Though Brian De Palma had directed several accomplished features before it, Sisters feels in many ways like a debut film. It’s certainly De Palma’s first attempt to marry the edgy satirical textures of his earlier work with a recognizable genre narrative. Or, more bluntly, Sisters is De Palma’s first horror thriller, which is the genre that has allowed him to express himself fully. Like many debut films, Sisters is self-conscious and intellectually guarded, lacking the emotional vibrancy of its creator’s future productions, but it’s also a stunning work of style that erupts into ferocious madness.
Sisters opens on what was already then a classically auto-critical kind of De Palma joke. A blind woman, Danielle (Margot Kidder), strolls into a dressing room where a man, Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson), is changing. Unaware that anyone else is in the room, Danielle begins to disrobe. Until this point, the sequence plays as a perfectly conventional opening for a thriller, or maybe a comedy, until it’s revealed to be part of a Candid Camera-style show within the film called Peeping Toms, with Phillip as the mark. Danielle isn’t blind and works for the show, which follows contestants as they bet on whether Phillip will watch her undress, turn his head, or alert her to his presence. A polite man, Phillip turns his head, causing the contestants to lose points.
Most obviously, this scene functions as one of De Palma’s references to Alfred Hitchcock, acknowledging the voyeuristic functions, and interrogations, of much of the latter’s filmography. And the title of the game show within the film references Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which was also concerned with the dehumanizing qualities of media. These references are clever, relatively easy to parse, and safe—representing the sort of violations of a viewer’s trust that ironically broker an audience’s greater complicity in the post-Psycho age, as such rug-pulling encourages us to gleefully anticipate the next trick.
Yet De Palma laces all this potentially smug cleverness with an uncomfortable detail that echoes the social satire of the “Be Black, Baby” sequence from Hi Mom!, and that reveals a major element of his own distinctive voice: his scalding humor and distrust of conventional surfaces. Phillip is African-American, and the game show’s audience and contestants are all white. Which is to say that we’re watching a scene in which white people try to lure a black man into sexually harassing a white woman for their own amusement.
Phillip weathers this offense the way people of color have been conditioned to, with a resigned restraint that’s intended to prevent further accosting. De Palma dramatizes the racial savagery of the game show with an off-handedness that’s amusing and disturbing. In case we miss the point, Phillip is given two tickets to a restaurant called The Africa Room for being a good sport, and Danielle is given a set of knives. These prizes epitomize De Palma’s brutal cleverness, as each play a role in Phillip’s destruction.
This racial satire continues to inform Sisters even as the film morphs into a delirious fusion of Psycho, Rear Window, and Rope that retrospectively suggests a test run for Dressed to Kill. Phillip is this film’s Marion Crane, a subjugated person, initially assumed to be the protagonist, who must die so as to satisfy the whims of a white establishment that’s spinning out of control. De Palma plays with our awareness of Hitchcock’s films, deriving suspense not from the pulling of the narrative rug but from the timing of the pulling.
Phillip has sex with Danielle, who’s being stalked by her ex-husband, Emile (William Finley). Phillip overhears Danielle arguing with her twin sister, the pointedly unseen Dominique, who’s enraged that Danielle has a man over at the apartment. Then, Phillip goes to sleep and gets up and buys the sisters a birthday cake—a poignantly thoughtful gesture that seals his doom. Though we empathize with the character, we’re conditioned to become impatient for Phillip’s death so that we may begin to recover from it.
Dying a death as painful and lonely as the one that Marion Crane suffered before him in Psycho, Phillip crawls across the floor of Danielle’s apartment—his blood perversely echoing the color and texture of the icing on the birthday cake—and hands the film’s narrative baton off to Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt). Grace sees Phillip’s hand pressed against Danielle’s window from the neighboring angle of her own apartment and calls the police, whom she’s often criticized in her liberal-minded journalism. And the indifference of the police to Grace’s sensational story of a potential hate crime is visually expressed by one of the greatest split-screen sequences in De Palma’s career: two simultaneous nine-minute shots that contrast Emil’s efforts to conceal the murder with Grace’s efforts to expose it. In an astonishing flourish, we see Grace and Emil just miss each other in a blood-red hallway, suggesting desperate mice in an elaborate labyrinth. And this struggle, to become aware of social atrocity and to expose it, is capped off at the end of Sisters with a galvanizing punchline: Grace, the film’s social crusader, is willed into amnesia.
In prolonged bits and pieces, Sisters shows De Palma to be on the cusp of achieving the mastery that he would display in full by the early 1980s. What the film lacks is the seemingly intuitive sense of emotional escalation that sustains Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, which are so fluid that they almost feel as if they’re composed of a single, breathless shot. Though it climaxes with a mind-fucking in an insane asylum that’s classic in its own right, Sisters is also freighted with tongue-in-cheek exposition that occasionally stops it dead in its tracks, putting unnecessary quotation marks on a grimy, starkly sophisticated fusion of social satire and body horror.
This new 4K digital restoration of Sisters, supervised by Brian De Palma, emphasizes the film's lurid colors, further underscoring a potential giallo influence. The hallways leading to Danielle's apartment have never looked more wonderfully garish; the red hues in particular suggest an architectural womb, which is appropriate to a story of rival, once-conjoined twin sisters. The bustling cityscapes are also vibrant, with docudramatic details that haven't always been evident in prior transfers of Sisters, and the same fastidiousness has also been applied to skin textures, which are important to a film that pivots on attraction to and revulsion of the female body. The image is quite grainy, but that contributes to the film's shaggy vitality. The monaural soundtrack balances the diegetic and non-diegetic effects well, and informs Bernard Herrmann's terrifying score with immersive richness and body.
In a new interview, filmed for the Criterion Collection in 2018, actor Jennifer Salt discusses the origin of Sisters, a project that was born partially from a series of group encounters that included artists such as Brian De Palma, Margot Kidder, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg. Salt says that De Palma gave the actors little direction, allowing for improvisation within the tight structure of the narrative and visual schematic. This lack of guidance irritated Kidder, whom De Palma was seeing romantically, causing friction on the set. A series of interviews from 2004, with De Palma, editor Paul Hirsch, actors Bill Finley and Charles Durning, and producer Edward R. Pressman, offer a broader portrait of the film's production, discussing the impressive split-screen sequences and the climax at the insane asylum, among other things. This material is complemented by a long AFI interview with De Palma that was recorded in 1973, which can also be played as a commentary over the feature film. Meanwhile, an appearance by Kidder on The Dick Cavett Show in 1970 finds the actress disarming the host with an article that somehow praises and demeans him at once, while another notable guest, Janis Joplin, looks on with boredom. The best supplement here, however, is the booklet, which includes a terrific essay by Carrie Rickey, another interview with De Palma that was conducted in 1973, and a piece by De Palma on working with composer Bernard Herrmann. A series of photo galleries and radio spots round out a solid package that could, nevertheless, have benefited from a few more modern goodies.
This gnarly, terrifying, daring horror film, a formative moment in Brian De Palma's career, receives a beautiful transfer and a solid collection of extras.