Color, 1973, 92m.
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, William Finley, Charles Durning, Dolph Sweet, Lisle Wilson
Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0 HD/PAL), Criterion (DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Fox (UK R2 PAL), Wild Side (France R2 PAL) / WS (1.75:1) (16:9)
While director Brian De Palma had already become a minor cult figure with indie comedies like Greetings and Hi, Mom!, he didn't become the gleefully manipulative, flamboyant cinema maestro film fans came to know and love until Sisters, one of the best American International offerings from the '70s. In a pattern which soon continued through his other thrillers and horror films, De Palma adopted many Hitchcock trademarks into his own style, often involving quirky location details, split screen sequences, amusing pokes at gender and racial stereotypes, and startling flourishes of sex and violence.
After they appear together on a leering New York TV game show called Peeping Toms, sweet Danielle Breton (a pre-Superman Kidder), a relocated French Canadian, and nice guy Philip (Wilson) get together for a dinner by cashing in his prize from the program. Their date is disrupted by Danielle's seemingly obsessive ex-husband, Emil (De Palma regular Finley, about to appear in Phantom of the Paradise), who urges her to return with him. Danielle refuses and goes home with Philip, where they share a night of passion during which he fails to notice a huge scar along her abdomen. The next morning Philip overhears Danielle arguing with an angry woman in the apartment; Danielle explains that her twin, Dominique, has come to visit from a mental institution for their birthday. Later Danielle's neighbor, a pushy columnist named Grace Collier (Salt), sees something nasty through the window during Dominique's grisly birthday celebration and calls in the police to investigate. Dominique is nowhere to be found, but Grace is infuriated by the police's lack of cooperation. With the help of a private eye (Durning) and her own journalistic training, Grace decides to uncover the truth behind these two twins, who harbor a truly chilling past history.
De Palma's efficient and often dazzling visual style was already in full bloom with Sisters, which features a number of memorable set pieces and climaxes in full-blown horror with a justifiably famous hallucination sequence shot in black and white through distorted lenses. The palpable atmosphere of urban insanity is aided immensely by Bernard Herrmann's jolting, electronic-flavored score, which makes even the opening shots of Siamese twin fetuses creepy and ominous. While the actors are ultimately just pawns in De Palma's devious cinematic game, Kidder and particularly Salt shine with some endearing bits of character acting. Salt's arrival at Emil's house is an especially creepy bit of viewer manipulation, in which a seemingly normal conversation with one of the residents suddenly takes an unexpected turn. While the film feels intense and extraordinarily violent, it's actually quite impressive how very little (paint-like) blood is truly spilled onscreen -- but it really counts when it starts dripping.
Shot on a low budget with very '70s film stock (complete with plentiful coarse grain in scenes with lower lighting), Sisters has been a challenging title to present well on home video. First up were a fuzzy Warner videotape and a widescreen but muddy looking Japanese laserdisc, though these were valuable for demonstrating how some of the film (the split screens and parts of the climax) were shot hard matted at 1.85:1 with the rest more open to allow greater leeway for projectionists, a tactic repeated with Phantom of the Paradise. In 2000, Criterion issued a DVD presented in anamorphic widescreen at 1.75:1, with those 1.85:1 bits kept as such. Thankfully Criterion decided to keep the grain and preserve the detail, resulting in a solid transfer for the time given the limitations of NTSC; this is one film that doesn't need to look glossy and overpolished. The extras are actually more paltry than you might think from the packaging and Criterion's track record since you just get De Palma's 1973 article on working with Herrmann, which has been quoted and referenced endlessly over the years, and an interview with De Palma which recites much of the same information. In 2005, the same transfer for carried over for a similarly paltry UK disc from Fox.
With a lot of room left for improvement, it's a relief that Sisters finally fell into the hands of Arrow for a UK dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition in 2014. Their dedication to De Palma had already been proven with their sterling editions of Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, The Fury, and Phantom, so not surprisingly, the transfer and extras are all terrific here, too. Video quality is a major leap over the now ancient previous version, with a huge boost in detail and much more refined, natural-looking grain, while the colors (especially that vivid hallway outside Kidder's apartment and the "African room") look very strong and impressive. The LPCM mono track also sounds great, with Herrmann's score yelping through very clearly. Optional English subtitles are also included, and interestingly, the Blu-ray was announced as Region B (and Region 2 for the DVD) but, at least based on the disc provided, loads up fine in any player.
As for extras, the full frame theatrical trailer included here is about the same as the one seen on Mad Ron's Prevues from Hell. From there it's all good news starting off with the 47-minute "What the Devil Hath Joined Together: A Visual Essay," in which critic Justin Humphreys walks through the film's production, Hitchcockian references, and elements from De Palma's earlier, more avant garde days. You can still see plenty of traces of his lesser seen projects like Murder a la Mod and Woton's Wake around the edges here, and this offers a good overview for both newbies and fans alike. The "Cast and Crew Interviews" section is divided into four new pieces, all HD, first with a great 10-minute chat with Salt, now a producer on American Horror Story. She talks about being college pals with De Palma, rooming in a Malibu house with Kidder (who was dating De Palma at the time and is described as an adventuress), being given the script for Sisters as a Christmas present, experimental theater and film work, and plenty more. Co-writer Louisa Rose also gets a 10-minute piece about her college days with De Palma and the gang as well as her own thoughts on how to build an effective suspense scene and the then-daring color blind casting and Freudian imagery, while editor Paul Hirsch has a longer 17 minutes to go into his own production stories, the film's initial audience reactions, an appropriate observation from Baz Luhrmann, and the comparisons between De Palma and Hitchcock's "sadist" personalities. Unit manager Jeffrey Hayes offers the most arduous account of the production for a 5-minute overview, focusing on the Staten Island locations and how it trained him to learn to be prepared for a movie. Finally there's a 6-minute audio interview with the late Finley, a decades-long friend of De Palma's, in what sounds like a phone conversation about how the film was financed through Ed Pressman (which led to Phantom) and what it was like shooting all of the director's early efforts from his student days. It's also accompanied by tons of photos and advertising art for the film, which is great all by itself. Some of that same material also turns up in a separate international image gallery, complete with very different poster art and lobby cards from around the world. For a really heavy dose of De Palma, Mike Sutton also offers "The De Palma Digest," a 31-minute audio essay (again with tons of images) running through the stylist's influences, recurring themes, and cinematic highlights over the years all the way up through the giddy Passion. Very highly recommended, obviously.