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Raising Cain | Blu-ray Review

Brian De Palma Raising CainGenre films dealing with multiple personality disorder (or now correctly known as dissociative identity disorder) tend to be a bit problematic, usually leaning into exaggerated melodrama with the theatrical components of such a suggestive ailment. For an actor, it’s often an opportunity to flex their chops, allowing for either camp or perhaps verisimilitude, whether the material is courting awards consideration (everything from The Three Faces of Eve to “Sybil” to Frankie & Alice) or genre hounds, as is potentially the case with John Lithgow’s likeable performance in Brian De Palma’s 1992 cult favorite, Raising Cain. The subject matter seems an inspired match for the auteur, who prizes Hitchcock allusions (this is primetime Psycho homage here) and doubling, recycling garish themes and motifs from earlier items in his body of work (which eventually aged better than this offering). Often ludicrous but as entertaining as ever, it’s high time to revisit this neglected gem from De Palma’s 90s work (where conversations cluster around Carlito’s Way or Mission: Impossible, but ignore everything else), which was the auteur’s last collaboration with composer Pino Donaggio until 2012’s Passion.

Child psychologist Carter Nix (John Lithgow) seems to be the perfect husband and father, doting on his young daughter, for whom he has taken leave from work to raise while his wife, oncologist Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), is able to focus on work. But when Jenny’s ex-husband (Steven Bauer) shows up, show proves unable to resist lustful temptations, which causes Carter to psychologically unravel, unleashing a host of multiple personalities who were fostered by Carter’s own father (also Lithgow, with old man make-up and a Norwegian accent). The timing coincides with his father manipulating him to abduct random children for the same devious experiments in child psychology performed on Carter when he was a child.

If it weren’t for the central performance of John Lithgow (who deftly switches between four personalities, one of them female, plus appearing as his character’s elderly Norwegian father), Raising Cain would be merely a morose rehash of old themes. Sequences involving cross-dressing and an elevator recall Dressed to Kill, while De Palma once more recalibrates the essence of Psycho to focus on a cheating wife played by Lolita Davidovich (whose bland sexual interactions with ex-husband Scott Bauer, a handsome stand in for a John Gavin type, channels the banal tawdriness of such liaisons). The handling of Lithgow also recalls De Palma’s early uses of the sometimes garish William Finley, who is energetic but much more effective during more subtle moments (one wishes for more of the Margo character, which also brings to mind Lithgow’s groundbreaking turn in The World According to Garp, 1982).

The narrative was significantly overhauled after filming had already commenced, with groundwork on Davidovich’s backstory arriving at a cumbersome moment in the eventual theatrical release, awkwardly presented late in the narrative as an ungainly surprise. A withering Frances Sternhagen supplies some energy in the police station (something character actors like Tom Bower and Gregg Henry aren’t afforded as cops), including in one of De Palma’s signature tracking shots from DP Stephen H. Burum (The Untouchables; Carlito’s Way) down a set of stairs. But all the serial killing, baby snatching, and fluctuating alter egos locked inside Carter never quite reaches the heights or vibrancy these gestures usually achieve in De Palma’s most vintage items. Quite possibly, this is due to a focal point on the hysterical male persona of Lithgow, and when paired with the absence of a titillating female character (thanks to De Palma’s lack of enthusiasm over the Davidovich performance) this somehow seems watered down when compared to the generous sleaziness of items like Dressed to Kill or Body Double.

Disc Review:

Shout Factory gives this lesser De Palma title an exemplary release for its first time on Blu-ray, a two-disc set which includes, for the first time, a director’s cut of the film (with scenes in the sequence De Palma initially intended, which is definitely worth checking out as it definitely gives the film necessary flavor). Presented in high-definition widescreen 1.85:1, both picture and sound quality are resolute (particularly Donaggio’s score). Several extra features are included across both discs.

Interviews:
New interviews with Lithgow, Steven Bauer, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower, Mel Harris, and Editor Paul Hirsch are included (note the absence of Davidovich). Lithgow and Bauer are featured in half hour segments, with lesser time devoted to Hirsch and Henry.

Changing Cain – Brian De Palma’s Cult Classic Restored:
This brief two-and-a-half-minute segment features Peet Gelderblom, who re-ordered the sequences according to an early draft of De Palma’s script in 2012, speaks of his desire behind doing so.

Raising Cain – Recut:
This thirteen minute feature is narrated by Gelderblom, who goes into depth on the re-ordering of sequences (and with plenty of reverence for De Palma).

Final Thoughts:

As far as De Palma’s genre thrillers go, Raising Cain has enough to hold the audience, if mostly for those already enamored with his work. But this multiple personality thriller rests uneasily in his filmography, not unlike a comparably flavorless item from a usually formidable author, Shirley Jackson, who treads similar territory in The Bird’s Nest, a misfire this De Palma title recalls.

Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com'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), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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