ⓘ Sisters (1973 film)
Sisters is a 1972 American slasher film directed by Brian De Palma and starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, and Charles Durning. The plot focuses on a French Canadian model whose separated conjoined twin is suspected of a brutal murder witnessed by a newspaper reporter in Staten Island.
Co-written by De Palma and Louisa Rose, the screenplay for the film was inspired by the Soviet Conjoined twins Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova and features narrative and visual references to several films by Alfred Hitchcock. Filmed on location in Staten Island, New York City, the film prominently features split-screen compositions also present in subsequent De Palma films such as Carrie, and was scored by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann.
Released in the spring of 1973, Sisters received praise from critics who noted its adept performances and prominent use of homage. It marked the first thriller for De Palma, who followed it with other shocking, graphic thrillers, and went on to become a cult film in the years after its release.
Advertising salesman Philip Woode is the victim of a prank on a Candid Camera -style television show and wins a dinner for two at a Manhattan restaurant. He takes with him Danielle Breton, a naive young French Canadian model and aspiring actress who was hired as part of the prank. At dinner, they are interrupted by Danielles ex-husband, Emil, but Philip has him thrown out by security. They arrive at Danielles Staten Island apartment, but they spot Emil waiting outside. Philip pretends to leave to lure him away, then returns through the back entrance and the two make love on the living-room sofa.
The next morning, Danielle wakes and feels unwell. Philip overhears an argument between her and her sister in the bedroom, and accidentally knocks Danielles pills down a drain. Danielle explains to Philip that her twin sister Dominique had arrived to visit because it is their birthday, and also asks him to go to the drug store to pick up some more pills. He does so, and also buys a birthday cake for the two. When he returns, he is suddenly stabbed to death by Dominique, who is crazed and delirious.
The murder is witnessed by Grace Collier, a reporter who lives in an apartment across the way, who calls the police. Emil knocks on Danielles door and finds the scene, then helps Danielle clean up the blood and hide Philips body in the retractable couch. Two detectives arrive but are unhelpful and resentful toward Grace because of an article she had previously written about police brutality. Grace accompanies them on a search through Danielles apartment, who testifies that she had been alone all morning and the previous night. They find no evidence, though Grace finds the birthday cake with Danielles and Dominiques names written on it, but trips and destroys the cake before she can show it to the detectives.
Grace is convinced that Danielle is hiding the murderer, and convinces her editor to let her investigate the story. He agrees, but forces her to take along Joseph Larch, a private investigator. He searches Danielles apartment under the guise of a window cleaner, and is convinced that the body is hidden inside the couch due to its unnatural weight, but is interrupted by moving men who are directed to remove the couch. Larch follows the moving truck, while Grace uncovers that Danielle and Dominique Blanchion were Canadas first conjoined twins. Dominique was very shy while Danielle was talkative and outgoing. They were separated only recently, but Dominique died during the operation. Grace then tails Emil and Danielle to a mental hospital and witnesses him subdue and sedate her, but is caught. Emil, a doctor at the hospital, convinces the staff that Grace is a new patient and has her locked in a room where he hypnotizes her, telling her that the murder did not happen.
Grace has a bizarre dream about the twins past and their separation where she herself is Dominique. She wakes screaming hysterically only to have Emil coax her back to sleep. Danielle says that she wants Dominique while Emil reminds her that Dominique is dead. Danielle refuses to believe it, afraid Dominique will kill him. Emil makes her relax and tells her that whenever he tried to make love to her, Dominiques angry persona took control over her and all he could do was give her the pills to keep her sedated. Emil tells Danielle that he loves her and they kiss passionately. Dominique takes control of Danielle once again. After a struggle, Emil attempts to interrogate her about the murder but she cuts him in the inner groin with a scalpel and he bleeds to death over her. Danielle reawakens with Emil lying dead on top of her and embraces his body. Grace awakens too, and when she sees Danielle hugging the dead Emil, she screams in horror. The police arrest a delusional Danielle, who denies her responsibility for the murders and says that her sister is dead.
Later, Grace is interviewed by one of the detectives she called about Woodes murder, who now believes her. But still under Emils hypnosis, she completely denies her previous accusations. The final scene shows Larch, watching the sofa at a derelict train station in Canada while perched on a telephone pole.
Scholarly discussion of Sisters has centered largely on its prevalent theme of voyeurism as well as a perceived commentary on the womens liberation movement. Film critic and scholar Robin Wood wrote that the film "analyzes the ways in which women are oppressed within patriarchy society on two levels, the professional Grace and the psychosexual Danielle/Dominique." He adds: "If the monster is defined as that which threatens normality, it follows that the monster of Sisters is Grace as well as Danielle/Dominique–a point the film acknowledges in a cinematic hallucination/flashback sequence wherein Grace becomes Dominique. Simply, one can define the monster of Sisters as womens liberation."
The prominent allusions to works by Alfred Hitchcock have also been noted by critics such as Bruce Kawin, who wrote in 2000:
Sisters. makes intelligent reference to Rope 1948, Rear Window 1954, Psycho 1960, and even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 1920. The film ends with a shot of a detective looking through binoculars at what might be called the scene of the crime, intently but fruitlessly watching a couch that no one will ever incriminate themselves with by picking up. From start to finish, Sisters is charged with scenes of looking - from seeing a murder through a window to seeing another person’s memories in one’s own mind.
3.1. Production Development
De Palma was inspired to write the screenplay for Sisters after reading an article in Life magazine in 1966 about the lives of the Soviet Siamese twins Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova:
At the end of the article there was a picture of the two girls sitting on a couch and the caption said that apart from the fact that they were joined at the hip both girls were physiologically normal, but as they were getting older they were developing psychological problems. One of the twins had a very surly, disturbing look on her face and the other looked perfectly healthy and smiling. And this strong visual image started the whole idea off in my mind.
The script, which De Palma co-wrote with Louisa Rose, features structural elements inspired by Hitchcock, such as killing off a prominent character early into the film, alternating points of view, and the involvement of a third party observer in solving a crime. In writing the exposition of the film which details the twins history and institutionalization, De Palma was influenced by Roman Polanskis Rosemarys Baby 1968, specifically the scene in which Rosemary is raped and conceives her child.
3.2. Production Filming
Sisters was shot over a period of eight weeks in New York City in spring 1972, primarily in the borough of Staten Island. The apartment interiors were filmed on a set, with additional exterior photography of the Time-Life Building in Manhattan. The film was shot using Mitchell BNC cameras with Panavision lenses. According to De Palma, the film was lit with a "truly classical style", with scenes sometimes taking 45 minutes to set up. Some sequences were shot on 16 mm film by De Palma himself, such as the scene in which Emil speaks directly to the camera during the finales hallucination sequence.
3.3. Production Visual style
The film uses unusual point of view shots and split screen effects to show two events happening simultaneously, as well as long tracking shots, some in excess of six minutes in length. The extended tracking shot in Danielles apartment following the murder of Phillip was influenced by Max Ophuls and directly references Hitchcocks Rope. The theme of voyeurism is represented in the alternating points-of-view and distortions of perspective within the narrative diegesis; De Palma commented: "I really got the idea from watching the Vietnam war on television–watching a war that nobody really knew about except that we watched it every night on the 7 oclock news. It was really a very voyeuristic war, and I think it says a lot about the way we perceive things. We are very much controlled by the media which present things to us. And those can be manipulated."
In order to accomplish the image of both twins conjoined onscreen in the films finale both played by Kidder, De Palma had Kidder photographed seated in two different positions, and then joined the images together via optical editing.
3.4. Production Musical score
While editing the film in post-production, editor Paul Hirsch and De Palma listened to musical scores by Bernard Herrmann and played them along with the films key scenes. This led to De Palma inquiring about Herrmann composing the films musical score. At the time Herrmann was semi-retired, but admired the screenplay enough to agree to score the film.
Sisters had its world premiere at Filmex in Los Angeles, California on November 18, 1972. It was released theatrically in the United States by American International Pictures a subsidiary of Orion Pictures Corporation, opening in Los Angeles in April 18, 1973. It would later expand, opening in New York City on September 26, 1973, where it received "rave reviews," and continued to screen into the fall of 1973. It was also selected for the 1975 Venice Film Festival.
4.1. Release Contemporaneous
The film was met with critical praise; Roger Ebert noted that the film was "made more or less consciously as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock", but said it "has a life of its own" and praised the performances of both Kidder and Salt. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it a good, substantial horror film" and stated "De Palma reveals himself here to be a first-rate director of more or less conventional material", also noting the films references to Repulsion 1965 and Psycho 1960. Meanwhile, Variety, while stating it was "a good psychological murder melo-drama", said that "Brian De Palmas direction emphasizes exploitation values which do not fully mask script weakness." The Los Angeles Times s Kevin Thomas praised it as a "witty homage to Hitchcock" and a "low budget but high style scare show," as well as praising the performances and musical score. George McKinnon of The Boston Globe was less laudatory, writing: "It is difficult to determine what De Palma had in mind in this morbid horror film. Did he intend it all as a parody or a straightforward Psycho -type movie?. If it is to be taken as a tongue-in-cheek romp, it doesnt work and if meant as a horror film it is run-of-the-mill."
The film received honors from the U.S. Film Festival in Dallas, Texas in April 1973. Kidder also received an award for Best Actress at the Atlanta International Film Festival.
4.2. Release Retrospective
Critical reassessment of the film in the 21st century has largely been favorable, with critic Robin Wood writing in 2003 that Sisters was "one of the great American films of 70s," while G. Allen Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle considers it a key film in Kidders career. Richard Brody wrote of the film in The New Yorker in 2016:
De Palma weaves his own obsession with movies into the dramatic fabric of Sisters by means of a scene involving a documentary about the twins that Grace views in the offices of Life magazine; this film-within-a-film becomes embedded in her unconscious mind and threatens to warp her consciousness as well. Though De Palma’s own images can’t rival Hitchcock’s in shot-by-shot psychological power, the intricate multiple-perspective split-screen sequences of Sisters offer a dense and elaborate counterpoint that conjures a sense of psychological dislocation and information overload belonging to De Palma’s own generation and times.
In 2016, Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times ranked the film as De Palmas most underrated of the 1970s, writing that "for all its low-budget creakiness, feels fully formed - from its sly opening bit of misdirection to its adroit use of split-screen to its memorably churning Bernard Herrmann score. De Palmas choice of subject matter couldnt have been more appropriate: With this film he effectively conjoined himself to Hitchcock, announcing himself as a skillful mimic with a mischievous side all his own."
4.3. Release Home media
Sisters was released on VHS by Warner Home Video in the 1980s, and again in 2000 by Homevision. The film was released on DVD by The Criterion Collection on October 3, 2000 in a new widescreen digital transfer. In July 2018, Criterion announced a Blu-ray release of the film featuring a new 4K transfer scheduled for October 23, 2018.