Sisters (1973)
By: Stuart Giesel on March 25, 2014 | Comments
Criterion | Region 1, NTSC | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 1.0 | 92 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, Bill Finley
Screenplay: Brian De Palma, Louisa Rose
Country: USA
Director Brian De Palma had directed a number of movies prior to 1973's Sisters, most notably The Wedding Party, Hi Mom! and Greetings, all featuring a young Robert De Niro. But Sisters most assuredly announced to the world the arrival of a gifted, flashy director who wore his influences (mainly Alfred Hitchock) proudly on his sleeve. Sisters is stylish, overblown and wholeheartedly cinematic, sometimes almost embarrassingly so. This is Brian De Palma showing off, proving he can deliver a solid thriller with the best of them.

We begin with a creepy intro of fetuses in ultra-close up. surrounded by blackness and set to a shrieking Bernard Herrmann-esque score. Oh, wait, the score WAS composed by Herrmann, Hitchcock's favourite composer (for a period), so obviously De Palma - unashamedly mirroring himself in Hitchcock's style - appropriated him for this grand guignol piece. The film proper opens with Danielle (Margot Kidder), who happens to be blind and is undressing in a locker room in front of a guy who is deciding whether to keep watching or do the right thing and signify his presence and/or walk away. Yes, this is typical lurid De Palma fare, except it turns out that this scene is actually a segment from a TV show called "Peeping Tom" and Kidder is an actress pretending to be blind. She's also pretending to be French, carrying a fake French accent around- oh, wait, the character is supposed to be French? From Quebec, no less. And it turns out that Margot Kidder is actually French-Canadian too. Oops. Anyway, the peeping tom from the candid camera segment is actually a really nice and chivalrous guy, who walks away before Kidder gets her gear off. The pair hit it off after shooting, and they head back to her apartment in Staten Island. Unfortunately for the both of them, Danielle lives with her sister - an extremely controlling, possessive sister named Dominique - who doesn't take kindly to Danielle having her own life. Dominique lashes out in an horrific act of violence, which is witnessed by their nosy neighbour - and reporter - Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt). Grace calls the cops on the sisters, but they turn up nothing, thanks to the quick thinking of Danielle's ex-husband Emil (William Finley). Grace is convinced there's something sinister going on in the sisters' apartment, so she recruits private eye Joseph Larch (Charles Durning) to investigate. Turns out the sisters have more than one deep, dark secret.

Sisters must have been truly something to witness back in '73. Nowadays we're familiar with De Palma's bag of tricks: sudden, explicit acts of violence; long and complex tracking shots; themes of voyeurism, obsession and madness; grand, almost overwhelming music; split-screen trickery. But back then this sort of stuff must have felt shocking and fresh. Sisters contains a savage act of violence in the first third, and although the scene is slightly neutered thanks to some patently fake bright red blood, it's still an effective and brutal moment even by today's standards. The use of split-screen, which De Palma would also use to great effect at the end of Carrie, is probably the film's highlight in how it creates a wonderfully edited "race against time": on one side, the ex-husband trying to hide the body and clean the apartment of blood, and on the other the journalist Grace Collier urging the cops to the scene of the crime. The scene in the apartment as the police inspect the scene, whilst the body hidden in a fold-out couch is bleeding through, is extremely tense and entertaining. Apparently this was filmed as an elaborate one-take shot which De Palma had meticulously planned and filmed, but had to be ditched due to the camera not able to get low enough to capture the bloodstain at a convincing enough location on the couch.

But the rest of the film is briskly paced and entertaining too, not just the those memorable De Palma showy set-pieces. And the performances are all suitably heightened to match the material. Given this is very much a female-centric piece, the female performances carry the film. Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt are both excellent, with Salt probably being the standout even though she has the less showy role, and it's always great to see Durning in anything - clearly he's having fun here as an ex-cop turned private eye. But because this is a Brian De Palma film, the technical aspects - including the cunning camerawork, razor-sharp editing and Herrmann's bombastic score - often threaten to overwhelm the actors.

One thing that De Palma doesn't get as much credit for as he should is his use of comedy in his films - not obvious, slapstick comedy, sure, but a knowing, dark layer of comedy. Just check out the moment when Emil is rushing to clean the apartment; as he desperately tries to dispose of the tainted clothes before the police arrive, he clumsily trips and smacks his head on the floor. It's a breathtaking moment, because it feels spontaneous and unplanned due to the urgency imposed by the use of split-screen...and it's a laugh-out-loud moment too. There is some silly stuff elsewhere, such as when we see that Durning drives a van that actually reads "Acme Window Washing" and, later, "Ajax Exterminators". That lovely, twisted sense of humour pervades the entire film, so despite how sordid some of the material might get, it's never repellant. And as for the apparently contentious ending...personally, I think it's clear what's happened and fits in with the rest of the film's fiendish humour. Others may feel let down by it.

So as De Palma's Hollywood breakthrough, and his first overtly Hitchcock-ian thriller - which is as much horror as thriller - Sisters proves to be a beautifully crafted, tense and wildly entertaining film. De Palma's gone bigger (Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables), more lurid or flashy (Dressed to Kill, Body Double, Femme Fatale) or just wilder (Scarface) but there's something about Sisters that probably rates as that most quintessential example of De Palma's style. Blow Out might be his flat-out best thriller, but Sisters comes a close second.
The Disc
Criterion's DVD release of Sisters isn't quite up to their usual extremely high standards, though this was an earlier release of theirs and it's likely there wasn't much Sisters-related material to draw from for their special features.

Picture and sound quality are agreeable if unspectacular. There's lots of grain, the odd imperfection, and the picture's a little flat and lacking richness, but it's not too shabby. The monaural soundtrack is bombastic, as it should be considering the material, clear and effective but not exactly immersive.

The disc includes a print interview with De Palma titled "The Making of Sisters: An Interview with Brian De Palma", a Time article "Rare Study of Siamese Twins in Soviet", excerpts from the original press book, and a gallery of production, publicity and behind-the-scenes photos. The DVD also comes with liner notes, which include De Palma's Village Voice essay "Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill" in which he discusses working with legendary composer Bernard Herrmann.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Bloody, stylish and a little bit goofy, Sisters is one of Brian De Palma's best thrillers, with almost everything you've come to know and expect the man to deliver. With its innovative use of split-screen and other camera trickery, the sudden and shocking violence, black humour and some solid performances, Sisters remains one of De Palma's most enduring films, eccentric but loveable.
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