Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Remake Comparison Project - What the Devil Hath Joined Together

Cody and Priscilla observe as De Palma pays homage and then gets remade.

SISTERS (1973)

It was somewhat hard to pick the movies for the Remake Comparison Project this month. Not because we're running out; there are still a whole bunch of options out there waiting for the Cody and Priscilla close examination treatment. But this month, I wanted something a little different, something that I'd like to revisit, so that's when I suggested to Cody that we should write about Sisters. The original and the remake share the same story, and not much else... So, read on.

When discussing the filmmaking of Brian De Palma, it's impossible not to bring up the fact that he has spent most of his directorial career attempting to emulate the style of Alfred Hitchcock, the master who was on his way out when De Palma was just getting started. However, the Hitchcockian influence wasn't quite as clear in De Palma's earliest features. Aside from the very low budget Murder à la Mod, which had touches of Hitchcock and homages to Michael Powell's 1960 thriller Peeping Tom in it, De Palma got started making experimental comedies.

Sisters, his seventh feature, marks a turning point in his career. It's with this film that De Palma really shifted into primarily making thrillers, and to make it he dived headlong into his Hitchcock idolization, even hiring Hitchcock's frequent collaborator Bernard Herrmann to provide the film's score.

There's nothing subtle about Herrmann's score, either. The music is great, and I'm particularly grateful for the use of Moog synthesizers in there, but it is very loud and overbearing.

I would usually find the score too loud for my taste, but it works here. Especially during the opening credits; the haunting images of the fetuses combined with the grand music make for a spectacular beginning. It's extremely fitting.

Margot Kidder, a few years from being Superman's Lois Lane, stars as young French-Canadian model/actress Danielle Breton, who has just landed a gig on the New York-based television game show Peeping Toms (De Palma nodding to Michael Powell again?), a job that requires her to pretend to be blind, walk into a men's locker room, and start disrobing in front of the lone man in the room.

The man doesn't know he's being filmed, the camera in the room is hidden. The show's contestants are then shown the footage, which is stopped right at the point when the man realizes what's going on and has to make a decision on how to handle the situation. They're given multiple choices to vote on - Did he stare and perv? Did he leave the room? Did he just go about his business? Whoever chooses the correct answer wins.

This Peeping Toms show is essentially a game show amalgamation of Candid Camera and the social experiment show currently airing in the U.S. that's called What Would You Do?, and it appears to be the worst, lamest game show ever invented.

After the scenario was filmed, the man was notified that he was on candid camera and invited to the taping of the game show portion so he could be rewarded with a certificate for dinner and dancing for two at an "internationally famous" club. For her part, Danielle is given a cutlery set.

I hope she was paid with more than just a set of knives for this job.

His prize was as subtle as the score in the movie. The place he got the certificate from is called "African Room", and he's a black man.

Since the man, advertising manager Phillip Woode, had a respectful response to the sight of the apparently blind woman undressing in front of him, he and Danielle become friendly, and she asks to join him for his dinner and dancing. He accepts, and they have a nice time together, except for the odd interruption from her creepy ex-husband Emil, who appears to be stalking her and trying to force himself back into her life.

It's funny that the only white people in the African Room are the ones who end up causing trouble, interrupting the crowd from having what looks to be lovely times. I really like that detail.

Phillip accompanies Danielle back to her Staten Island apartment, with Emil following them and just standing out in front of the building, eerily lurking.

I love Danielle's living room. All the glass and stainless steel, plus the overall light colors and clean look are very pleasant, other than the boxes lying around. I particularly like the textured couch, which turns out to be kind of an extra character in the movie.

Phillip spends the night with Danielle, and as the pair brought together by Peeping Toms begin to have sex, the camera takes note of a horrible scar Danielle has on her right side...

Bernard Herrmann's score certainly takes note of it, too. Shrieking strings and spookshow Moog.

In the morning, Danielle rises, pops a couple pills, goes and launches into an argument (in French) with her jealous twin sister Dominique. The night before, Danielle said her sister had "gone away" and she seemed to miss her sibling, and yet here she is, staying at the apartment. We never see Dominique, but the voices of the two arguing women fill the apartment as Phillip gets up and gets dressed.

And there are also two toothbrushes by the bathroom sink. Makes you wonder who owns the second one.

During the argument, there are references to the girls being separated by someone, after which Dominique was placed in a hospital "full of lunatics".

Consoling Danielle after the argument, Phillip discovers that it's the twins' birthday, which is why Dominique is visiting, and Danielle wants him to spend the day with her. But first, she asks him to run an errand for her - to fill a prescription at a nearby pharmacy.

While Phillip is out getting the refill of pills, and making the kind decision to buy a cake for the sisters, Danielle is panicked to find that her last two pills, which she set on the edge of the bathroom sink, have gone missing... Accidentally knocked down the drain by Phillip... The lack of pills starts to cause her physical pain. She writhes on the floor in agony.

When Phillip returns to the apartment, he finds not Danielle but her disheveled sister Dominique waiting for him, and Danielle's off-balance twin proceeds to stab him to death with a knife from the new cutlery set.

Mr. Peeping Tom, who turned out to be quite a sweet man, a real gentleman, gets it very badly. I felt for him, he really seems to be a nice guy.

Danielle made a call to Emil begging for his help when she was running low on pills and he's seen sitting outside the apartment building when Phillip returns. He just sits there and waits for a while... It's as if he knew what was going to happen once Phillip got in the apartment, and he wanted it to happen.

As a bloody, dying Phillip drags himself to a nearby window in an attempt to get the attention of a neighbor across the way, the film shifts gears. A new character is introduced who will be the primary one we'll follow through the rest of the movie - newspaper journalist Grace Collier, who's the neighbor in the building next door who sees Phillip at the window.

Glimpses of a murder committed in the apartment across the way, a touch of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.

A new storytelling device is introduced as well: the use of split screen, which De Palma employs throughout the next portion of the movie. As Danielle and Emil quickly and quietly work to clean up the mess left behind in the apartment by Dominique, who is nowhere to be found, a freaked out and determined Grace works to get the police up to the apartment on the other side of the screen.

I really enjoy the split screen segments, partly because giving us two points of view at once is a nicely stylish way to show us what's going on with the characters simultaneously, and partly because it saves time. If the screen wasn't split and we were just intercutting between the apartment clean-up and Grace talking to the authorities, this sequence would take twice as long to play out.

The split screen is almost genius. It's a very interesting concept and it not only saves time - I think the running time of the movie is perfect, so any more would have been too much, unless it was to elaborate on what actually happened after the end - but it also shows how all of the cleaning and concealing steps are made possible, during the time that Emil and Danielle are given.

By the time Grace and the cops reach Danielle's apartment, Emil is gone, and there is no trace of the murder. The blood has been mopped up, Phillip's body hidden inside the sofa bed. Grace puts in more of an investigative effort than the police do, but she's unable to prove what she saw happen really occurred. The police decide she must've just been imagining things... But Grace doesn't give up.

One thing I wonder about is, would Detective Kelly have done a better job if he didn't dislike Grace and her articles about the police and their (in)efficiency? Did the fact that it was a black man make him care even less? Because even though Emil was an expert at hiding evidence, if the cops had simply walked around the couch, they'd find something very suspicious.

Using the clues she gleaned during her time in Danielle's apartment, Grace goes searching for answers. She even goes so far as to hire a private detective named Joseph Larch (When a Stranger Calls 1979's Charles Durning) to aid her in the investigation.

Grace's investigation intrudes on plans she had with her mother, and the parts with the two of them together show a little more about her character and what it was like for women back then. Even though 1973 feels like it's not all that long ago, we're reminded that it is. Grace's mother seems disappointed that her daughter is still single, and makes little of her job. She acts as if Grace only has to do what she does for a living until she finds a husband, which she should have by now, since she's 25 years old. Thankfully, times have changed a lot since then and women are taken a bit more seriously. I don't think I would've liked to be alive around times like that.

An unlawful search of Danielle's apartment by Larch turns up a file that takes the film in even darker, weirder directions. While Larch trails the shipment of Danielle's couch to Quebec, Grace delves into the story of conjoined twins Danielle and Dominique Blanchion. Raised in an institute where Emil was a doctor, the girls were studied throughout their lives and dealt with mental issues. It was believed that Dominique was disturbed, but that Danielle was only sweet and out-going because her mood was balanced out by her sister. Eventually, a health issue forced a separation surgery to be performed, and even though Grace has seen evidence to the contrary, it is said that Dominique died on the operating table.

De Palma was partially inspired to come up with this story by the shocking real life tale of Masha and Dasha Krivoshlyapova, Russian conjoined twins who were taken from their parents at birth, their parents being told that they had died, just so they could be studied and experimented on at a medical science institute. Sometimes truth is stranger and more terrible than fiction.

Danielle's scar looks very realistic, I wonder where the inspiration to portray it that way came from. It definitely works and does its job by looking so horrific.

Going further down the Blanchion rabbit hole soon proves dangerous to Grace's well-being. Once she visits the mental institution where Emil works, things get absolutely insane. Grace is trapped in the institution, kept in a room with Danielle as Emil causes hypnosis-induced flashbacks to Danielle and Dominique's days of being conjoined that are shown as if Grace were Dominique.

Shows how easy it is for someone who has some kind of power to completely abuse it and put someone else in a situation they'd otherwise never find themselves in. It's really scary how Emil, with one single evil move, managed to pretty much change Grace's entire life. She'll definitely never be the same after what she experiences in the institution.

De Palma was continuing to be experimental here, presenting the flashbacks/dreams as if they were old documentary footage, shot on 16mm black and white film with an iris around the image. It's very weird, and when the nightmarish scenes are paired with Herrmann's score, it effectively makes the viewer feel like they're watching a descent into madness.

I've only watched Sisters a few times, but the flashbacks/dreams are always what stick with me the most. They are without a doubt the most powerful and unsettling scenes in the movie.

Sisters is a very strange film, a Psycho and Rear Window-inspired thriller with an intriguing mystery at its center that eventually becomes a mind-bending assault on the viewer.

I was slightly overwhelmed when I watched it for the first time. I kind of saw it coming, I kind of knew what was going on, but even then, you're not ready for the way it's presented. It's very unique and potent.

The story is interesting and the cast all do well in their roles, but the true star of the film is De Palma and his experimental filmmaking techniques. This is a movie that would be just as at home being shown in a film studies class as it would be at a horror marathon.

The only two things that get to me a little are the paint-like blood and the ending. I want to know what happens after the last scene. I always feel a tiny bit "cheated" when the movie's over. But other than that, Sisters is indeed a very attention-grabbing and well executed movie.

SISTERS (2006)

Remaking Brian De Palma would be a daunting task for anyone, let alone for an unknown, but it's one that Douglas Buck seemingly eagerly took on with the 2006 version of Sisters. Not only did Buck, whose most notable credit aside from this is for co-writing the Troma movie Terror Firmer, rewrite De Palma and Louis Rose's original screenplay with John Freitas (who is apparently, judging by his IMDb page, primarily a sasquatch hunter), but he also directed the film. Putting yourself up for direct comparison with Brian De Palma? That's gutsy.

Buck's take on the story contains essentially all the same elements as De Palma's, but he presents them in a very different way.

The remake begins at a party being held for the children patients of the Zurvan Clinic for the Study and Treatment of the Psychologically and Physiologically Unique. Games are being played, doctor Phillip Lacan is putting on a magic show, his French ex-wife Angelique Turner is assisting him, visiting doctor Dylan Wallace is dressed up as a costume party version of a doctor with Groucho glasses on, and there's even a sullen clown lurking around.

This set-up is more down-to-earth than the ridiculous game show opening of the original, and it allows hints of the story's darker elements to start creeping in earlier.

I prefer both the opening credits and opening scene in the original. The opening credits show a much smaller amount of fetuses in the remake, and the music is a little sad during it, but it's just kind of void. And the set-up might be more down-to-earth, but that doesn't mean it's better. I think the game show opening of the original is as grand as the movie itself, so it definitely fits, and is way more interesting.

As it turns out, that clown wasn't invited, she's actually an investigative journalist named Grace Collier who's looking to delve further into the story of Lacan, who was indicted for performing irresponsible procedures on children after two died under his care. He was acquited for lack of evidence, but Grace wants to get to the bottom of the situation. Sneaking into the party only succeeds in getting her thrown out.

Angelique and Dylan make a connection during the party, a connection that is made even deeper when he interrupts Lacan trying to force himself on Angelique after she tells him she wants to be free of him and the clinic, feeling that he sees her only as an experiment. Considering Dylan her knight in shining armor, Angelique agrees to allow him to drive her home to her apartment.

Angelique is this film's version of the Danielle character in the original. Danielle was a French-Canadian model played by Margot Kidder, and here Kidder's role has been filled by Lou Doillon, an actual French model, although Angelique is not a model.

It was nice to have a real French actress in the role, but for the most part it was lacking. Lou Doillon isn't very good looking, and those wigs she wears were terrible, made it hard for me to take her seriously. Margot Kidder had that charm, makes it easy to understand why guys are drawn to her, but Doillon just looks strange.

I think Doillon does fine in the role and I kind of like Dallas Roberts as Dylan, but at the same time he is so low-key that it feels awkward to watch.

While Angelique and Dylan continue to bond, she reveals to him some of her history. She met Lacan when he was treating her mother for an unspecified illness. The treatment was unsuccessful, and Angelique's twin sister Annabelle blames Lacan for their mother's death... and Annabelle can be so angry that she scares Angelique sometimes...

Annabelle is said to be asleep in the apartment when Angelique and Dylan arrive, so they have to be quiet, but Dylan ends up spending the night.

They tried to duplicate the look of the apartment from the original in the remake, with similar furniture, colors and style, but it looks more dated than the '70s apartment. The couch is very lame, nothing like the cool one in the original.

Lacan was upset to see Angelique leave with Dylan. Like Emil in the original movie, he is overly fixated on his ex, but in this modern age he doesn't have to follow her around and stand outside her apartment to keep an eye on her. Instead, he has cameras hidden throughout her apartment that he monitors on his home computer. Lacan watches as Angelique and Dylan get intimate.

At first, Angelique doesn't want to do more than kiss and cuddle, but in the night she gets more wild and the pair go all the way. In scenes where Angelique has her shirt off, we're shown that she has a large scar running down her left side... or is it her right? It seems to switch sides in different scenes, but there are mirrors at play, so it's tricky.

Or is it Annabelle who goes crazy on Dylan?

Based on the shorter wig, it was Annabelle.

De Palma merely showed us Danielle's scar while Bernard Herrmann's score enhanced its importance. Buck decided to go grossout with it and have Dylan orally pleasuring his lover's old wound.

That scene is the scariest one in the movie. And even though the scar looks gross, it doesn't look as realistic as the one in the original.

Dylan gets up in the morning and, having been told that today is Angelique and Annabelle's birthday, goes out to buy the sisters a cake. While he's away, Angelique wakes up and starts writhing in pain. She crawls to the refrigerator, seeking a syringe full of some kind of medicine. But it's not there. Dylan accidentally dropped it under the fridge while snooping.

Dylan isn't the only snoop. When Lacan leaves for work in the morning, Grace Collier breaks into his apartment to look through his files.

Grace is still in Lacan's place when Dylan returns to Angelique's with the cake. He finds her on the living room floor, knitting and speaking French. Grace watches through Lacan's spy cams as Dylan approaches Angelique... Or is it Annabelle? When he reaches her, she turns and attacks, stabbing him repeatedly with a knitting needle.

Grace witnesses the murder occurring on a computer monitor. Rear Window influences enter the 21st century.

The murderess then beats Dylan with the boxed cake for good measure.

The violence to cake is the most disturbing thing about these movies. Perfectly good cakes ruined in both of them.

Both cakes did look really good when they left the bakeries. Such a shame to waste them.

Grace calls the police to report the murder, but since she has no idea where the apartment the cameras are in is located, it complicates things... Until she looks out the window and sees the dying Dylan in a window across the way, trying to get someone's attention.

And we're back to the classic scenario of Rear Window and the 1973 Sisters, which sort of makes the spy cam twist pointless.

Grace has to hide in Lacan's apartment when he returns for his forgotten cell phone, and he is alerted to the situation at Angelique's by the images on his computer screen and a message left on his phone by his desperate-for-medication ex.

My favorite parts in the remake are when Grace watches as Dylan gets killed, when she has to hide under the desk so Lacan won't see her in his apartment, and then when she sees Dylan through the window. Those are the only moments that offer some sort of a thrill. It's not nearly enough, but it's there.

Lacan goes over to Angelique's, and when Angelique answers the door she notifies him that she's had an argument with Annabelle and her sister has run off. Angelique is completely unaware of the murder that has been committed until Lacan draws her attention to Dylan's corpse.

As Lacan and Angelique work to cover up the crime to protect Annabelle, Grace tries to get the responding police officers to follow her up to Angelique's apartment.

The split screen is sorely missed here.

By the time Grace and the cops enter Angelique's, there is no trace of the crime and Lacan is gone. The apartment is searched thoroughly, even the sofa bed is opened up, but nothing is found.

The corpse was hidden inside a sofa bed in the original, so for Buck to have a sofa bed checked and no corpse found within is a nice twist on viewer expectations.

Instead of in the sofa bed, Lacan has hidden Dylan's corpse inside Angelique's big screen projection TV.

Because of this, the remake is already outdated, because such massive dinosaurs of televisions have been replaced with space-saving flatscreens over the last eight years.

The movie itself feels old though, way older than 2006. If it weren't for cell phones and a few things here and there, I'd say it takes place in the early '80s. The tape recorder, the audio tapes, the very busy interior design seen in Lacan's apartment, mostly older cars, the clothes the characters wear... especially Grace's. She looks like a bum during the whole movie. It's no surprise that she gets startled when she sees herself in the mirror in Lacan's office.

With no evidence to go on, the police are no use to Grace, so she sets out to solve the mysteries surrounding Lacan and Angelique on her own. There is no hiring of a private investigator in this version, rather Grace just enlists the help of a journalist co-worker. Like the P.I. before him, this pal has no compunction about breaking into the crime scene apartment. His act of B&E confirms the location of Dylan's corpse, but Grace wants to wait to catch Lacan with the body before the police are contacted again.

Grace bides her time, going through the files and audio tapes she took from Lacan's place. Tapes of him talking to Angelique and Annabelle's mother Sofia Tristiana. Visiting a nurse mentioned in the files, Grace begins to learn the entire history of Sofia and her twin daughters, who were born conjoined. She is even shown scratched-up, black and white 16mm footage of the birth of the twins.

After being mistreated and kept drugged by Lacan, Sofia fled home to France with her daughters. Years later, Lacan followed. The story told to the public was that he just happened upon these conjoined girls who were performing in circuses and carnivals and was so touched by their plight that he brought them back to America with him, but the fact is that he tracked Angelique and Annabelle down.

Eventually, health issues both physical and mental made it evident that a separation surgery would be required. Not only did the twins share a potentially deadly degenerative lung condition, but they also seemed to be developing opposing personas. Angelique was bright, happy, and outgoing, while Annabelle became dark, withdrawn, and violently angry.

Even though we've been led to believe that Annabelle is alive and staying with Angelique, the fact is that she passed away hours after the separation surgery. Annabelle has been dead for ten years.

When the nurse reveals to Grace what happened to Annabelle, it's supposed to be this big moment, but it isn't. It's blabbed out without any sense of greatness.

Buck is basically telling the same story as De Palma did, but making it more convoluted by adding in the elements of the twins' mother and Lacan tracking them down after their escape. The problem is, the mystery isn't presented in an intriguing way at all and the answers that were interesting and unnerving the first time around don't really work here. There are elements that Buck could have done so much more with, but didn't. The movie feels lazy.

It feels like everything is revealed too soon and then it's just so slow after that, with too much focus on Angelique/Annabelle/Sofia/Lacan. The pace and the gathering of information aren't satisfactory at all.

When Lacan has the corpse-holding TV delivered to the clinic, Grace follows. She gets caught, drugged... and suddenly the blonde character is sporting dark hair that matches Angelique's and she begins experiencing a nightmarish glimpse into the lives of Angelique and Annabelle as if Grace were Annabelle herself. Some of the moments are shown as if they were old, scratched-up documentary footage.

The "hallucinations in the clinic" sequence is much shorter in the remake and much less effective, just like the remake as a whole. Buck holds back and speeds through things rather than going all-out like De Palma. There is no descent into madness here. Grace just immediately believes that she is Annabelle, and that's pretty much it.

Grace is very troubled in the remake. First we feel like we know nothing about the character, then we get to understand why she's trying to put Lacan behind bars, since it seems like she's been through a lot from an early age. So that is supposed to make the viewer comprehend why she buys into being Annabelle as fast as she did. It doesn't work, though. Like the rest of the movie.

After Sisters 1973 was so unique, artistic, and experimental, the fact that the remake is so flat and bland is just astounding. It feels like Buck hardly to put any effort into it at all, unless his goal was to remake the story to be as dull as he possibly could. Not that the original was a thrill a minute, but at least it evoked a response.

There's no comparison. Not one single aspect is on the same level. It might be essentially the same story, but the way it's told and shown in the original is exquisite and accomplished. The remake just tells the whole thing pretty much from the beginning and then keeps dragging on and on from there, with very little suspense and no mystery whatsoever.

The remake just drags itself along, retelling the story while making tweaks here and there that really add nothing to it, removing everything that made Sisters special. There is no artistic merit to the remake, there's nothing to make the viewer think, "Buck really put his own stamp on that material." It's just empty.

I also blame Buck for the less than convincing acting we get in this movie. The cast was so promising, and yet not one of them really delivered; their performances fell short. Chloë Sevigny is completely lifeless and for the entire movie acts like what we call a "dizzy cockroach" here in Brazil, not to mention she does look awful the whole time like her co-worker points out.

I've only watched the remake twice, and now I remember why. Sure, I've seen worse... but this movie really doesn't bring much to the table, if anything at all, and watching it isn't exactly enjoyable for me.

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