THE term 'Hitchcockian' is often brandished by critics tackling the thrillers of Brian De Palma, but while the director's debt to old Alfred is undeniable, it's hard to imagine the master of cinematic suspense coming up with something as wild and unhinged as Sisters.
Made in 1972 but released in 1973, it was the directer's first 'big' film after a beginning mired in B-movie hell and indie quickies. It shocked cinema goers at the time with its clever plotting, nasty nature, wild lurches into extreme and often visceral violence and unsettling fantasy sequences.
Watching it 50 years on, Sisters has lost little of its power and punch, even if it still feels a little too uneven and unbalanced to appeal to a mass audience. In fact, if I'm honest, Sisters is such a schizophrenic viewing experience and given to such disorienting tone shifts throughout its running time that it's unlikely to pull in much of an audience at all, outside of those fascinated by cinema's murkiest shadows.
The story is simple enough even if De Palma goes proudly off the deep end trying to tell it. Essentially, it's the tale of an investigative journalist, Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who sees her fashion model neighbour Danielle (Margot Kidder) violently attack and murder a man.
When she calls in the cops, they find nothing, and her past exposing police misbehaviour in her paper means they are unwilling to help – so she must try to solve the mystery herself.
With the help of a private detective, Joseph Larch (Charles During), Grace uncovers a very odd secret about Danielle's shady past that leaves them both seeing double. As the screenplay, co-written by De Palma with Louisa Rose, used the story of Russian conjoined twins Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova for inspiration, the exact nature of the who dun it is pretty predictable – but that's where the ordinariness ends.
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From such a relatively simple thriller premise, De Palma swiftly takes Sisters into much stranger territory. What develops is a queasy psychosexual drama that lurches into Italian giallo tropes and full-blown semi-Satanic horror with alarming ease. It's so jaw-droppingly bizarre at times that even the king of body horror David Cronenberg might shiver in disgust.
I won't linger on the plot any longer for two reasons: firstly, I wouldn't want to provide spoilers for something as intriguing and downright insane as this and, secondly, it's almost impossible to sum up the wild and trippy on-screen madness anyway.
All I will say is that it all winds up with three very different psyches battling it out for supremacy.
De Palma utilises all kind of visual trickery, from disarming point of view shots and close-ups to split-screens and false archive medical footage to portray this.
Such a manic approach makes for a truly mind-melting cinematic experience. The feverish mix of sex, violence and full blown horror will put many off, but if you've a strong stomach and a taste for the utterly bizarre and unsettling, then Sisters may well be right up your street.