sutton provides a whistle-stop tour of the highs and lows of the maestro’s four decade career.
Among the interviews, Jennifer Salt offers insights into De Palma’s early avant garde theatre days, while scriptwriter Louisa Rose is politely dismissive both of the film’s psychology and its gender politics. Editor Paul Hirsch serves up fascinating, incisive views on the director he nicknames “Brian De Plasma”, commenting on his “clinical detachment” and way in which this is matched by his use of various distancing devices such as split screen. All in all, another fine addition to Arrow’s series of De Palma releases.