Raging at Cain

cain2017.11: Raising Cain (1992), Blu-ray

Brian De Palma is some kind of crazy guy. He’s like Hitchcock without the ‘Caution’ button. I mention Hitchcock because De Palma is obviously so devoted to mimicking him through so many of his films. Hitch fashioned these great thrillers full of manipulation and sleight of hand but he knew where to draw the line, whereas de Palma has always happily crossed it, hopelessly inspired/devoted to making bizarre dreamscapes of Hitchcock movies. They don’t feel real, don’t even feel like films Hitchcock might have made, but rather films Hitch might have dreamed in his sleep after a night in the wine cellar. The same way that De Palma’s Obsession feels like a drunken nightmare version of Hitch’s Vertigo.

I’m in two minds about Raising Cain. Which is quite apt really, as its a film about multiple personalities. I should start at the outset by stating that I watched the director’s cut (or to be more precise, the non-director’s reassembly of the theatrical cut) and only afterwards watched some of the theatrical to get a grip of the changes. Basically, the theatrical cut is pretty much a chronological edit of the events of the story, whereas the other cut moves sequences out of order, heightening the mystery and sense of dreamlike weirdness. Neither version makes for a great film, although De Palma aficionados might maintain the directors cut is a great De Palma film (something else entirely?). It is generally considered to be the definitive version, which is why I elected to watch it first.

Fans of David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn might find much to enjoy in Raising Cain. There are many viewers these days quite happy to watch obtuse, lazily written and nonsensical films, as if not having plots or old-fashioned arcs or believable characters is actually a bonus, and style is everything. It pretty much sums up De Palma at his worst. His direction is never subtle, and his sleight-of-hand, such as intense distorted close-ups and off-kilter camera angles and slipping into slow motion now and again, always draws attention to itself, as if the style is the be-all and end-all. Which might be used as an excuse for the lazy writing and underwritten characters. The dreamlike sensibility of this film is only exacerbated by characters never behaving remotely normally. The cops, for instance, never talk or act or ever convince as being cops.

The story is.. well, what is it? Three arcs seem to run through the film and neither of them convince, neither have any foundation. Carter Nix (John Lithgow),  is a child psychologist who ‘suffers’ from having several personalities in his head, one of whom is a serial killer. His wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) is a doctor slipping back into a previously-aborted affair with a child patients father. And then there’s something about children being kidnapped for psychological experiments by Carter Nix’s own father (also played by Lithgow) who is believed to have died years before. There is no chemistry between Carter or Jenny, and her tryst doesn’t really convince either. Lithgow does a sterling job at chewing up the scenery in his three (or is it four?) roles. Davidovich blankly stumbles around like a horny frustrated wife in a permanent mills & boon daydream. De Palma runs amok with his POV camera and weird shots and film speeds. Nothing ever feels remotely real. We don’t understand why Jenny feels the need to stray or is unfulfilled with her husband, we don’t understand why Carter is even with her or why he does what he does, we don’t understand why the cops are so clueless or disinterested (some retired ex-cop seems to hang around the office until he barks up about a past case involving Carter’s father that kicks the ‘plot’ forward). Or why some guy in a van with a harpoon sticking out the back keeps moving backwards and forwards in a carpark waiting for the inevitable to happen. Or why it is prefigured by Jenny having a dream of losing control in her car and getting impaled by a statues spear.

So as a ‘normal’ film the film  doesn’t work at all. But as a dream put on film -unfocused, slipping forwards and backwards in time, repeating moments with dreams within dreams, it does offer a rather strange and compelling experience. Its like something De Palma dreamed one night turned into a movie, or what it would be like if we could plug into, Brainstorm-like, into someone’s dream. Is it Jenny’s dream?  I’m certain this film has its fans, as well as its detractors. I’m just not sure which camp I’m in yet. Its either utter rubbish or a work of genius.

Obsession (1976)


1959, in sultry New Orleans, businessman Michael Courtland (Cliff Roberston) celebrates his wedding anniversary at a lavish party with family and friends. After the party is over however his wife Elizabeth and nine-year old daughter are kidnapped. A ransom of $500,000 is set and a warning not to turn to the police. Michael chooses to ignore that warning and a chain of events unfold with tragic results.

Sixteen years later, and still haunted by the loss of his wife and daughter and blaming himself for their deaths, Michael visits Rome, where he first met his wife long ago. He visits old haunts and finally the church where he and Elizabeth first met. Within the church he meets Sandra, a young Italian woman who looks the exact double of his dead wife. The two fall in love and intend to marry back in New Orleans, but Michael is to find that history is about to repeat itself, giving him an opportunity to correct his past mistake…

There’s not much I can say about Brian De Palma’s fascinating film Obsession without dwelling too long on the film’s bizarre twist. The twist itself is not such a big surprise -my wife and I guessed it before the big reveal- but rather it is what the twist means to the film itself when you look back on its events. You are forced to re-evaluate pretty much everything you have seen, from the earliest shots from the party, in which something originally innocent begins to have darker connotations, to the film’s main romance, which suddenly feels subversive and shocking. But I won’t slip into spoiler territory here. Suffice to say that Obsession is quite a good film and indeed De Palma’s best in my opinion. It’s certainly been running and re-running in my head over the past few days, a sign of a good movie.

Having never seen the film before, what drew me to the film was the fact that it was inspired by one of my very favourite movies, Vertigo, complete with a provocative score by Bernard Herrmann, who of course wrote a wonderful score for Vertigo itself. Basically Obsession is a reworking of Vertigo with a more modern. seedier undercurrent typical of 1970s American Cinema. Obsession dates back to 1976, and its interesting to note that at that time Vertigo itself was out of public circulation, withdrawn I believe by Hitchcock himself who at that time owned the film (Vertigo would not be available to the public until some three years after Hitchcock’s death). De Palma is famous/infamous (delete as you feel fit) for mimicking Hitchcock’s style in several of his films, particularly Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, but nowhere is it so obvious or successful as in Obsession. Part of it must surely be down to the Herrmann score, that echoes the soundtrack to Hitchcock’s masterpiece as much as the visuals do. The cinematography of  Vilmos Zsigmond is particularly wonderful- many shots are works of art in themselves. Indeed its a beautiful to look at and listen to.

It is far from a perfect film, and De Palma is nowhere near the director he aspires to be, but its a fascinating film nonetheless and Obsession is a far better film than I expected it to be.