Sisters: The Criterion Collection
Where would Brian De Palma be without Alfred Hitchcock? Forget that oft-asked question. Where would De Palma be without Abel Gance? After all, while De Palma stood a great deal of his early film career on the shoulders of the esteemed Hitch and his flair for stylish suspense, such cannot explain his fascination with the split-screen technique, which Hitchcock (and virtually all cineastes of his generation) ignored completely. Enter Gance, a pioneering French filmmaker whose monumental 1927 Napoleon was filmed in something called "Polyvision," one of the first widescreen processes (invented by Gance himself), which employed three separate cameras. When the process was used for panoramic effect, massive battle scenes in Napoleon sprung to life in an ultra-wide aspect ratio. But with a battery of three cameras to play with, Gance also enjoyed creating triptych effects, blending a simultaneous montage of separate images that broadened the scope of any given scene. Some film fans may tend to discredit De Palma for drawing as much from Hitchcock as he has during his hit-and-miss career, but we are glad he has been a proponent of the split-screen, a technically challenging component of cinema that almost died with Gance before its resurrection in the 1960s and total exploitation by De Palma a few years later. And one of the best places to see De Palma's technical genius is in his 1973 Sisters. Margot Kidder stars in Sisters as Danielle Breton, a French Canadian model living in New York, where she's pursuing an acting career. On one job (a funny and appropriate game show about peeping toms) she meets the handsome Philip (Lisle Wilson), and their first date leads to his spending the night at her apartment. In the morning Philip learns that Danielle has a twin sister, Dominique, and that it is the ladies' birthday. But upon returning to the apartment with a birthday cake, the erratic Dominique (who is visiting from a local asylum) disposes of her sister's new boyfriend via the business end of a butcher's knife. Enter investigative reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who saw the murder from her window across the courtyard. After persuading the cops to investigate, she is convinced that Danielle has a twin sister. What she doesn't suspect is that the girls were born as Siamese twins, and surgically separated only recently.
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De Palma's Sisters was a popular suspense-horror upon its release, and it even had some hyperbolic studio advertising (which insisted there would be a "shock recovery" period for audiences after the film). And while it never matches the greatest films from the Hitchcockian oeuvre, it has become more and more significant over the years as De Palma has made increasingly erratic films (yes, the guy who did the brilliant Blow Out also directed Mission to Mars). Sisters, with its blend of classic suspense, '70s horror, and a relentless focus on mutants and freaks of nature, is a film designed to make you very, very uncomfortable, despite the everyday nature of the lead actors. Kidder, who may be laying on that French Canadian accent a bit thick, nonetheless makes for a credible lead with her airy, superficial quality, and Salt is relentless as the no-nonsense muckraker. Charles Durning has a few fun scenes as a private gumshoe, but only William Finley, as Danielle's ex-husband Emil, is an obvious creep. Toss in an unmistakable score by Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Hermann and those awesome split-screen sequences, and Sisters is unmistakably one of the best products from De Palma's career to date.
Long out of print on home video, Criterion's DVD edition of Sisters returns the film to the small screen with a lot of upside. In addition to the clean widescreen transfer (anamorphic 1.85:1) from a very good source print, extra features include a textual 1973 interview with De Palma on making the film, his 1973 Village Voice essay "Murder by Moog: Scoring the Chill," which discusses his collaboration with Herrmann, a 1966 Life magazine article on Siamese twins in the Soviet Union, which served as De Palma's inspiration, a digital press-book from 1973 (with all of the sensationalistic advertising), and a few hundred stills, including behind-the-scenes shots and more advertising materials.