Back in 1973, it was actually a bit of a novelty when Brian De Palma delivered an Alfred Hitchcock homage. At the time he was known primarily as an underground New York filmmaker who made visually experimental and politically charged satires on miniscule budgets like Greetings or Hi Mom!. He’d gotten one chance to make a Hollywood comedy about magicians and failed (the less said about that the better). So in an attempt to revive his career and hopefully make a little box office, De Palma decided to homage the master of suspense back when Hitch was out of fashion and no one even knew how to pronounce the word homage in North America.
The resulting flick Sisters was not only a hit, but allowed De Palma to find the voice that would define the rest of his career. A filmmaking voice that combined the sly satire and self-conscious filmmaking of his early work with the slick mastery of suspense and spectacle that made him famous. Despite it’s somewhat crude nature (on a variety of levels) Sisters should be more fondly remembered by De Palma fans. Now that Criterion has spiffed the flick up for Blu-ray in North America, maybe that’ll change. Probably not, but whatever. I and the rest of the tiny Sisters cult now have copies of the flick in the Criterion treatment.
Like most De Palma thrillers, the plot is lurid nonsense. But hey, at least it’s self-aware lurid nonsense! De Palma combines bits of Psycho, Rear Window, and a few other Hitch staples with liberal doses of 70s psycho babble, hazy activism, blatant perversion, and snarky humour. There are Siamese twins and disappearing bodies and evil henchmen and plucky journalists and paranoia and murder. You know, all the good stuff. De Palma’s clearly orchestrating the production for a buck and half, but at the time he was used to making movies for fifty cents so he knew how to stretch the budget. There are clever narrative fake outs and subtle satirical stabs that still sting (especially the opening game show gag). Performances from cult favs like Margot Kidder and William Finley find a fine line between sincere commitment and winking insanity. It’s a film that’ll play as suspenseful sleaze for most and sly comedy for others. You know, like most Brian De Palma joints.
Despite the exploitation movie nature of the production, De Palma does deliver a handful of impressive set pieces. A mid-film split screen suspense sequence ranks amongst the finest De Palma ever crafted and some of the nightmarish diversions in the climax are tough to shake. Sisters is certainly the work of a brainy film brat showing off while learning his craft, yet given that De Palma never lost those brainy, bratty, show-off tendencies even as an old man it all kind of works. Sisters is trashy thriller just sleazy and suspenseful enough for horror fans and self-consciously snotty enough for film snobs. It’s the type of flick that the term cult movie was invented for and would likely have a far better reputation were it not for the fact that De Palma refined this formula over the years. Movies like Dressed To Kill, Blow Out, Body Double, and Raising Cain all arguably do what Sisters does better. However, Sisters did it first and De Palma somehow got Bernard Herrmann to give his sardonic Hitchcock riff an incredible bombastic score that perfectly underscores his cinematic sick joke. Sisters shouldn’t be forgotten in the De Palma cannon even though it’s easy to overlook. Thank god at least Criterion sees that.
Some folks consider Criterion’s new transfer of Sisters to be rather controversial. Compared to previous HD remasters of the flick (like the one Arrow did for a British Blu-ray), this transfer has a more earthy and even somewhat teal tone. Clearly there’s been some color timing adjustments made. Some might think the image has been overly been tampered with, but De Palma signed off on it. We have to assume it’s reflective of either what he intended or what he was unable to achieve at the time. If you can get over the colors, there’s no denying it’s a gorgeously rich and detailed transfer (especially for a low budget production from the 70s). The disc looks great, color-timing purists be damned!
Criterion cleaned up the original monaural soundtrack and it sounds great. Granted it would have been nice to hear Bernard Herrmann’s bombastic score expanded out to 5.1, but Criterion likes to stick with the original audio format. Fair enough. For what it is, the tack sounds beautiful.
Jennifer Salt Interview: The only new feature Criterion produced for the release is an interview with co-star Jennifer Salt and thankfully it’s a great one. Salt not only starred in the film, but was close friends with De Palma throughout the early days of his career. Her memories and anecdotes start with meeting De Palma in college (where he was the only male student on campus doing his masters…typical De Palma) through sharing a beach house with Brian and his then girlfriend Margot Kidder (where regular guests included such names as Scorsese, Spielberg, Schrader, and others) and then finally shooting Sisters (De Palma gave her and Margot Kidder their scripts for Christmas). It’s a wonderful chat with Salt clearly looking back on her experience fondly. Sure it would have been nice if Criterion had sat down with De Palma as well, but he doesn’t seem to be interviewed by anyone other that Noah Baumbach these days and likely won’t even do that anymore after their feature length documentary. So this’ll do.
The Autopsy: To make up for the lack of current old man De Palma participation in the supplements, Criterion port over this excellent 26 minute documentary from an old French DVD. De Palma leads the chat with contributions from others folks like Bill Finley and editor Paul Hirsch. It covers all the basic beats you’d want, from the inception of the idea to the amusingly combative relationship he had with composer Bernard Herrmann. This is a noble substitute for a fresh doc from Criterion, especially since it’s never been seen in North America and features contributions from interviewees who have sadly passed on since it was produced.
AFI Interview: A vintage audio interview with De Palma conducted at the AFI following a screening of Sisters is included instead of an audio commentary. The audio is a bit rough and some of the conversations lead down dead ends, but hearing a young De Palma break down the film and his preoccupations back when he was young and full of piss and vinegar rather than old and exhausted with interviews is very much worth a listen.
Margot Kidder at The Dick Cavett Show: A hilarious and eccentric chat with Margot Kidder on the Dick Cavett Show. She shows up wearing no shoes, sits next to Janis Joplin, and immediately reads an article from a Vancouver newspaper describing Cavett as a “sexy Leprechaun.” Somehow the interview gets weirder from there.
Photo Gallery and Radio Spots: Exactly what it sounds like and certainly amusing for those who enjoy such things.
Booklet: An insightful essay from critic Carrie Ricky as well as a vintage print interview with De Palma and an old essay he wrote for the Village Voice about working with Bernard Herrmann (the latter two were originally text features on Criterion’s old Sisters DVD… remember those?).