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review added: 9/5/01



Sisters
1973 (2000) - American International Pictures (The Criterion Collection)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Sisters (Criterion) Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A/B+

Specs and Features

92 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Amaray keep case packaging, 1973 print interview with director Brian De Palma on the making of Sisters, Rare Study of Siamese Twins in Soviet (1966 article from Life magazine), excerpts from original 1973 press book including ads and exploitation, gallery of production, publicity and behind-the-scenes photos, Murder By Moog: Scoring The Chill essay by Brian De Palma from The Village Voice (10/11/73), color bars, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (18 chapters), languages: English (DD mono), subtitles: English


Every filmmaker has their highs and lows, but few are capable of such extremes as Brian De Palma. Over the course of his career, he has made movies of unquestioned brilliance (Carrie and The Untouchables spring to mind) and of self-indulgent ineptitude (everybody always mentions The Bonfire of the Vanities as an example, but that movie looks like Citizen Kane compared to De Palma's 1986 disaster Wise Guys or his recent Mission to Mars). But no matter how many different genres he explores, there will always be those who dismiss De Palma as Imitation Hitchcock. It isn't as though De Palma is the only filmmaker who "pays homage" to the Master of Suspense. He's just a lot less subtle about it then most. At his worst, it seems as if De Palma simply watches the same three Hitchcock movies (Psycho, Vertigo and Rear Window) over and over again, trying to place key scenes into different contexts and combinations.

Sisters was De Palma's first explicit foray into Hitchcockian suspense and, in many ways, it's one of his most successful films. While the references to Psycho and Rear Window are so blatant that you'd have to know absolutely nothing about those movies in order to miss them, they are used in service of a chilling and unique story that is quite unlike anything from Hitchcock's body of work.

Danielle (Margot Kidder, in a performance miles away from Superman) is a French-Canadian model/actress in New York. She hooks up with Philip (Lisle Wilson) after they appear together on the voyeuristic TV show Peeping Toms, a program that would be right at home in prime-time today, somewhere between Fear Factor and Spy TV. They go out, but are stalked by Danielle's creepy ex-husband (Bill Finley). The next day, Danielle's neighbor across the way, crusading reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), witnesses a brutal murder in Danielle's apartment. The police search the apartment but find nothing, so Grace begins her own investigation of Danielle… and Danielle's mysterious twin sister, Dominique.

The themes of voyeurism and psychosis here will certainly be familiar to any Hitchcock fan. But unlike later his later Dressed To Kill and Body Double, which seem to exist merely as carbon copies of Hitchcock, De Palma addresses these ideas here in a manner uniquely his own. The final shot of Sisters emphasizes the voyeurism theme, but in a way that is chilling in its ambiguity. And when De Palma ventures into the more unusual territory of Siamese twins, doppelgangers and physical deformities, Sisters really comes to life and enters a realm that Hitchcock probably would not have. Hitchcock always seemed more interested in people who wore their abnormalities on the inside. In Sisters, particularly disturbing in this regard is an extended, black-and-white dream sequence that feels more like the work of David Lynch than Brian De Palma. De Palma also employs the split-screen technique, that he'd use throughout much of the 70's, here for the first time and it's one of the best, most effective examples of the technique to date.

Criterion's DVD presentation of Sisters may well be the best this film has ever looked, which is not to say the picture is flawless. For the most part, the 16x9-enhanced widescreen image is clear and crisp, with solid color separations. Danielle's apartment, for instance, is a virtually solid white that Kubrick would envy. When this pristine environment is splashed with the unnaturally bright red blood common to horror movies of this era, the contrast is stunning. Not surprisingly, most of the video problems show up whenever any sort of optical effect is used. The faux TV presentation, split-screen sequences and the 16mm hypnotism sequence all exhibit more scratches and grain than the rest of the film. But generally speaking, this is a very fine looking disc. The single-channel mono sound is well mixed, with Bernard Herrmann's excellent score frequently swirling up to take over the soundtrack completely.

The extras are extremely heavy on text and this will irritate anyone who doesn't particularly enjoy reading their TV screen for extended periods. But the content is strong enough to overcome this drawback. The highlight is a 1973 interview with De Palma by Richard Rubinstein (who would later produce George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead). This interview is arguably more valuable than a more recent interview with De Palma would have been. I've read countless interviews with De Palma where he's asked about his Hitchcock influences, but never one conducted while Hitchcock was still alive and actively making films. Here, Hitchcock was still three years away from making his final movie, Family Plot, and it's startling to read De Palma referring to him in the present tense. In the interview, De Palma also refers to a 1966 Life magazine article about a pair of Russian Siamese twins that inspired him to make Sisters. The Criterion folks have actually managed to dig up that article and reproduce it handsomely on the disc, text, photos and all. Another valuable essay is reprinted in the insert. De Palma himself wrote Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill for The Village Voice in 1973. The essay provides a valuable look at De Palma's collaboration with legendary composer Bernard Herrmann.

The package also includes excerpts from the original press book for Sisters, with dozens of ads, posters and exploitation ideas for theatre owners (one brilliant suggestion is to hire identical twins and make them up to look like Siamese twins with a foam appliance), and an extensive gallery of behind-the-scenes and publicity photos that you can view at your own speed with the remote. The most valuable part of this section are the production photos from the dream sequence, allowing a closer look at the real-life human oddities that are only briefly glimpsed in the film itself.

Sisters is an important movie in Brian De Palma's body of work, setting him on the course that would (rightly or wrongly) stereotype him in the minds of many critics for years to come. Even if you aren't wild about De Palma, Sisters is a horror movie that is genuinely unsettling and surprisingly original, despite the obvious debt it owes to Hitchcock. Too long overshadowed by De Palma's later work, Criterion's disc goes a long way toward giving this unjustly neglected flick some of the respect it deserves.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com




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