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Brian De Palma Sisters

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Criterion Collection: Sisters (1973) | Blu-ray Review

Criterion Collection: Sisters (1973) | Blu-ray Review

“What the Devil hath joined together, let no man cast asunder,” reads the gleefully blasphemous tagline of Brian De Palma’s 1973 horror film Sisters, the auteur’s first foray into his obsessive Hitchcockian homage landscapes as well as his breakthrough film (which was his seventh directorial effort). An early entry in the Criterion canon finally resurrected for Blu-ray, it stars a pre-Lois Lane Margot Kidder as a pair of French-Canadian Siamese twins whose physical separation causes significant psychological and physical distress. Although clearly modeled after key tenets from Vertigo and Rear Window (and features a Bernard Herrmann score rivaling the hysteric depths of his infamous Psycho overture), De Palma’s title also pre-dates the delicious body horror which came to characterize Cronenberg and even inspired a failed 2006 American indie remake (starring Lou Doillon and Chloe Sevigny as the juxtaposed women).

Danielle (Kidder) is a beautiful, aspiring model and actress who had, until recently, been attached to her adult twin sister Dominique (also Kidder) at the hip. After divorcing the doctor who performed the surgery, Emil Breton (William Finlay), Danielle seems to be having trouble escaping both their influences to live her own life. When a one-night stand goes terribly wrong, a neighbor in the same apartment complex, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), happens to see a murder transpiring in Danielle’s apartment. When the police fail to properly investigate, Grace takes matters into her own hands.

Curiously, Sisters remains relatively unknown amongst De Palma’s 1970s and 80s horror thrillers, overshadowed by the iconicity of Carrie (1976), the cult following of Phantom of the Paradise (1974) or the sexual depravity of Dressed to Kill (1980). It also doesn’t help when comparing it to similar thematic elements he would recycle in Obsession (1976) or even Body Double (1984). And yet there’s something so intoxicating about the plot mechanics of Sisters (despite contemporary audiences likely mistaking it for the 2015 comedy of the same name starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler), which is rather a simplistic narrative exercise treated to an confounding finale.

Perhaps a bit rougher around the edges than the future visual sequences which would come to define his oeuvre, Sisters is De Palma’s first usage of split screen shots, which perhaps works best with his twinning motif here, something he would revisit time and again, even through 2012’s Passion. Split screens and split personalities congeal and pull apart, which perhaps best explains the film’s final moments, meant to relay a transformation in Jennifer Salt’s indefatigable journalist. Here, the memories and experiences of another seem to be literally absorbed, and once experienced cannot be extracted.

Although relatively straightforward, there’s a lot of playful subversion going on in Sisters, beginning with its game show opening of “Peeping Tom,” in which the ill-fated Lisle Wilson is introduced to his doom, but not before being reminded of his blackness on national television. The mechanism is a curious one, as it depicts a situation testing a black man’s response to peeping on a comely blind white woman. He takes the gentlemanly route and is thus rewarded for his participation by winning tickets to The Jungle Room, an African-American establishment which hinges on all the demeaning Blaxploitation stereotypes one could possibly conjure (including shirt-less wait staff, dressed to resemble African bush men). His eventual demise and narrative abandonment ends up being a major presence even as we focus on the dogged pursuit of one white woman thanks to the tenacity of another of her ilk. The final shot of the film is every bit as insidious as something like a similar feeling evoked at the closing credit of Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point (1950)— here in the form of a black body decomposing inside a white sofa, an abandoned tomb alongside the road.

Kidder is sublime as the dual personalities, a sweet, victimized beauty queen manipulated by William Finlay in one of his creepiest on-screen personas, desperate to reclaim Danielle as if he were Dr. Frankenstein and she was the creation which sprung from his mind. The eventual flashbacks of the sisters give just enough back story to provide questionable insight into their relationship. The death of Dominque, for instance, begins to seem quite suspect, which adds a certain delirious tragicomedy to De Palma’s structure—the doctor can’t have one without the other.

As entertaining as Kidder is, Jennifer Salt (daughter of screenwriter Waldo Salt, who was Kidder’s roommate at the time of filming and is now known more for producing and writing on “American Horror Story”), proves to be as equally arresting as the narrative straight man, capably assuming the roles and responsibilities still often assigned to male leads in genre narratives. A brief supporting turn from Charles Durning and a bit part for Olympia Dukakis adds to the priceless time capsule of De Palma’s effortless joyride, Sisters.

Disc Review:

Criterion re-presents Sisters as a new 4K digital restoration (approved by De Palma) in 1.85:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Picture and sound quality are superb in this new transfer, which includes a host of bonus features.

Jennifer Salt, 2018:
The writer/director/actor sits for this brand new twenty-four-minute interview with Criterion to relay her experiences with De Palma and the filming of Sisters.

The Autopsy, 2004:
De Palma, producer Edward R. Pressman, editor Paul Hirsch, and actors Charles Durning and Bill Finley are hand for this twenty-six-minute program filmed in 2004.

Brian De Palma at the AFI, 1973:
This audio interview is a Q+A with De Palma following a 1973 screening of Sisters.

Margot Kidder on The Dick Cavett Show, 1970:
This eight-minute segment features Margot Kidder on The Dick Cavett Show from 1970 (with only two credits to her name).

Photo Gallery:
An eleven-minute montage of photos of the film and its cast spool out to Herrmann’s score for the film.

Radio Spots:
Three minutes worth of radio advertisements for the film are included.

Final Thoughts:

While it’s a potentially a spurious masquerade as a horror film, Sisters is a fantastic psychological genre exercise from Brian De Palma, decked out with all the textual bells and whistles long absent from ludicrous narratives daring to take themselves seriously.

Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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