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Days of De Palma (Part 11): Raising Cain (1992)

Slowly but surely, my journey through the films of Brian De Palma continues!  (If you scroll down to the bottom of this post, you’ll find links to all the other Brian De Palma films I have watched!)

Sandwiched in between two high-profile Brian De Palma films that I had never before seen, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Carlito’s Way, was this film that I had never heard of.  A horror film directed by De Palma and starring John Lithgow?  I was intrigued!

At the start of Raising Cain we meet Dr. Carter Nix (John Lithgow), who is at a playground with his daughter, Amy.  When his wife, Jenny (Lolita Davodovich) is late to pick them up, Carter and Amy accept a ride home from another mom at the playground.  On the ride home, when the mom laughs at one of Carter’s suggestions regarding child-rearing, Carter loses control and murders her!  Yikes, this film doesn’t take long before taking a sharp turn into weirdness.  Things get far nuttier from there.  Carter’s wife, Jenny, begins to suspect something is amiss with him and, meanwhile, resumes an affair with a hunky former patient, Jack (Steven Bauer).  This turns her into a target for Carter, who we (and Jenny) discover has been twisted by the psychological experiments of his father into a creature with multiple personalities, many of them violent and disturbed.

There’s a core of a good idea for a horror film at the heart of that story, but I found Raising Cain to be pretty terrible.  It’s stunning to me how Brian De Palma seems to bounce from crafting truly excellent, masterful films (Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables) to such horrendous, amateurish misfires (Wise Guys, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and now this).  It’s fascinating!  I am not sure I have an explanation for this inconsistency in Mr. De Palma’s work.  I will say that I think he is much better off directing scripts written by other, stronger writers.  Mr. De Palma wrote the script for Raising Cain himself, and I think that is part of the problem with this film.

There is not much that I found to be good in Raising Cain.  The story is mostly laughable, rather than scary.  John Lithgow is a great actor, but he is entirely stranded by the script and direction.  His portrayal of Carter’s multiple personalities didn’t work for me at all.  I found it all to be incredibly silly as Mr. Lithgow would adopt different accents and costumes to portray the different sides of Carter’s broken mind.  Again, I can see this working in theory, but the execution fails.  It’s surprising, because John Lithgow is such a talent.

Raising Cain feels like it was intended to be a return to the sexy, pulpy horror/mystery films from earlier in Mr. De Palma’s career.  It’s particularly reminiscent of Dressed to Kill, as it also features a villain with a split personality and one who is prone to dress in women’s clothing.  But I found this to be a far inferior version of a similar story.  The characters are not as interesting as in Dressed to Kill, and while one can see a little bit of the classic De Palma eroticism in this film (there’s a slow, lingering pan up the long legs of the semi-nude Jenny that is quite memorable), but none of the over-the-top sex and nudity from Dressed to Kill.  (I found all that sex and nudity to be gratuitous in Dressed to Kill, so I’m not arguing that more sex and nudity would have made Raising Cain a better film. Just that Dressed to Kill, for all its flaws, felt alive and envelope-pushing, whereas Raising Cain feels like a limp imitation.)  When we see the murderous Carter dressed up as a woman in Raising Cain, it’s also hard to avoid comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.  Mr. De Palma sure does love mimicking Hitchcock!

Mr. De Palma seems to always love taking at least one sequence in his films to showcase his inventiveness and skill with a camera and with staging.  Here in Raising Cain, the most notable example is the stand-off at the motel at the climax on the film.  All of the film’s characters convene at this motel on a stormy evening.  There are multiple characters in action in multiple locations in and around the motel, and on its different levels.  Mr. De Palma makes a true meal out of this sequence, using extensive slow motion and long, uninterrupted takes as his camera glides in and around and up and down throughout the motel.  It’s very cool; the first time in Raising Cain that I really sat up and took notice.  I wish it had come at the climax of a stronger film.  (The sequence is also, unfortunately, weakened by all the use of slow-motion, at least in my opinion.  I don’t think that particular device has aged well.  To me, the slow-motion feels cartoonish and soap-opera-ish.  At the end of an already cartoonishly silly film, it doesn’t give this final sequence the bang that Mr. De Palma was clearly intending it to have.)

Well, these last two De Palma films have been stinkers.  But I am excited for the next few films.  Coming up next is Carlito’s Way, a film which I have somehow never seen.  I have wanted to see it for years and years, so I am excited to finally do so!  After that are two films that I haven’t watched in a while and am excited to revisit: Mission: Impossible and Snake Eyes.   

I’ll be back soon to share my thoughts on those next De Palma films!

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 – Body Double (1984); Part 7 – Wise Guys (1986); Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987); Part 9 — Casualties of War (1989); Part 10 — The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990).


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