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February 18, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #59 - Sisters

There are few horror movies that cover womanhood as thoroughly as Brian De Palma's Sisters does.  The 1973 chiller asks Margot Kidder to perform as Siamese twins that have been "cut asunder" and separated, while also asking Jennifer Salt to portray a reporter/amateur detective who witnesses a violent act and thus becomes both the third side in the film's triangle of intrigue and the logical actress opposite Kidder's animalistic characters.  Though the film's plot is pretty straight forward - except for an abstract dream sequence that shakes the characters' reality during the final act - the three roles that the two women play can get wrapped up in a confusing web.
The film spends most of its time with Kidder's Danielle & Dominique, and it allows the actress to portray both monster and victim.  Danielle generally seems delicate and seems naive, while the moments we share with Dominique are raw and vicious.  Kidder does a good job of handling the disconnect between two characters who seem to be on opposite ends of the human spectrum, and Salt covers the middle ground as the nosy Grace Collier quite well.

While the problems the twins face are probably foreign to most women, Ms. Collier is forced to deal with more common, everyday issues.  She has built a name in the newspaper industry by "calling it like she sees it", and thus has made enemies with several men, including the police force.  At the same time she has to put up with her overbearing mother, who reminds her that people her age are getting married and refers to her job, which Grace is quite passionate about, as a hobby.  As she fights through these issues with some pushy tactics, Grace becomes abrasive to even the viewer.  I often find myself disliking the character - despite knowing she's right - simply because of her mannerisms as she searches for the truth.
Opposite these women are a host of voyeuristic males.  The male gaze has always been a key proponent of De Palma's films, but it seems like the male characters in Sisters are all judging the movements of Kidder and Salt's characters.  The most obvious examples surround Danielle, with both her gentleman caller (played by Lisle Wilson) and her ex-husband (future Phantom of the Paradise William Finley!) often being framed while staring at her as if she's an object.  Some would argue that Dominique is empowered - in her own way - by this gaze, but Danielle seems to barely notice it.  Salt's Grace faces a different set of looks from the males, as both the police officers and the private investigator (Charles Durning) who she enlists in her cause hear her demands and look at her as if she's from a different planet.
There's a chasm between Danielle and Grace when it comes to why people are staring at them.  Danielle is desired by the men in her life, because she literally plays the role of bait using her looks and is totally willing to fall into the roles that her modeling and acting promote in her.  Grace, however, is determined to buck the trend and be seen as an equal to any reporter, which leads her to an uncertain approach from those around her.  The male characters - and maybe even the male viewers like myself - aren't comfortable around Grace because of her aggressive approach to those around her.  Danielle, on the other hand, uses her feminine side to her advantage to get what she wants when she can.

The fact of the matter is that neither actress fits their performance into what we'd expect from a woman in an average horror film, and the result is three unique characters that don't fit into standard gender roles.  There's not really a hero that we pull for or a villain we despise, just a group of women who are the focal point of an entirely fascinating script.  Like Hitchcock's Vertigo, it becomes evident as the film goes on that the viewer doesn't have a specific side to pull for - which gives the viewer the chance to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Though the characters in Sisters are far from the shining ideal of what a woman in horror can be, I adore the fact that the two actresses are given so much power to do interesting things as the film unfolds.  Sisters might not seem to advance the portrayal of women in horror on the surface, but De Palma (and co-writer Louisa Rose) do a great job of keeping the viewer off balance with these three unconventional female characters.  There are a lot of other great things going on in Sisters too - I could recommend the film entirely based on the fantastic final shot, which reminds us that voyeurism can be a dead end - but the unique roles for these actresses make it a great film to check out during Women in Horror Recognition Month.


Fred [The Wolf] said...

This is a great film - one of Margot Kidder's finest works. I'm a sucker for Brian dePalma, so this film is right up my alley. I love the whole voyeurism aspect and I do dig split screen scenes. There's a remake out for this one as well, but I've never seen it. It will be interesting to see how it compares [a.k.a. how much it'll suck compared to the original]. Great review!

The Mike said...

Thank you sir! I've heard nothing but bad things about the remake...yet I'm kind of intrigued by it.

And I'm right there with ya on De Palma's voyeurism and split screen usage. The dude's films are crack to me, and I'm salivating over the upcoming Criterion of Blow Out, which is totally my favorite from him.