Friday 11 July 2014

Sisters (aka Blood Sisters)

De Palma, Sans Cheese

Sisters (aka Blood Sisters)
1973 USA 
Directed by Brian De Palma
Arrow BluRay Region B/DVD Region 2 Dual Edition

Warning: Spoilers stabbing you 
repeatedly as you bleed out on the floor...

The early part of the 1970s was the last big hurrah for American movies. You had Brian DePalma’s contemporaries, The New Hollywood Mavericks (as I think they were labelled back then) making their important, breakthrough films around this kind of time, give or take a few years. Directors such as Scorcese (Mean Streets), Spielberg (Jaws), Lucas (American Graffiti) and Coppola (The Godfather)... this was a big creative push which ushered in a brief but potent renaissance in American film making with lots of works by these directors having a lasting impact and influence on both American and International film. A legacy which is still being plundered to this day.

DePalma was no exception, of course, making great movies like this and Dressed To Kill, both of which owe a huge debt to Hitchcock’s Psycho and, of course, De Palma’s Obsession (a film which is quite reminiscent of Vertigo in some ways). Sisters is pretty much my favourite Brian De Palma movie. It comes from that great point in his career when he was experimenting with recycling Hitchcock tropes and motifs and then mixing them in with the kind of visual sensibility found in Italian giallo movies of that era.

Sisters tells the story of Dominique and Danielle (one living, one dead and both played by Margot Kidder) and it’s very much like Psycho in the fact that it starts out with a main protagonist, Philip (played by Lisle Wilson) who, like Marion Crane in Hitchcock’s seminal slasher, disappears from the narrative in a very sudden and brutal manner, once he’s been established for a while as the main lead. Philip is introduced, along with Danielle, as an unknowing participant in a TV game show called Peeping Toms. De Palma has always been considered a bit of a voyeuristic director due, I suspect, to the laid back and casual observational style of the kind of camerawork he employs in his movies. Slow, static or sometimes swooping along a track, it takes in everything and doesn’t necessarily stay with any one character for the bulk of his movies and Sisters is certainly no exception. So when we start off with a scene which is a “set up” for a voyeuristic dilemma, followed by the audience in the studio watching that, followed by us, the audience, watching that TV show presenting that footage... we get a whole voyeurism within voyeurism within voyeurism thing in the very first few minutes of this movie... just in case anybody was maybe missing one of De Palma’s key preoccupations at this point.

So let’s talk about blood and death.

The infamous “Birthday Cake” stab scene, where Philip has brought a cake back to Danielle’s apartment for her and her “sister”, who he heard talking through the wall earlier (not realising that Margot Kidder’s character was, without her even knowing it, talking to herself), is both shocking in its sudden opening slash (even if you are savvy enough to be expecting it on your first viewing) and, even by today’s standards, quite shockingly intense in both its brutality and its duration. After Philip is initially stabbed twice in a crossing blow at the top of one of his legs, near the groin, this is followed by a stab through the mouth which takes most of his left cheek out. As Dominique, brought into play in Danielle’s mind from the trauma of her sexual encounter with Philip from the night before,  drops the knife, which is sent spinning... she is clearly suffering from some kind of schizophrenic fit. All the while, Philip is very slowly crawling across the apartment floor towards the knife, expending all his energy on just trying to stay alive and not “bleed out” without a fight. When Dominique/Danielle notices this, though, she flings herself on him and starts stabbing him repeatedly in the back before spinning the knife away again. The twitching Phillip finally dies trying to write help on the window in his own blood... a murder which is witnessed, Rear Window style, by Jennifer Salt playing Grace Collier, the person who will take over the rest of the movie as the lead protagonist.

As we see the end and then aftermath and clean up of the murder from both her point of view and from the viewpoint of Danielle and her ex-husband, Emil, played by William Finley, we are introduced to what is a very early example of De Palma’s split screen technique. Of course, split screen was nothing new, but DePalma does use it a lot in his films to do things like, in this case, totally set up the character of Grace Collier via a feed of her newspaper columns, summing up her stance on life, while also getting the murder clean up out of the way simultaneously. He also uses it to build suspense, such as when Grace and the police narrowly miss Emil in a series of corridors, shown from two angles, as he escapes with the murder weapon and the bloody rags. Even at this early stage of his career, De Palma showed himself to be a master at this kind of thing.

Actually, the use of the split screen technique in this movie is very apt to push the concept of “doubling” and schizophrenia here and De Palma makes full use of this throughout. For instance, in one shot during this sequence, Danielle is looking at herself in a bathroom cabinet mirror on the left hand half of the screen... but the cabinet is made up of two doors and there is a split right down the centre of her face, which is a big visual clue thrown in the face of the audience about what is really going on here... the two characters inhabiting the mind of one body. Also, this means you basically have a split screen (the double doors) within a split screen, which is also visually interesting... this is all good stuff.

The other notable thing about the first murder sequence and, indeed, the whole movie, is Bernard Herrmanns absolute powerhouse scoring. The stab scene has already been visually pre-empted when Philip is getting the writing on the cake iced in a bakery and the angle at which the hands doing the icing makes it look very much like a knife stabbing downwards, as the lady behind the counter oozes the pinky red icing onto the white surface. It’s a phenomenal shot and Herrmann scores this with a child like motif which is reused in the immediate prelude to Margot Kidders stab-frenzy freak out, just before Herrmann segues into full on, in yer face, stab music mixed with weird moog synthesiser sounds, rivalling his earlier, more famous stab music for Hitchcock’s Psycho. I remember musicologist Royal S. Brown noting in an interview once, on a documentary about Herrmann, that the child like melody of the cake theme is replaced with an antagonistic childrens game melody “Nyah nyah nah, nyah nyah!” and this becomes very clear when you think about it. And, of course, this links in perfectly with the tone of the naive and child-like Danielle as compared to the aggressive mindset of the Dominique half of her brain.

There’s a lot going on in this movie and there are some great scenes which all involve the fact that Dominique and Danielle were siamese twins... until something happened and they had to be separated. There’s a very potentially confusing flashback scene which echoes the history of Margot Kidder’s role but it also doubles as a dream sequence for the Grace Collier character, who projects herself into the sequence by being Dominique in the shots. This is because Collier’s mind has, by this point, been rendered easy to manipulate and also provides De Palma with a great sequence, as well as a good conclusion for the camera in that she carries a certain memento of her experiences locked in her brain once the film is concluded. After the flashback/dream sequence plays out, we are then treated to a scene where Emil explains verbally the real history of the characters, in case there’s any confusion with the fact that Daniellle was indeed becoming Dominique at certain parts of the movie. This helps things considerably if you are still wondering how she can’t be two people and how she changed from one set of clothes from another and back again without changing her original “laying on the floor” position during the transition. I’m wondering if Emil’s explanation was either added on after the preview (or at studio insistence) or, maybe if the script originally concluded differently from the version presented in the final cut.

Either way, it doesn’t really matter. The film kind of has three end scenes which give closure and conclusion to Emil, Danielle and Dominique but which also leaves things quite potently inconclusive in terms of both Grace Collier and the private detective she hired, who has “followed the sofa” in which Philip’s body has been stashed. It’s one of De Palma’s better endings, I feel, and Herrmann’s music is a considerable aid to getting the sinister sense of things “not quite at rest” across to the audience by this point.

There’s another story I remember about Herrmann’s score for this film, again from a documentary of some kind, or possibly a biography, and it revolves around his amazing Main Title cue, which is a variation of the stab music which later surfaces in the movie. I think I recall hearing that De Palma had originally asked for a quieter prelude rather than the blood and thunder that Herrmann delivered here. Herrmann said to him something along the lines of... “Hitchcock can get away with nothing really happening in the first half an hour or so because the audience knows something terrible is going to happen. You are not yet as famous as Hitchcock, so they need to know something terrible is going to happen from the opening title music.” That’s not the exact words, I couldn’t find it on the internet... but that’s the gist of it and, for that particular stage of De Palma’s career... I reckon Herrmann was right. The opening titles/stab music in Sisters is one of the most blistering score cues in the history of film music. It’s kinda funny because I use it for the ring tone on my iPhone and my dog always barks when he hears a phone ringing... the upshot of that in terms of watching this excellent new blu-ray version from Arrow was that, every time someone gets stabbed in Sisters, my dog barks at me. Oh well.

There was apparently a remake of this film a few years ago but I can’t bring myself to watch a retread of something which holds such a high place of esteem in my celluloid loving heart. The original Sisters is an absolutely classic example of one of the best American thrillers, before the hack and slash craze had quite got going in the US and, certainly, far more superior to some of the slashers that came after it. If you like this period in American cinema history and you want to see a really entertaining movie with some smart camerawork and some really excellent music, then you probably should add this new dual blu-ray/dvd edition from Arrow to your list. I haven’t watched any of the extras yet but, like the Criterion edition before it, it looks like it’s got some nice stuff on there and it’s not all just recycled from the Criterion DVD, from what I could tell. Definitely have a stab at this one, if you have the inclination.


  1. Awesome write-up and thanks for the reminder that I should definitely get the Criterion blu-ray of this! Love this ludicrous movie, it's just so unapologetically pulpy.

    Great anecdote about Hermann's opening music! Also funny story about your dog, haha.

  2. Hi Alex,

    Thanks so much for taking the time out to jump on here again. Really glad you liked my write up. It's a film I've loved for a long time.

    Dog barking again as I reply to you comment actually. ;-)

    All the best to you.

    Folks, check out Alex's awesome art and movie review site here...