Watching Sisters, Brian De Palma’s 1973 psychological horror film, is like meeting your best friend’s parents for the first time and suddenly understanding something about your friend that couldn’t have known otherwise — where they came from, and how far they’ve come. A relatively early entry in de Palma’s long and storied career, Sisters features plenty of the style he would become known for, with eyes firmly on Alfred Hitchcock.
Model-actress Danielle (Margot Kidder) brings home her date Phillip (Lisle Wilson) to celebrate her birthday. The day is cut short when her previously-conjoined twin Dominique murders him, leaving Danielle and her estranged husband (William Finley) to clean up the mess. Having witnessing the crime from her window, journalist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) reports the crime to the police, but a sweep of the apartment reveals only charming, doe-eyed Danielle. The police dismiss Collier, leaving her to dig up proof of Danielle’s lies on her own.
Sisters features de Palma at his most Hitchcockian. It’s full of homages, with cheeky nods to the repercussions of voyeurism and the instability of sanity. It even features a piercing score by frequent Hitchcock-composer Bernard Herrmann.
But more than that, the technical skill inherited from Hitchcock can be seen in de Palma’s ability to make even mundane events sinister and captivating. Before the stabbing, when Danielle and Phillip are getting frisky on the couch, we get a careful zoom-in on the wide mound of scar tissue down her hip. A low-angle tracking shot follows Phillip as he brings in a birthday cake — and a knife to cut it with. It brings to mind shots of the house looming over Bates Motel, or Norman Bates surrounded by taxidermied birds. The anticipation of violence heightens the tension long before the knife flashes.
From start to finish, Sisters is weird, but it rarely feels like it’s just for the sake of being weird. Some of the plotting might feel familiar to modern audiences; the idea that one conjoined twin is evil and the other good is borderline cliché at this point. But the story is infused with so many off-kilter details that even when you know what’s going to happen, you can never predict how you’ll get there.
In the scene in which the police investigate of the apartment, you imagine that Danielle is going to charm her way out of the situation. Collier discovers the birthday cake bearing two names, proof Danielle lied about being in the place alone and for a moment it seems like she’s going to be caught. But in her haste to present it to the police, she fumbles and drops it directly on the detective’s shoes.
It’s a shockingly funny moment, and it’s the sort of strong tonal shift that most modern thrillers or horror movies don’t dare attempt. Sisters has a lot of diversions that are almost slap-stick, and it can afford to because de Palma is so deft at creating tension. Even in this early stage in his career, he breaks the mood knowing he can rebuild it later, more than practically any other director, including his contemporary peers or Hitchcock himself.
In an interview published as part of the new Criterion Collection edition, de Palma explains that he was emulating Hitchcock “in order to work out my own problems as a storyteller.” Since then, he’s directed a startling number of movies that have indelibly changed American culture, like Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible. As far as exercises in self-improvement go, I’d say Sisters is a remarkable success.
The Criterion Collection’s new transfer of Sisters is now available for both purchase and digital rental.