The movie Brian De Palma cut his teeth upon, Sisters is a genuinely fun romp of a psychological thriller/horror. Being De Palma’s most blatant homage to Hitchcock, this film references the master’s work in a variety of interesting ways while also being able to tell an engaging little mystery of its own.
Probably the most obvious reference is to Psycho, where our villain has a split personality in which one side is capable of brutal murders while the other acts as an innocent bystander in the proceedings. De Palma is able to jazz up this premise by giving us more backstory into how exactly our mental case developed such a condition.
The film begins with a classic Hitchcock opener, where we see a television show where some unknowing individual’s chivalry is tested by giving them a chance at voyeurism. The two contestants Phillip and Danielle, played by Lisle Wood and Margot Kidder, go out for some drinks. They are stalked by an unknown man (William Finley), said to be Danielle’s ex husband Emil, who follows them as they go back to Danielle’s apartment where they make love.
The next morning Phillip is murdered, by someone we presume to be Danielle’s sister, Dominique (also Margot Kidder). The scene is witnessed a la Rear Window by a neighbor, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt). The shot where the murder is witnessed is done with De Palma’s classic split screen view, where we see from inside the apartment as Phillip crawls over to the window and begins righting “HELP” on the window while also seeing from Grace’s point of view as a bloody hand scrawls the desperate message.
Also done in split screen is the process of Danielle and Emil cleaning the house of all evidence pertaining to the grisly crime while Grace tries to hurry the police along up to the apartment. It serves to increase the suspense fantastically, and we see just how close the police come to catching the crooks red handed as Emil emerges from the apartment with a bag of dirty rags just moments before the police arrive. It’s a brilliant little scene.
Now, like I said above, our mental case around which the film revolves is a clear homage to Psycho but actually manages to be more interesting than Psycho’s Norman Bates. We are served a fascinating backstory pertaining to Danielle and Dominique’s history as Siamese twins. Apparently their fragile mental states were codependent, and when Dominique was killed in their separation surgery Danielle’s mind is fractured, splitting into an alternate personality, a version of her deceased sister. It makes for a fascinating peek into a totally broken mind and delightfully satiates the appetites of the morbidly curious.
The movie speeds along at a great pace throughout the first two thirds. Jennifer Salt is great as the tenacious young reporter, desperately trying to get the police to believe her story. I especially enjoyed the scene as Grace and the police go through Danielle’s apartment trying to find any evidence of the murder Grace witnessed. Margot Kidder is also great in this scene, playing the laid back French-Canadian model Danielle with a terrific touch of disconnectedness, giving us the distinct feeling that not all is quite right with her.
De Palma’s signature style is put to tremendous use here, and although the last third of the film feels a little bit rushed as the entire twist ending is dumped into our laps in a few short, confusing minutes, the script is a fine mystery that keeps our attention throughout.
There are a couple other fun references to Hitchcock laid throughout, including a great sequence where a private detective rummages through Danielle’s apartment when she walks in unexpectedly. Grace places a call to distract her and watches through binoculars as the detective avoids the occupants, much like Jimmy Stewart does with Grace Kelly in Rear Window.
It’s not De Palma’s most tidy work, that would have to go to Body Double, but it was a great start from a junior director to what would be a fruitful career. The acting is very good and, as always, there are some shocking moments of violence sure to surprise and fascinate. I haven’t yet figured out the final shot, but I do enjoy the nihilistic conclusion to Grace’s search for justice for the murdered Phillip. Her repeated cries that “there was no body because there was no murder!” is sure to raise the hackles on even the most devoted horror fan.