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I’ll just be you for a while. Until this whole mess is cleared up.


Raising Cain


The “Director’s Cut” of De Palma’s most twistedly humorous exercise in upping the ante on his favourite tropes, peccadilloes and perversions is a significantly more successful movie than the one that reached cinemas thirty years ago. I was probably in my peak De Palma fan phase, but much as I rated John Lithgow’s performance and the glee of the telling, Raising Cain didn’t quite land for me. In this less linear resuscitation, the delight in the tricksiness of the affair – of dreams and reality, fake-outs and reveals, subjectivity and “objectivity” – is all together more successful. Plus, the realisation that it may be the MKUltra methodology movie lends it additional cachet. If you want to put it that way.

We have De Palma devotee Pete Gelderblom to thank for the new version, one the director himself endorsed (hence it appearing on some editions of the Blu-ray). As Chris Dumas tells it (in a video essay on the Blu-ray), there seem to be two different accounts of why De Palma ditched the more complex take; test-screening audiences were confused by all the switches and fakery they were being asked to digest. Alternatively, he himself felt he could not make the beginning work and “it drove him crazy”. The latter seems less likely on the face of it, given his later thumbs up for the edition following his second-draft screenplay Father’s Day as closely as possible. Perhaps he meant he couldn’t make it work in a way that would be palatable for an audience and ended up second guessing himself. 

When asked for his response to De Palma’s stated preference, Paul Hirsch, his frequent editor, commented “He should have gotten that guy to cut the movie”; Hirsch had come aboard Raising Cain after De Palma “let the original editor go”, and had doubts as soon as he read the script. As related in his autobiography A long time ago in a cutting room far, far away… : “I couldn’t follow the story”. His take was that they’d been unable to resolve “all the aesthetic problems” but had tried to make it easier to follow by “straightening out the timeline a bit”. He was also of the view that audiences didn’t respond to the picture due to the subject matter of stealing children for the purposes of experimentation…

The director had been swimming in the mainstream pool for most of the previous decade, with Scarface and The Untouchables proving big commercial hits, well out of the horror/thriller genre in which he had been carving a noticeable niche. But while Casualties of War had its fans, it underperformed, and The Bonfire of the Vanities bombed so disastrously, it was a wonder anyone involved recovered a semblance of a career. In that sense, Raising Cain might be seen as a ready regrouping, a return to the things the director loved most, much in the way Dragged Me to Hell had Sam Raimi going for comedy-horror broke after a string of Spider-Men. 

De Palma’s formula, if you want to call it that, had been honed in the first part of the ’80s. He’d delivered two much straighter psychological horror/thrillers in the ’70s – Sisters and Obsession – but his aptitude for giddy visual excess and overstatement was most conspicuous in two more outright horror genre pieces, Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie. 

When it came to Dressed to Kill, he was marrying the Hitchcock set-piece and plundering found in Obsession with a giallo-style slasher, but the most evident aspect beyond this was the absurdist sense of humour. In a plot partially taken from his own experience (the Keith Gordon character reflects his own tracking and recording of his father’s affair) but liberally borrowing from Psycho (Michael Caine’s shrink is a serial killer when taking on the persona of femme alter Bobbi), he’s having the most fun in earmarking the essential looniness of shrink speak. After all, the killer is in the profession (something we see again in Raising Cain, which ought to speak volumes) and the explanation, when it comes, is a homage/mockery of Psycho’s own account of how Norman Bates is not, in fact, a transvestite. Just so you don’t assume all trannies are serial killers. 

Body Double found him upping the ante further, attempting to provoke his critics in rather adolescent fashion, hence the pantie-sniffing pervert “hero” and the murderer’s driller-killer method (most grimly illustrated by blood dripping through the hole made in the ceiling). That one was liberally borrowing from Vertigo (which he’d also borrowed from in Obsession) and Rear Window, so it was probably appropriate he’d go back to Psycho here. Although, you can see Frenzy in the mix too, with Hitchcock’s particular fixation on having the audience identify with the antagonist in full force. And as has been pointed out, he’s also incorporating 1960’s other big – but far from celebrated at the time – serial-killer movie, Peeping Tom, in a plot revolving around an innocent boy who has been traumatised by his (psychologist) father as an experiment and is now, as a mind-control victim, a made-to-order psycho. 

In the Director’s Cut, the Psycho connection – and so to Dressed to Kill too – is again foregrounded. It was clear enough from the homage of the car that won’t sink and then will (but with added reanimated corpse!) and John Lithgow in a frock, but now we begin with a female protagonist (Lolita Davidovich’s Jenny Nix, the wife of Lithgow’s Carter) embarking on a dreamy, Mills & Boon, Pino Donaggio-scored affair with the guy she really wanted but was too messed up to be with at the time (Steven Bauer’s Jack Dante). This is very like Dressed to Kill’s Angie Dickinson in its account of illicit liaisons, fake-out fantasies (Jenny dreams she’s being impaled on a horse statue’s sword) and imminent threat (she sees Carter in the woods when in the throes of passion). There’s also the flawed-memory device (also used with Angie), where Jenny believes she has mixed up the clock gifts for Jack and Carter. Consequently, meek and mild Carter smothering her with a pillow fairly early on is a hilariously brutal move.

I might take issue with Davidovich not being a terribly interesting choice of protagonist, such that her going all Linda Hamilton on Carter when we discover she has escaped her watery tomb – via a great scare-the-villain shot on the baby monitor – is less than persuasive, but this is surely grist to De Palma’s mill. He’s in that business, not dissimilarly to Craig Wasson (who is a peculiar choice, and in no way a heroic one). Bauer, for example, is cast because he is hunky and desirable, but he has his way with her in a “Is she really falling for that?” weepy act, and until the climax, he proceeds to be fundamentally useless when it comes to lending a strong, manly arm of support. At which point, De Palma pulls off one of his most hilarious conceits; it looks as if Jack will save the falling Amy but impale himself on a sundial, only for Dr Nix’s random shot to break off the point at the crucial slo-mo instant. The other great moment is the absurdly grim flashback, where Jenny recalls their first embrace which – again emphasising that Jack is nothing but a weasel, and no kind of dad for Amy – occurs at the foot of Jack’s wife’s death bed; indeed, she sees it. It’s the very last thing she sees, as she immediately goes into arrest, staring ahead like something out of a zombie flick.

This rearranging of the structure also succeeds because, if you’re introduced to Lithgow and his alters immediately, anything else is going to be weak-sauce distraction from the main event. This way, Carter is introduced as a supporting character, one about whom Jenny voices concern over his odd behaviour and drops leading hints that maybe it has “something to do with his father”. Carter is all sorts of beta-male, subservient and obedient and wouldn’t say boo to a goose, such that his drugging of Karen (Teri Austin), after she refuses to let her child go to his father’s clinic, leads to the emergence of alter Cain as he is faced with a couple of joggers passing the scene of the crime; Cain immediately tells him what to do (he kisses the unconscious Karen).

In this form, the flashback showing Carter’s actions while Jenny was in flagrante loops around to Cain, not Carter, smothering her with a pillow; De Palma has been piling on the threads, with a body in the boot and a child in the car, while Cain himself is all set on canoodling with Carter’s wife before those priorities demand his attention. We’ve also seen Cain visit Dr Nix, whom we naturally assume to be another alter, and a ghoulish Lynchian freak out when Cain sees Josh – a kid an in an ill-fitting wig with Lithgow’s Josh voice – accusing him of bad deeds to come before he does for babysitter Nan (Gabrielle Carteris). If I’m honest, I don’t think the repeat excerpt of Jenny talking to Sarah (Mel Harris) in the park, to signal we’re up to speed, is terribly tidy, but it nevertheless orientates us in a manner that is needed.

Lithgow is an absolute riot here. His Cain is a mocking, cackling, chain-smoking monster, the direct intentional result of Dr Nix’s experiments. It seems Josh (the child alter) and definitely Margo (the female, protector alter, who will eventually stab Dr Nix) are side effects of the process. In this respect, Nix could hardly be said to be proficient at MKUltra programming (for example, an alter shouldn’t be able to harm the programmer, which evidently is not the case here, and each created alter should have an appointed function). But De Palma is laying out the essential principles, of creating alters with a designated purpose through abuse – he doesn’t specify this is sexual, possibly a note too far even for De Palma, but the likes of Cathy O’Brien and Brice Taylor have stated this is essential to the process. Per protocols, though, as Dr Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen) explains “The original personality forgets it ever happens. How could his loving parent do such a terrible thing? And he creates an alternate personality. This becomes the person it happened to. He is the one who suffers the pain for all the rest”. 

Waldheim is there as the good and noble shrink – who is nevertheless suffering for her culpability in the process – a former Nix student who put in an anonymous tip off to the police that he was intent on abducing babies after she realised the book they were collaborating on, Raising Cain: The Creation and Evolution of the Multiple Personality – “They even made a TV movie out of it” – was the result of his actual, expressly devised experiments (“He had created Cain’s multiple personalities in order to study them”). 

Sternhagen gets to play opposite Lithgow in that great scene where he switches through alters as she hypnotises him (and then knocks her out and steals her clothes and wig; it’s probably worth considering De Palma’s creative process, such that she needed to have a wig in order that Margo could appropriate it). Ed Norton would earn an Oscar nomination for less. Waldheim’s also the focus of a quite astonishing four-minute take, explaining her past history as she’s led/leads the way through police headquarters, down lifts, stairs and to the basement morgue. Which includes her going off in the wrong direction and being course-corrected.

Notable with all this, in an enviably tight, economical telling with nothing wasted (it comes in at a shade over ninety minutes) is that Carter is caught relatively easily. His endeavours – implicating Jack – weren’t going to fool anyone, since the police are onto him well before Jenny calls the police and slashes him. It’s another neat method of both obeying tropes and subverting them. The reveal of Dr Nix as real is one such – I must admit I’d quite forgotten, even though I’d seen the picture two or three times in the ’90s – and Lithgow is particularly gleeful here. I particularly like his assumption of the moral high ground when confronted by his daughter-in-law: “My God, what kind of mother are you? Put that knife down and come out of there!

Also of note is Gregg Henry, last seen collaborating with the director on Body Double. He was commendably responsible for playing opposite Lithgow in the alter scenes, but he also gets one memorable line as Lieutenant Terri, concerned at the prospects of Waldheim failing to extract the necessary information: “I don’t want to be walking behind any little coffins”. This said with the mother of one of the potential occupants present! Another great line is the leading “You’re going to kill somebody with that sundial!” And since De Palma is plundering, why not have the daughter wear a Don’t Look Now red coat throughout?

Dumas points out the nomenclature of Carter Nix (Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon), but the exact thoughts in De Palma’s head are unclear (dualities of opposing positions, at least nominally, manufactured figureheads?) He also mentions that The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim was the book Jenny was buying for Carter in the Father’s Day draft (where the opening scene was set in a book rather than gift shop). This concerned the psychoanalytical value of fairy tales. What’s curious there is that Bettelheim was later discovered – half a decade later, after his death – to have faked his credentials as “an educator and therapist of severely disturbed children”. The question of the historicity and value of fairy tales, given their use by Disney, a hot bed of iniquity, and by MKUltra, might be worth further interrogation. Perhaps they were put there as primers, rather than as antidotes or ameliorants.

Raising Cain emerges as a fine example of peak De Palma doing his thing. Later forays – Snake Eyes, Femme Fatale – would be the rarity, and compromised to greater or lesser extents. The larger problem may have been his attempts to keep demanding the kind of budget range Mission: Impossible’s success allowed him, since the failures of Mission to Mars and The Black Dahlia has rather had the effect of capsizing any range of projects over the past fifteen years. 

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