Sisters (1972 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Brian De Palma|
|Produced by||Edward R. Pressman|
|Screenplay by||Brian De Palma|
|Story by||Brian De Palma|
|Music by||Bernard Herrmann|
|Edited by||Paul Hirsch|
|Distributed by||American International Pictures|
|Box office||$1 million (US/ Canada rentals)|
Sisters (released as Blood Sisters in the United Kingdom) is a 1972 American psychological slasher film directed by Brian De Palma and starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, and Charles Durning. The plot focuses on a French Canadian model whose separated conjoined twin is suspected of a brutal murder witnessed by a newspaper reporter in Staten Island.
Co-written by De Palma and Louisa Rose, the screenplay for the film was inspired by the Soviet conjoined twins Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova and features narrative and visual references to several films by Alfred Hitchcock. Filmed on location in Staten Island, New York City, the film prominently features split-screen compositions (also present in subsequent De Palma films such as Carrie), and was scored by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann.
Released in the spring of 1973, Sisters received praise from critics who noted its adept performances and prominent use of homage. It marked the first thriller for De Palma, who followed it with other shocking, graphic thrillers, and went on to become a cult film in the years after its release.
Advertising salesman Philip Woode is the victim of a prank on a Candid Camera-style television show and wins a dinner for two at a Manhattan restaurant. He takes with him Danielle Breton, a young French Canadian model and aspiring actress who was part of the prank. At dinner, they are interrupted by Danielle's ex-husband, Emil, who also follows them to Danielle's Staten Island apartment. Philip and Danielle make love on the sofa. There is huge scar on her side.
They spend the night on the fold-out bed. Danielle wakes in pain. In the bathroom, she empties a bottle of pills into her hand. There are three. She takes one and leaves two on the sink. Her sister calls from the bedroom in French (subtitled). They argue. We learn that after they were “separated,” Dominique was put in a hospital “full of lunatics.”
The argument wakes Philip, who dresses in the bathroom, where he unwittingly knocks the pills down the drain. Danielle explains to Philip that her twin sister Dominique has come to celebrate their birthday. She asks him to go to the drug store to refill her prescription. He does so, but stops to buys a birthday cake for the sisters, asking to have “Happy Birthday Dominique and Danielle” written on the cake. It takes a long time for the inexperienced baker to do this, and back in the apartment, Danielle, in agony, calls Emil for help. When Philip returns, Emil is watching. Philip brings the cake and a large knife to the woman lying on the sofa bed and is stabbed repeatedly by a crazed Dominique. He drags himself to a window and dies.
Grace Collier, a reporter living in an apartment across the way, sees Philip and calls the police. A split screen shows her waiting for the police and Emil helping Danielle to clean up and hide Philip's body in the sleeper sofa. Grace accompanies the police on a search through Danielle's apartment. Danielle insists that she has been alone; they find no evidence. Grace does find the cake, but trips and destroys it before Kelly can see. Later, she goes to the bakery, where Louise Wilanski (Olympia Dukakis) and Elaine D'Anna (Justine Johnson) remember Philip and the cake.
Certain that Danielle is hiding the murderer, Grace persuades her editor to let her investigate the story, on the basis that the police are ignoring her because Philip was African American. She hires Larch, a private investigator, who gets into the apartment. He is certain that the body is hidden inside the too-heavy couch. When it is hauled away, Larch pursues the truck. He also found a thick file from the Loisel Institute on the Blanchion Twins, Canada's first conjoined twins, which leads Grace to LIFE magazine reporter Arthur McLennen. He tells her that the twins were separated only recently. Dominique died during the operation.
Grace tails Emil and Danielle to a mental hospital. When she is caught. Emil, convinces the staff that she is a new patient. He sedates and hypnotizes her, conditioning her to say “There was no body, because there was no murder.” He promises to reveal everything, placing Danielle on the bed beside her. Grace has a bizarre dream about the twins' past and their separation where she herself is Dominique, while Emil reminds Danielle that the separation was necessary because Dominique stabbed the pregnant Danielle with garden shears.
He reminds Danielle that she now dissociates to a violent "Dominique" personality whenever she makes love. Emil kisses her passionately, bringing "Dominique" out so he can question her about the murder. She slashes him in the groin with a scalpel, and he bleeds to death, controlling her. Their bodies pin Grace to the bed. Grace awakens to find Danielle tenderly holding Emil's bloody body. She screams in horror. Detective Kelly arrests Danielle, who denies knowledge of the murders and says that her sister is dead.
When Kelly interviews Grace, she is still under Emil's hypnotic spell, repeating the lines he fed her. Meanwhile, Larch has followed the sofa to a remote train station in Canada. The film ends with a shot of him training his binoculars on it from his perch on a utility pole.
- Margot Kidder as Danielle Breton / Dominique Blanchion
- Jennifer Salt as Grace Collier
- William Finley as Emil Breton
- Charles Durning as Joseph Larch
- Lisle Wilson as Phillip Woode
- Barnard Hughes as Arthur McLennen
- Mary Davenport as Mrs. Peyson Collier
- Dolph Sweet as Detective Kelly
- Olympia Dukakis as Louise Wilanski (uncredited)
- Catherine Gaffigan as Arlene
- Justine Johnston as Elaine D'Anna
- James Mapes as Guard
- Burt Richards as Hospital Attendant
- Bill Durks as a Sanitorium resident
Scholarly discussion of Sisters has centered largely on its prevalent theme of voyeurism as well as a perceived commentary on the women's liberation movement. Film critic and scholar Robin Wood wrote that the film "analyzes the ways in which women are oppressed within patriarchy society on two levels, the professional (Grace) and the psychosexual (Danielle/Dominique)." He adds: "If the monster is defined as that which threatens normality, it follows that the monster of Sisters is Grace as well as Danielle/Dominique–a point the film acknowledges in a cinematic hallucination/flashback sequence wherein Grace becomes Dominique... Simply, one can define the monster of Sisters as women's liberation."
The prominent allusions to works by Alfred Hitchcock have also been noted by critics such as Bruce Kawin, who wrote in 2000:
Sisters... makes intelligent reference to Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960), and even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The film ends with a shot of a detective looking through binoculars at what might be called the scene of the crime, intently but fruitlessly watching a couch that no one will ever incriminate themselves with by picking up. From start to finish, Sisters is charged with scenes of looking—from seeing a murder through a window to seeing another person’s memories in one’s own mind.
At the end of the article there was a picture of the two girls sitting on a couch and the caption said that apart from the fact that they were joined at the hip both girls were physiologically normal, but as they were getting older they were developing psychological problems. One of the twins had a very surly, disturbing look on her face and the other looked perfectly healthy and smiling. And this strong visual image started the whole idea off in my mind.
The script, which De Palma co-wrote with Louisa Rose, features structural elements inspired by Hitchcock, such as killing off a prominent character early into the film, alternating points of view, and the involvement of a third party observer in solving a crime. In writing the exposition of the film which details the twins' history and institutionalization, De Palma was influenced by Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), specifically the scene in which Rosemary is raped and conceives her child.
Sisters was shot over a period of eight weeks in New York City in spring 1972, primarily in the borough of Staten Island. The apartment interiors were filmed on a set, with additional exterior photography of the Time-Life Building in Manhattan. The film was shot using Mitchell BNC cameras with Panavision lenses. According to De Palma, the film was lit with a "truly classical style", with scenes sometimes taking 45 minutes to set up. Some sequences were shot on 16 mm film by De Palma himself, such as the scene in which Emil speaks directly to the camera during the finale's hallucination sequence.
The film uses unusual point of view shots and split screen effects to show two events happening simultaneously, as well as long tracking shots, some in excess of six minutes in length. The extended tracking shot in Danielle's apartment following the murder of Phillip was influenced by Max Ophüls and directly references Hitchcock's Rope. The theme of voyeurism is represented in the alternating points-of-view and distortions of perspective within the narrative diegesis; De Palma commented: "I really got the idea from watching the Vietnam war on television – watching a war that nobody really knew about except that we watched it every night on the 7 o'clock news. It was really a very voyeuristic war, and I think it says a lot about the way we perceive things. We are very much controlled by the media which present things to us. And those can be manipulated."
In order to accomplish the image of both twins conjoined onscreen in the film's finale (both played by Kidder), De Palma had Kidder photographed seated in two different positions, and then joined the images together via optical editing.
While editing the film in post-production, editor Paul Hirsch and De Palma listened to musical scores by Bernard Herrmann (particularly for Psycho, Marnie, and Vertigo) and played them along with the film's key scenes. This led to De Palma inquiring about Herrmann composing the film's musical score. At the time Herrmann was semi-retired, but admired the screenplay enough to agree to score the film.
Sisters had its world premiere at Filmex in Los Angeles, California on November 18, 1972. It was released theatrically in the United States by American International Pictures (a subsidiary of Orion Pictures Corporation), opening in Los Angeles in April 18, 1973. It would later expand, opening in New York City on September 26, 1973, where it received "rave reviews," and continued to screen into the fall of 1973. It was also selected for the 1975 Venice Film Festival.
The film was met with critical praise; Roger Ebert noted that the film was "made more or less consciously as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock", but said it "has a life of its own" and praised the performances of both Kidder and Salt. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it " a good, substantial horror film" and stated "De Palma reveals himself here to be a first-rate director of more or less conventional material", also noting the film's references to Repulsion (1965) and Psycho (1960). Meanwhile, Variety, while stating it was "a good psychological murder melo-drama", said that "Brian De Palma's direction emphasizes exploitation values which do not fully mask script weakness." The Los Angeles Times's Kevin Thomas praised it as a "witty homage to Hitchcock" and a "low budget but high style scare show," as well as praising the performances and musical score. George McKinnon of The Boston Globe was less laudatory, writing: "It is difficult to determine what De Palma had in mind in this morbid horror film. Did he intend it all as a parody or a straightforward Psycho-type movie? ... If it is to be taken as a tongue-in-cheek romp, it doesn't work and if meant as a horror film it is run-of-the-mill."
Critical reassessment of the film in the 21st century has largely been favorable, with critic Robin Wood writing in 2003 that Sisters was "one of the great American films of '70s," while G. Allen Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle considers it a key film in Kidder's career. Richard Brody wrote of the film in The New Yorker in 2016:
De Palma weaves his own obsession with movies into the dramatic fabric of Sisters by means of a scene involving a documentary about the twins that Grace views in the offices of Life magazine; this film-within-a-film becomes embedded in her unconscious mind and threatens to warp her consciousness as well. Though De Palma’s own images can’t rival Hitchcock’s in shot-by-shot psychological power, the intricate multiple-perspective split-screen sequences of Sisters offer a dense and elaborate counterpoint that conjures a sense of psychological dislocation and information overload belonging to De Palma’s own generation and times.
In 2016, Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times ranked the film as De Palma's most underrated of the 1970s, writing that "for all its low-budget creakiness, [it] feels fully formed—from its sly opening bit of misdirection to its adroit use of split-screen to its memorably churning Bernard Herrmann score. De Palma's choice of subject matter couldn't have been more appropriate: With this film he effectively conjoined himself to Hitchcock, announcing himself as a skillful mimic with a mischievous side all his own."
Sisters was released on VHS and Betamax videocassettes by Warner Home Video in the 1980s, and again in 2000 by Homevision. The film was released on DVD by The Criterion Collection on October 3, 2000 in a new widescreen digital transfer. In July 2018, Criterion announced a Blu-ray release of the film featuring a new 4K transfer scheduled for October 23, 2018.
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