14 potential reasons to watch De Palma’s “Sisters”

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  • You’re captivated by the interaction of actors of wildly varying levels of skill.
  • You like Charles Durning.
  • You appreciate lovingly shot birthday cakes [more so in the icing scene than in the murder scene].
  • You want to see a fine example of the visual montage illustrating how a character’s mind is being unlocked and altered  [à la A Clockwork Orange, The Parallax View, Shock Corridor…].
  • You crave the feeling, at a film’s end, of “I can’t even remember how we got from the beginning of this story to here”. As I do, which is why Vertigo is such a total classic. Also The Box.
  • You love the use of a split screen and wonder why no other director employs it as a regular device. It seems like it’s always used to make a boring conversation less boring, or just as a flashy gimmick. De Palma uses it to make scenes more effective and his ingenious use of it quickly seems like the obvious way to do things. All sorts of thrillers have the “can this thing get done before that thing happens?!” element, or the “when will this person become aware that this thing is happening?!?” device. Why not use split screen? De Palma was doing it here, in the first film he made that wasn’t an experimental piece of anarcho-satire, and he was doing it 30 years later.

    William Finley in "Sisters" and in "Phantom of the Paradise"

  • You find the name “Emil” to be fascinating, as in “Why would any Anglophone parent name their son Emil?”. My conception of the name “Emil” is evoked precisely by Sisters’s gawky, effete, repulsively sensual, Québécois villain, played by De Palma regular William Finley.
  • You’re a historiographer of sensible hairdos and you want to see one which evoked a liberated, career-focused young woman in 1972, but would come to spread through the entire world of female celebrity in a less practical form. Jennifer Salt’s memorable teased mullet look, as intrepid girl reporter Grace Collier, may have come unstuck in time from the disco era.
  • You want to see something that could honestly be called a cross between the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Alfred Hitchcock. The makeup and the blood are so, so fake. The tension, pacing and zooms are so, so precise. The photography of daylit scenes is so flat and mundane that it looks fake. The photography of weird, stylized scenes is so detailed that it looks real.
  • You want to see what a Hitchcock plot would be like without the master’s stodgy requirement that a crazy person’s behavior must follow recognizable patterns. No comforting, cause-and-effect Freudianism in the seventies.
  • Since the dawn of game shows, other forms of media have yearned to parody game shows. In the days of Fred Allen and Ernie Kovacs, this was limited to exaggerating their inanity and fakeness, making the viewers think maybe we should watch something better. Now we’re more likely to see parodies that exaggerate the moral flaws of game shows, like humiliation, emotional manipulation, power struggles, and gladiatorial murder [part of the “implicate the viewer” school of cultural commentary]. Is the opening act of Sisters one of the first examples of this latter form?

Partial filmography: Charles Durning

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