'Sisters': De Palma's First Infectious Moral Atrocity Gets A New Coat of Paint

What's a fella to do?

Sisters Blu Ray
American International Pictures

Here’s a pickle. Phillip (Lisle Wilson) collapses upon a bench in the locker room, exhausted from a hard afternoon workout. The sound of a tap-tap-tapping invades his realm. He looks up from his tired perch; spots Danielle (Margot Kidder) hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses and carrying a folding cane. She’s clearly blind and unaware of his gaze. Does he dare sit back and ogle her form while she changes out of her clothes, or does he pipe up and alert her of his presence? What’s a fella to do?

The joke is on him. Philip has found himself trapped on a Candid Camera-like gameshow called Peeping Toms. From the jump; Brian De Palma positions his audience as the voyeur. You’re Phillip, and you’ve wandered into a surrounding that is impossible to understand. Sisters is a mean little movie, looking to prod your pretend decency, and hold you culpable for the various crimes you’re about to witness.

Philip is a good sport. He doesn’t mind being the pawn, going so far as to appear on the gameshow and collect his good sportsmanship prize. Is it a new car? Naw. It’s a dinner-for-two voucher for New York’s famous African Room restaurant. He’s all smiles and even manages to convince Danielle, the model who played him for a fool, to cash in that ticket.

As far as firsts dates go, this one might be a horrific all-timer. Not only does Phillip have to pretend that the African Room is an acceptable and not-at-all-racist dining establishment, but he must also contend with the vicious invasion of Danielle’s ex-husband (William Finely). Phillip has the man removed by security, but back at Danielle’s place, he spots the creeper loitering outside. Phillip fakes his exit from the apartment, tricks the ex into following him, ditches the boob, and returns to the arms of the model.

The couple makes love, spend the night together, and everything appears A-ok. That is until Phillip clumsily knocks Danielle’s prescription down the sink. After overhearing a phone argument with her sister, and learning that today is their birthday, Phillip offers to run to the pharmacy and collect her medication. Refusing to tarnish his knight-in-shining-armor routine, Phillip takes the first-date one step further by retrieving a cake to celebrate the day. He returns to a woman writhing in pain, and a nasty, sharp-edged ending.

From there Sisters descends rapidly into catastrophic, physical as well as psychological violence. Given the title, the opening prenatal credits, and Bernard Herrmann’s sensory pounding score, one might guess that De Palma is not interested in relating a simple saga of jealousy-turned-revenge. He is here for perversion, and the desire to stimulate those that foolishly stumble into the theater or press play on their TV.

The blind girl act is only Danielle’s first of many concealments. Margot Kidder holds her character’s fragile state on the breath of a cloying French Canadian accent. She excels in portraying the broken bird, but the fun is had when the downturned fluttering lashes steady, and the deadly, carnivorous stare penetrates the viewer. De Palma nestles her between victim and assailant, maintaining that duality for as long as narratively possible. That uncomfortable balance of character strikes tremendous unease and will drive the sensitive away from the rest of the filmmaker’s filmography.

The intrepid reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) falls into this biological nightmare through sheer happenstance, a peek out the right window at the right time. Salt is the exact opposite of Kidder. She explodes into the film full of purpose. She carries Grace with vitriolic tenacity stacked atop a deck of cards. De Palma cares not to balance her states as much as upend them. Absolute certainty resulting only in absolute disillusionment.

The new director-approved 4K restoration from The Criterion Collection is an astonishing wash on a film that was discarded to the murky wastes of VHS transfers. The colors are bright, vibrant, and still retain the grit and grain of the era. Sisters desperately needed attention, but thankfully, clarity does not equal the much-feared plastic sheen.

Herrmann’s score screams with the intensity of the emotions being savaged by the characters. There are no lows, only apocalyptic heights of ecstasy and revulsion. Yes, the restoration offers a classy, natural picture, but the uncompressed monaural soundtrack is enough to demand your dollars. Herrmann blares with the recognizable fervor of his Vertigo, but the New Hollywood aesthetic allows him to unleash whatever last drops of good taste he might be holding onto. The composer hits you with one fist while De Palma slaps you with another. Thank you, sirs, may I have another?

While De Palma had directed six films prior to Sisters, this is the first in his canon to be infused with a genuine sense of danger. It’s a risk that oozes from his twisted sensibilities, and the fear is that its toxicity is infectious. An inability to resist his deviant delights might transform you into a lifelong acolyte of the depraved. Commit or join the safety of the AFI approved films he’s riffing against.

You want to look away, but his camera robs you of the option. There is no flight from the scene of the crime. When the plot demands the intrusion of another character, De Palma relinquishes only half of the screen. Jennifer Salt is running to the rescue on the left, but the split-screen gives no respite from the horrors on the right. You can’t turn away. It’s a trick he would later get lost within, but in his earlier efforts, the effect is just one of many sharp instruments in his toolbox.

Sisters relates like a kinky rendition of a Popular Science puff piece. An anecdote overheard by Hitchcock chewed on by Georges Franju and regurgitated by De Palma. Those that lap it up deserve the poisoning that results. Whatever demented gorgers that remain hungry afterward should seek out CarrieDressed to Kill, and Body Double.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.