If 1980's "Dressed to Kill
," 1981's "Blow Out
," and 1984's "Body Double" earned auteur Brian De Palma the moniker of being Hitchcockian in his form, his thrillers have not been merely a derivate aping of the original Master of Suspense. While there is no doubt he has been inspired by past directors he admireshis works are often awash in visual and thematic referenceshis movies are irrefutably his own. They have their own look, their own style, their own tempo and tone, and their own provocative fascination for the luridly forbidden. De Palma may have learned from the best, but one glance is all it takes for knowledgeable viewers to recognize his singular handprint. It would be eight years after "Body Double" for the writer-director to step back into the genre for which he was best known, and the wait was worth it. 1992's "Raising Cain" is a twisty, mesmerizing showstopper, sumptuously folding in upon itself like origami as the narrative threads itself between bad dreams and nightmarish reality. The storytelling is deviously thrilling, largely chronological in its structure yet woven with the kind of shrewd revelations and sly misdirection that leaves one enthralled yet unsettled, constantly struggling to retain equilibrium.
Child psychologist Carter Nix (John Lithgow) has given up his cushy job to stay home, raise toddler daughter Amy (Amanda Pombo), and study her development. Wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) loves her husband, but is left uncomfortable by his methods of research and the erratic behavior he thinks she doesn't notice. When dashing ex-flame Jack (Steven Bauer) walks back into her life, she considers having an affair in spite of her better judgment. If every action has a consequence, Jenny's will be taken to an altogether more harrowing place when her indiscretions leave her the latest target of a mentally disturbed local serial killer. The culprit's identity? None other than her husband, Carter.
Few filmmakers are maestros of mise en scène like Brian De Palma, each set-piece's every element and layer emulating the act of reading the world's most involving page-turner. His control of each frame is nothing short of spellbinding, weaving together indelible lead characters and situations so hair-raising they might as well be urban legends come to life. His direction and camerawork are often as much the stars of the show as the actors themselves, making the convincing case for why his style is, indeed, a sizable part of his movies' substance. Not all, though, and that's the key: there is still enough on the page and lurking beneath the surface to debate, explore and consider.
"Raising Cain" offers numerous affectionately felt nods to "Psycho" (not the least being Carter's evident multiple-personality disorder) while driving its subject matter in compellingly unpredictable directions. The opening scene grabs the viewer's attention outright, following Carter as he claims his first victim, mother Karen (Teri Austin), and desperately must hide the evidence and deal with her young sleeping son in the backseat. From there, the story races off in surprising directions, spending ample time shifting focus from Carter to Jenny as the very different life-changing crossroads they are at prepare to inexorably collide.
De Palma takes great joy in toying with his audience and their respective frayed nerves, expertly seguing between romantic sentimentality and jolting spurts of terror. An initially docile scene set in a hospital room turns on a blood-curdling dime. A smoking, gum-smacking teenage babysitter, Nan (Gabrielle Carteris, a far cry from Andrea Zuckerman on "Beverly Hills, 90210"), has a fateful encounter with Carter at a park. An extended unbroken shot following bewigged psychiatrist Dr. Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) from a top floor at city hall down into the basement morgue is stunning to behold, a virtuoso purveyor of the similar, even more complex opening shot of 1998's "Snake Eyes." A stormy climactic showdown simultaneously depicting the happenings on three separate stories at the Riviera Motel is so dazzling it deserves its own film school course. Then again, nearly every moment is noteworthy like this, emblazoned by its director's unapologetically exorbitant cinematic vision. Meanwhile, the ticking hands of time literally and figuratively hover over its players like the pair of nearly identical giftsone for Carter, one for JackJenny purchases at a musical clock store.
"Raising Cain" was divisive upon its initial release, with some critics labeling it a minor work within De Palma's oeuvre and others nonsensically writing it off as a total failure. Over time, affection has grown for the pictureand for good reason. This is a marvelously devised suspenser, rapturous, intense and bone-chilling in equal measure. John Lithgow (still several years prior to boarding the hit sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun") is tremendous in multiple roles, portraying family man Carter, bad-seed twin brother Cain, and their late father, the diabolical, influential Dr. Nix, while engulfed in a psychological war against homicidal impulses and threats toward his masculinity. As wife Jenny, Lolita Davidovich is immensely warm and likablecrucial to a character who makes some morally questionable decisions of her ownbefore being pushed to darker, more ruthless places. From first scene to the unforgettable final sting, "Raising Cain" is hypnotic in its richly devised spell, starkly realistic fears invaded by haunting spurts of dream logic. This is De Palma's sweet spot, and he thrives while making his peers look like amateurs.