70’s Memories: Sisters (1972)

Written by Brian De Palma & Louisa Rose
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning
US Release March 27, 1973
RT 93 min.
Home Video The Criterion Collection (DVD)
Classic Horrors rating = 9 (out of 10)

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When I was a child, there were no video stores. There was no Netflix, Amazon Instant Video or iTunes.  Heck, there was no Internet, at least not that was available to the public like it is today.  But I had two things:  HBO and a Betamax.  When I wanted to “own” a movie, I “taped” it on one of its HBO airings, made a neatly printed label for the box and added it to my physical library.

My family got its first Betamax for Christmas in 1977. The first thing I recorded was a re-run of the second season premiere of Charlie’s Angels, the two-hour episode called “Angels in Paradise”, which introduced Cheryl Ladd to the series.  I had to watch a show when I taped it to pause every 15 minutes, give or take, so I could “cut out” the commercials.

When I taped something, I watched it over and over and over again. (Ah, what I’d give for the time to do that now!)  One of the first movies I taped on HBO was Sisters (1972).  I loved that movie!  I watched it before I saw many other better-known horror films like Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist.  And I’ve watched it more times than I’ve watched those other movies to this day.

Thankfully, when I re-watched it recently for the first time in many years, it held up incredibly well. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Sisters is its director, Brian DePalma.  And when I think of Brian DePalma, I think of style:  long one-shot takes, spinning cameras and, most of all, split screen.  Sisters began a nearly 10-year stretch where DePalma was a master of suspense.

DePalma was controversial during this period of time because he was considered in some circles to be the “new Hitchcock”. Apparently, you believed only one of two things about DePalma, that he was a transcendent auteur or that he was a mimicking, copycat hack.  I believed the former; in fact, I wrote my senior year English research paper with the thesis that he was the new Hitchcock.

From 1973 to 1981, DePalma made Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession, Carrie, The Fury, Dressed to Kill and Blowout, all favorites of mine and worthy of a modern day Hitchcock. This was before he went in a different direction with movies like Scarface, The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way.  These still utilized his unique style, but were not classic horror or suspense thrillers.

I’ve long maintained that Dressed to Kill is my favorite DePalma movie. After re-watching Sisters, though, I think I prefer its less polished style.  It’s obviously made by a young director trying out new things and it feels fresh and exciting to this day.  It’s also very dark and twisted.  What begins as a standard, yet stylish murder mystery, later becomes a lurid, almost hallucinogenic horror movie.

Another reason I now prefer Sisters is that the showy DePalma style is used more sparingly. For example, the split screen is used far less than I remembered, and it’s used more effectively than I think I’ve ever seen in any of his other movies.  Technically, it’s brilliant; I can’t imagine the level of detail required to plan such shots.  Visually, it’s enthralling.

In Sisters, the relatively brief sequence that uses the technique, serves two purposes. First, it provides two different perspectives on an event at the same time.  On the left side of the screen, it’s the perspective of a man who has been stabbed crawling to a window to write “help” in his own blood.  On the right side of the screen, it’s the perspective of a woman watching the murder from her apartment next door.

Second, it provides real time depiction of simultaneous action. On the left side of the screen, we see the murderer and accomplice frantically cleaning up the scene of the crime.  On the right side of the screen, we see the woman from next door talking to the police and eventually convincing them to investigate what she witnessed.  I find this technique much more suspenseful than an intercutting of scenes where we go back and forth between the action.

On a psychological level, the screen first splits at the same time the main character suffers an emotional split. Is that heavy handed and obvious filmmaking or is it subtle and clever?  I think it may be a little of both, but I like it a lot.  It adds multiple levels to the experience.  Reflecting on the many times I watched Sisters in my teen years, I bet it’s the reason I became interested in the “art” of making a movie.

The aforementioned murder takes place in the apartment of Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder). She is one half of a pair of conjoined twins who were recently physically separated.  Her trick for the evening, Phillip (Lisle Wilson) does not apparently notice the giant scar on her hip as he caresses her thighs.  When the other twin, Dominique, discovers their night of passion, she flies into a jealous and murderous rage.

The entire first half of Sisters leads up to and includes the violent murder of Phillip. It then shifts to the point of view of Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), the neighbor woman who must conduct an investigation of her own since the police could find no evidence of the murder.  She hires a private detective, Joseph Larch (Charles Durning), infiltrates the hospital and becomes intimately involved in the twists and turns of the story.

Once at the hospital, it’s a rollercoaster downhill as dark secret after secret is revealed. It’s trashy, it’s exploitative, it’s gruesome; but man, is it entertaining!  Sisters calms down a bit for a two-part conclusion that’s perfect.  Not exactly a twist, but certainly a gotcha, making you smile while you think, “oh, yeah” as well as “oh, no.”

If you’ve never seen Sisters, now is the perfect time to discover it. When American Horror Story: Freak Show aired on FX and featured conjoined twins, you could see the homage it paid to DePalma.  (You could also see that, no matter how entertaining it was, the TV show was an inferior product, at least in comparison.)

That leaves us with the homage DePalma pays Hitchcock in Sisters. It’s in large part Psycho meets Rear Window, but I’ve never believed DePalma was robbing from Hitchcock.  If anything, his movies put a “modern” spin on Hitchcock.  The influence is obvious, but it’s not blatant plagiarism.  I truly believe DePalma took filmmaking to a new level with Sisters.  Familiar in style, perhaps, but it’s undoubtedly something you’d never seen before in 1973.  Or even in 1977 on HBO, for that matter, taped for posterity on a worn out Betamax cassette.

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