For this week’s post, we’re covering two horror films that I’ve never seen before in honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday. I always get in the mood to watch horror films during the month of October. And this week’s films are:
Brian De Palma – Sisters (1972)
David Cronenberg – The Brood (1979)
I’ve never covered either of these celebrated directors before, and I’ve never really dug deep into the work of either of them outside of the blog either. I’ve seen films of theirs here and there. De Palma is of course known for Carrie, Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, and many others. Cronenberg is well known for body horror. His films like The Fly, Scanners, Dead Ringers, and Naked Lunch.
These films are both from fairly early in the careers of these directors, So let’s get into it.
Danielle is a beautiful French Canadian model and actress with a twin sister named Dominique that she was originally conjoined with. Danielle meets a man after their appearance on a game show, and the next morning he turns up dead, presumably attacked by Dominique. Will Danielle and her ex-husband Emil be able to cover up the crime and get control of Dominique before she kills again?
The film is directed by Brian De Palma, and stars Margot Kidder as the twins, along with Charles Durning as a private investigator. Jennifer Salt also plays a major role in the film as Grace, a journalist who witnesses the murder. Jennifer Salt had a nice career as a working actor, and eventually transitioned into producing and writing on shows like Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story.
The film starts out focused on a man we’ll eventually learn is named Philip. he’s in a locker room getting dressed, when Danielle, Margot Kidder’s character walks in, with large dark eye glasses, indicating she’s blind. There is a missing wall between the locker rooms, just a wooden frame. She begins to undress. He moves towards her, watching her. But then, we suddenly get pulled out into a game show. What we’ve been watching has actually been the setup for a hidden camera show, where contestants try to guess what happens next. It’s an interesting way to play with audience expectations. It also suggests that we shouldn’t take everything in the film we see at face value.
After the show, Danielle wins a cutlery set, and Philip wins dinner for two. Danielle takes the opportunity to ask Philip to dinner, and he of course agrees. The two have a nice evening, until a man tries to take Danielle away. She tells Philip that he is Emil, her ex-husband. Philip objects and has security remove him. At the end of the night, she asks him to take her home, telling him she lives on Staten Island. He agrees to take her home, and the two have a romantic ride of the ferry.
When they arrive at her place, she undresses and Philip notices that Emil is still standing outside, as if guarding the location. At this point in the film, we’re assuming that Emil is some kind of villain, trying to keep the two young lovers apart. But after Philip tricks Emil into leaving and returns, as the love making begins, we see a large scar on Danielle’s hip.
De Palma does a great job of paying out the information slowly to keep us interested. It gives us some more information as Danielle wakes up the next morning and goes into a side bedroom. We hear her speaking in French to another person and also going to the bathroom and taking some pills, which she’s almost out of. When Philip wakes up, she tells him that her twin sister Dominique is staying with her, and that it’s their birthday today. She asks Philip to go get her more of her medicine, but when she leaves him alone in the bathroom, he accidentally knocks the last two pills into the sink, losing them.
De Palma has laid out a lot of information in the first 20 minutes of the film. We’ve met Danielle, and heard Dominique. We know the medicine is important to Danielle. We know that Emil is at best overbearing, and at worst, sinister. De Palma also uses the music to let us know when something should be paid attention to. When revealing her scar, the music changes dramatically.
Philip goes to get her medicine, and also stops to get a birthday cake for Danielle and Dominique, getting their names written on it. Meanwhile, we see Danielle discovering her pills are missing, and then having some sort of attack, writhing on the floor.
When Philip comes in with the cake, De Palma uses his camera to tell us something is wrong. We never see Danielle clearly, and the camera lingers on certain elements, like the large sharp knife that Philip selects to cut the cake. The camera purposefully avoids showing us Danielle as Philip brings the cake to the woman under the covers on the sofa bed.
When he offers the cake, the hand under the covers grabs the knife and attacks, slashing him across the groin. We see a woman that looks like Danielle, but with a very different look on her face, wearing different clothes than we last saw Danielle in. We assume it must be Dominique. The attack continues, and Philip drags himself to the window, trying to write ‘help’ on it before succumbing to his injuries.
This is where the film formally introduces Grace, the reporter. She lives in the next building from Danielle, and can easily see into her window. As Philip crawls to the window for help, Grace sees it, and calls the police. Unfortunately for her, there are several things that De Palma puts in place against her. First of all, she is a reporter who has been critical of the police. Secondly, she’s a woman. And thirdly, the victim, Philip, is a black man. The police don’t really believe her, and are even reluctant to come.
Emil arrives at Danielle’s soon after, and the cover-up begins. We see Danielle on the floor of her bathroom, still in her negligee. She wanders to the door, oblivious to the bloodbath. When Emil comes in, he immediately gets to work cleaning things up, and hiding the body. Meanwhile, Grace waits for the police, and tries to convince them that she’s telling the truth.
De Palma does something fascinating here. Rather than cut back and forth between the scenes, De Palma uses a split screen, which is rarely used in cinema, but works wonderfully here. We see Emil trying to clean up the scene, and Grace trying to convince the police to search the apartment at the same time. It boosts the tension, although I think the speed with which Emil cleans up the crime scene is a little unbelievable.
This all occurs within the first 30 minutes of the film. The rest of the film is all about the unraveling of Danielle’s past, and how Emil and Dominique fit into this. Grace becomes the main protagonist of the film, working to uncover these truths.
This is the real meat of the film, and a large part of why it’s memorable. The film, like Coma which I talked about awhile ago has a heavy feminist bent. Grace, like the main character in Coma, was right all along, and if the police had simply listened to her initially, the crime would have been solved within moments.
As Grace works on the mystery, her publisher pairs her with a private investigator, Joseph Larch, played by Charles Durning. The character is wasted a bit in the film. He appears in one scene with Grace, and they argue about tactics a bit, and then there’s a wonderful scene where Larch infiltrates Danielle’s apartment.
De Palma is well known for referencing Hitchcock in his films, and this scene is straight out of Rear Window. Grace watches from her apartment through binoculars while Joseph looks through the apartment. Of course, Danielle, Emil, and some other people arrive while he’s there. Grace uses the signal they came up with to warn him, and he somehow gets out with a key piece of information. He realizes that the body was hidden in the couch, under the folding bed. Men take the couch away, and Joseph is convinced that following the couch is the right move. He does so, and after a couple scenes, he disappears from the film completely, except for a strange scene at the end.
Grace continues digging, and finds herself at a mental institution, where Emil traps her, pretending she is one of his patients. He manages to hypnotize her, telling her that there was no murder, and she witnessed nothing. While she’s hypnotized, we learn the full truth.
I guessed at the ending before it happened, and I won’t reveal it here, because it is effective, and worth seeing. De Palma uses an interesting technique here, placing Grace in the position of Dominique, the other sister in an extended flashback. This does a few things. First of all, it puts us in the scene with a character we’ve spent a lot of time with, thus increasing the terror. Secondly, it saves on special effects, because De Palma doesn’t need to create a second Margot Kidder.
In the end, there is another murder, and Grace manages to survive, but in very bad shape. As she is questioned, we learn that the hypnosis was buried deep, she has no memory of seeing any murders. In the final scene, we see Joseph, pretending to be a telephone repairman, watching the couch which has been deposited outside a train station in Canada. It’s a strange scene, because we’ve been given no indication of how much time has passed, or how long he might be willing to wait. It’s an unsettling ending to an unsettling film.
The Brood (1979)
A man is suspicious of the intense psychiatric care his wife is receiving. Especially after discovering bruises on his young daughter after a visit. Things get even more suspicious when his mother-in-law is brutally murdered while his daughter is in the home. He works to gain sole custody of his daughter as murders continue around him. But what will he learn when he finally confronts his wife in the institution?
The film is directed by David Cronenberg and stars Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar and and Art Hindle. Oliver Reed is probably the best known of the actors, having a long career, spanning more than 40 years, but the other actors had good careers as well.
Reed plays Dr. Raglan, a psychologist with a strange method called psychoplasmics, in which he playacts as a significant figure in the patients life, and then tries to get them to reveal their rage to him. We get a taste of this in the opening scene. Initially, we assume that Raglan and the patient are actually father and son. But then it pulls back, and we see they have an audience. Regardless, it’s an unsettling scene. Afterwards, we meet Frank, and Candace, his daughter.
When he goes home to give her a bath, he discovers her back is covered in bruises and small cuts. He returns to confront the doctor, and we learn that his wife is in isolation during her treatment, and that her daughter visits her on the weekends. Frank tells Raglan that he will not be bringing Candy to visit his wife any longer, but Raglan tells him he’ll never win a court case. And that he will lose custody of his daughter entirely.
There seems to be a political statement here about the nature of custody hearings, and how the court system generally sides with the mother in custody cases. The film makes it clear how unfair this is, especially in this case when the mother is institutionalized. No one seems to believe that Frank can possibly win this case.
Eventually, we meet Nola, Frank’s wife, and Candy’s mother. We see a therapy session with Nola and Dr. Raglan. He keeps demanding to see her rage, getting her more and more angry. He is reminding her of how her mother treated her, getting her wound up. Here Cronenberg cuts back and forth between this therapy session, and her mother, who is watching Candy. She show’s Candy old pictures of her mother in the hospital and explains that she was sick a lot as a child. While this happens, we see a small panel in the wall be punched in by a tiny fist. The kitchen is being trashed by someone or something, but it seems to take Nola’s mother a long time to check.
When she finally enters the kitchen, she is attacked by someone very small in a red child’s coat, beaten to death with some kitchen implements. We get some small flashes of the assailant, and it appears to be a small child with a deformed face. Candy enters the room, seeing the aftermath.
This sets the main thrust of the film in motion. Frank begins the process of understanding what his daughter saw, preparing for his mother-in-law’s funeral, and dealing with Nola’s father, long since divorced from his murdered mother-in-law. As the father-in-law gets drunk in the old home and examines the crime scene. He calls Frank who rushes over to keep him from driving. In the meantime, the father-in-law is attacked by the small creature again, killed before Frank arrives. When he does arrive, he is also attacked, but the small creature dies shortly thereafter.
This gives us our first good look at the creature, and some plot holes that bothered me. First off, the police are happy to work with Frank. They never seem to suspect him. Second of all, after a very short autopsy, the medical examiner is able to describe in detail the anatomy and functioning of the creature, explaining that it has a small sack between it’s shoulder blades that he is sure is a fuel tank, that once it runs out, it’s dead. This entire sequence is just designed to create some kind of scientific backing for these strange creatures that shouldn’t exist.
We’re also told that Nola is in complete isolation in her therapy, but she is able to make several phone calls, one of which identifies the next victim, Ruth, his daughter’s teacher, who is roped into babysitting when Frank has to leave. Nola believes she is planning to steal Frank and Candace away, leaving her behind. It seems ridiculous that she would get a phone to call whoever she wants when she’s supposed to be in isolation.
It’s clear from the way the film is shot that Nola is somehow responsible for these murders. But we’re not entirely clear how it works. So the film is both horror, and mystery. We as the audience are trying to understand what these creatures are, while looking out for the next victim. Eventually Ruth is killed by two of the small creatures, who also take Candy with them. We see a shot of the three, Candy and two of the creatures, walking hand in hand down a snowy road. There is no indication of how far they traveled on foot, but it seems like a pretty significant distance. It also seems strange that no one would check on the three small children walking along roads all by themselves.
Eventually, we get to the climax, where Raglan has evacuated his psychiatric retreat, except for Nola, and one of the patients reveals to Frank that Nola has a group of small children she takes care of in a workshop away from the normal building.
Frank goes to check it out, and there learns the truth. The children are in fact born out of Nola’s rage, and they are responsive to her rage. They will go to attack targets of her rage. Raglan tells Frank that if he will go in and keep Nola calm by telling her that he will reunite their family, Raglan will go and rescue Candy from the room with the creatures.
When Raglan walks into the room, we find that there are about a dozen of these small creatures. Frank begins well keeping Nola calm, but eventually, she sees through his story, and reveals what’s happening to her body.
Here’s where we get the classic Cronenberg body horror. Nola removes her loose fitting shirt, and we see a body covered in growths, including an external womb that births one of the small rage monsters while he’s watching. It’s deeply, deeply unnerving. It was incredibly difficult to watch.
But in the end, Raglan is killed, and Frank chokes Nola to death, ending the lives of the rage creatures as well. Candy is saved, but deeply damaged. As he drives her home, the camera pans to her arm, which is showing evidence of some of the growths that were present on Nola. We must assume this isn’t over.
The Double Feature
So we have two horror films that give us a strong sense of mystery. Both films give us some gore and some terror and suspense, but then also keeps us guessing about how this is happening. The mystery is far more compelling in Sisters, because De Palma is able to pay out little bits of information about Danielle and Dominique. Even early on in his career, he clearly had a grasp of how to drop little bits of information that give us a bit more information, but ensuring the question we really want the answer to remains hidden. In this case, it is ‘What happened to Dominique?’. So even if part of the reveal isn’t surprising, the story of how Danielle and Dominique got to this point is incredibly interesting.
The Brood is also effective, but the mystery is a little less interesting, because it is clear early on that Nola is somehow controlling the small creatures. What they are turns out to be not terribly interesting, and not all that surprising. It’s also never really explained how or why it happens. It turns out to be not satisfying. The shock of seeing the body horror scene isn’t really enough to save the reveal.
In general, I had quite a few problems with The Brood, which had too many plot holes for my comfort. It also worked really hard to convince us that the creatures were somehow scientifically possible with the autopsy, but then at the end of the film, we never get any explanation of how talking about her issues with her parents somehow creates these creatures through Nola’s body. It seems like gore for gore’s sake, rather than a cohesive story. In the end, I don’t find that terribly compelling.
Sisters on the other hand was able to keep me completely engaged throughout the entire film. Every time I learned a little more about Danielle, I wanted to hear more about it. And the final scene when Grace takes the place of Dominique, and experiences what she experienced is truly chilling. Just a great piece of filmmaking.
In addition, Margot Kidder is wonderful as Danielle/Dominique in the film. This was several years before her days as Lois Lane, and in this part of her career, she seemed to be in a lot of horror films. It would be easy for this role to turn into a caricature, especially with the French Canadian accent that she takes on throughout the film. But I found her performance to be the highlight of the film.
I am still here in Amsterdam. Randomly, I’ve been able to see two people here that I haven’t seen in years. One of which who moved here after our graduate school experience. One of which happened to be traveling in Amsterdam. I had no thought when I started on this trip that I would end up seeing old friends along the way. It’s been a nice experience.
So let’s consider next week’s films. I think we’re out of the horror movie range, so I don’t have anything in particular agenda. But looking at Filmstruck, I saw a lot of films from an actress I’ve never covered, Jean Harlow. Looking at her filmography, I realize I’ve never seen any of her films. So I selected two out of the list from the era when Hollywood was transitioning into the Hays code, so these films will likely have some pre-code elements. The films are:
Victor Fleming – Red Dust (1932)
Sam Wood – Hold Your Man (1933)
Both of these films star Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, and one of them is directed by Victor Fleming, one of the most successful directors from this era. So it should be an interesting set of films.
See you then.