The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today we're looking at Brian De Palma's Sisters, about two formerly conjoined twins with a penchant for murder.
Before the late Margot Kidder was everyone's favorite fictional journalist Lois Lane in Superman (1978), she starred in a fairly eclectic group of movies, ranging from light comedy like the Gene Wilder film Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx to the beloved cult masterwork Black Christmas.
In 1973, despite her general ambivalence toward movie stardom and acting, Kidder was dating director Brian De Palma and had been roommates with Jennifer Salt, future writer and producer of Nip/Tuck, who in turn plays a career-obsessed journalist alongside Kidder in the movie Sisters.
Having been initially a director of comedies, Sisters marked De Palma's turn to the darker side of cinema, which would carry on into his future works such as Obsession and the original film version of Carrie. In an odd reference, the movie begins on the set of a dating game show, the kind that would have been popular in the early '70s. One of the contestants is a young black man named Philip, whose consolation prize is a free dinner at “The African Room.”
Another contestant on the show, Danielle (Kidder), invites herself along, and, in one of the more referenced scenes of the film, has a few too many drinks and insists mid-dinner that she's not a feminist because she doesn't hate men. She says all this in a somewhat muddled take on a French-Canadian accent. During their dinner, her ex-husband Emil appears out of nowhere and sits down, pleading with her to leave with him. Philip has him escorted out and takes Danielle back to her apartment, where he spends the night, waking up with heavy scratches all over his back.
Danielle is arguing offscreen with her twin sister Dominique, who we do not see. Danielle explains to Philip that it's their birthday, and sends Philip to the store to pick up her meds. He unknowingly signs his own death warrant by making a detour to pick up a birthday cake for Dominique and Danielle. When he returns, “Dominique” leaps at him and stabs him to death with a knife from the cutlery set that Danielle had been awarded for her participation on the game show the night before. Danielle's ex-husband Emil once again shows up out of nowhere and helps her hide Philip's body.
Across the way, a journalist named Grace witnesses the crime and calls the police, who utterly dismiss her statement. Unable to let go of what she saw, Grace teams up with a private investigator to follow Danielle. Despite Danielle adamantly insisting that she has no twin, Grace uncovers the fact that she was one of a pair of infamous conjoined twins. Grace enters an institution where Danielle and Dominique, while still joined at the hip, had been under Emil's “care.” In a bizarre hallucinatory shared flashback between Danielle and a now-imprisoned Grace, we learn that Emil had been molesting Danielle and had ultimately impregnated her, which led to an enraged response from Dominique. Without remorse, Emil murdered Dominique, pretending that she had simply died in a risky attempt at separation. He had assumed that would lead to Danielle becoming even more compliant to his wishes. In truth, Danielle missed her sister, and the death of Dominique led Danielle to, in some ways, become her twin.
The implication that normalcy is only presumed to exist in comparison to aberration, that no one is truly good or normal, is the overall theme of their relationship. One of the most revealing moments of the theme behind the film is when a psychiatrist is interviewed for a documentary on Dominique and Danielle, and states, “Danielle, who is so sweet, so responsive, so normal as opposed to her sister, can only be so because of her sister.” Not long afterward, Grace is unwillingly dragged into a sort of shared psychosis with Danielle, imagining herself to be Dominique.
Bizarrely, the entire story of Sisters was inspired by an actual case of conjoined twins, Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova. Due to their affliction, they were stolen from their mother and medically tortured over decades in their birth country of Russia. Neither Masha nor Dasha was a killer, and indeed they suffered greatly throughout their lives from being institutionalized, tested, and studied, but it was a photo of the two, one looking angelic, the other looking demonic, that inspired the film's script. The two even make a cameo of sorts, in which said photo is flashed onscreen and said to be Danielle and Dominique.
Besides the obvious commentary on the sexist treatment of Danielle, Dominique, and Grace, the character of Philip is similarly discouraging. He is another black male character who meets his end while assisting an emotionally damaged white woman, and the police refuse to investigate his murder any further beyond a casual dismissal. His dismayed but bemused expression when given a free meal at "The African Room" conveys a great deal of the racism his character is forced to deal with on the regular.
While Philip is a side character and only appears in the first half hour of the film before definitely succumbing to the trope of the black man being the first character to die in a horror film, he has a huge impact on the plot and the overall mood of the film. Before you learn how bad things are going to go for him due to his entanglement with Danielle, their relationship borders on being actually sort of cute. Philip's kindly presence and well-meaning character indicate the overall perceived uselessness of human decency and the failure of justice that emanates from this script.
The death scene of Philip is absolutely brutal given the added element in which the audience is shown his death through split screen both from inside the apartment, perhaps from Dominique's perspective, and outside, where Grace catches a glimpse of the crime through the window. The split-screen take is one of my favorite parts of the film, as it shows multiple angles on the characters responding to the atrocity. Another exciting element is the shrieking, bombastic soundtrack by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, which doesn't build suspense so much as it plunges you into a nightmare dimension, often with very little warning.
There's been a great deal of commentary on the Hitchcock references that De Palma makes in this and his other films. To view the film through that lens alone will only allow you the conclusion that it's a second-rate Hitchcock knock-off. I disagree with the assessment for a few key reasons. While there are several moments that specifically visually reference Hitchcock films like Rear Window and Psycho, those films specifically strayed far away from examining their female characters beyond what was needed for the plot. Grace Kelly's character exists in Rear Window to establish that her older boyfriend is a complete weirdo, not to question why a beautiful young woman like herself would ever be drawn to him. In Sisters, the psychosis of the female characters is inevitably viewed through a male lens and via the male characters in the film, but it is the traumatized vulnerability in Kidder's eyes that draws us into the mystery.
Sisters holds a place in horror history as being one of the most outright unnerving pieces of cinema I've ever witnessed. Despite the too-red blood and the slow build, this is an intersection where tropes, genuine creepiness, and discussion of the failures of paternalism all seem to collide. It's not an effortless film and indeed suffers from many transitions and plot elements that are left open-ended when they would be better off resolved. On the other hand, in 1973 there was nothing like this movie, and its examination of what is considered to be normal in comparison to the things we deem monstrous is fascinating and implies that there is more to every story.