Raising Cain (1992)

SEPTEMBER 14, 2016


Curious - do you folks consider a movie as "seen" if you were so young that you a. barely remember it and b. wouldn't have the proper context to take away as much from it as the filmmaker intended? I usually do, but I'm starting to wonder if I shouldn't, if Raising Cain is any indication. I "saw" it when it hit VHS, making me 12 (maybe just turned 13), but even if I could remember much about it from that one viewing (all I recall: being confused, being smitten with Lolita Davidovich), I hadn't seen anything else of note from Brian De Palma at that stage (the lone, inexplicable exception? Bonfire of the Vanities), and as I watch it now I realize part of the film's fun is seeing him play with his own filmography as much as he does with the usual Hitchcock stuff. PLUS it's easier to follow when you know more about cinematic language in general; I'm sure I would have quickly understood that "Cain" wasn't really there in his scenes if I were to notice that De Palma never cheated and put them both in the same shot, for example.

(Double Impact had already come out - I knew it was possible to do this with one actor!)

While I still haven't seen them all (still no Body Double - much to my chagrin), I've seen enough De Palma by now to realize this one isn't exactly his finest hour, but probably works best for his hardcore fans (as opposed to say, Mission to Mars, which might satisfy you more if you have no idea who he is). Again, he throws in little nods to his past work - the plot feels like a variation on Sisters, and it's probably only his fans that will laugh instead of getting freaked out when a baby carriage starts rolling toward a staircase during the film's climax. Plus it's got plenty of his gee-whiz camerawork, including an epic 4+ minute long-take (a walk and talk, no less) that takes the characters down two flights of stairs and an elevator, finally ending on a corpse's ridiculous death face. The average moviegoer will not notice or at least not think much of these elements, but if you're familiar with his work it's sort of like comfort food, especially since it was his first thriller in nearly a decade.

But whether you're a BDP fan or not, I think we can all agree that the highlight of the film is John Lithgow's performance(s), as he plays at least five characters throughout the film, each with their own unique mannerisms and vocal inflection. Two of them are distinguished by their appearance (one older, one in drag), but the other three are just "off-the-shelf" Lithgow, and yet it's instantly clear when a new personality takes over - in particular the scene where Frances Sternhagen is interviewing him. When he snaps awake (she's hypnotizing him), you can tell right away it's not Carter or Cain, but a new personality we haven't met yet - just from how he's fidgeting and looking at her! Naturally, he didn't even get nominated for any mainstream awards, let alone win any due to the fact that the film was kinda/sorta horror and it also wasn't a big hit (if Silence of the Lambs only grossed 10m do you think it'd win Best Picture? Or even get nominated? Hah!). He DID get nominated for a Saturn award, yet lost to Gary Oldman for Dracula (kinda hard to argue, really), as did Bruce Willis (Death Becomes Her) and Chevy Chase (Invisible Man), which was probably the first and last time Bruce and Chevy were ever up for the same award.

However, a big draw of Lithgow's performance was kind of ruined by the film's re-structuring. When cutting the film, De Palma second guessed himself and didn't put enough faith in the audience to follow his non-chronological narrative, and so he recut it to be in order. This makes it (somewhat) easier to follow, sure, but it also gives the movie a very strange pace, because what was designed to be a twist halfway through (that Lithgow's character was a killer, not the "Mr. Mom" wet blanket he appeared to be in the original version's first half hour or so) was now pretty much the first scene in the movie. This would be fine if it was a movie about a guy living a double life (Mr. Brooks comes to mind), but it's not that kind of movie at all, so the (now) later scenes of him acting like a completely normal guy feel out of place. Because they are! Granted, there's no way in hell that the ads wouldn't have given away the multiple personalities element, so we'd know he was nuts no matter how the movie was cut, but knowing something from a trailer is different than knowing it too early in the full narrative. Like Psycho - even if you know Janet Leigh dies in the shower ahead of time, it's WHEN it happens (i.e. the end of the first act) that makes it such a shock, because even if you knew that her character died you'd probably assume it was somewhere near the end.

Luckily, this new Blu-ray from Scream Factory offers a one of a kind bonus feature - a cut of the film assembled by a fan that follows the original script's ordering. Alas, the new cut's editor, Peet Gelderblom, didn't have access to the scenes that were excised from the theatrical cut as a result of the new structure, so it's hardly a perfect execution (you almost have to watch the theatrical cut first just to know the difference when it jumps back in time), but if you mentally fill in those blanks it's easy to see that it's the superior way to watch the movie. This version keeps us more or less in Davidovich's POV (literally, at one point) for a while, allowing Lithgow's sudden turn to be the shock we were never afforded in the theatrical, and it also keeps the mystery of Carter/Cain's father (also Lithgow) slightly more compelling since we don't meet him 10 minutes in like we do in the theatrical. Both versions leave you guessing if Dr. Nix is truly alive or just another personality until the very end (in fact after about 45 minutes I don't think there's any major reordering at all), but the subplot just flows better in the recut version.

One thing the disc does NOT offer, sadly, is footage of Gregg Henry acting against Lithgow. Even though you never see two Lithgows at once, the actor still needed someone to interact with for the dialogue, and Henry did that for him throughout the shooting (in addition to his regular role as the head cop investigating the missing children). I think it would have been great to see, but alas the movie was shot in 1991/1992, long before anyone thought to record a film's entire production so it could have good blu-ray features. Instead, the disc offers a ton of interviews, including ones with Lithgow and Henry (as well as Paul Hirsch, one of the three editors), and you can't even complain about De Palma not offering one since the disc hits at the same time as the simply titled De Palma, a documentary which is basically a feature length interview anyway and covers all of his films including Cain. Lithgow's runs a half hour and is obviously the big draw, but they're all loaded with the usual fun anecdotes and recollections - it's a bummer they didn't cut them all together for a feature length retrospective (their combined runtime is almost as long as the movie itself, in fact) like they did with Day of the Dead and The Offspring, but it's not a big deal. The 2nd disc offers the recut as well as some background info on how that came together, as well as De Palma's sole "appearance" on the disc - his note saying how much he liked seeing the cut and wished he hadn't second guessed himself in the first place.

Again, I haven't seen Body Double (I swear I'll fix that soon), but I consider Blow Out to be a masterpiece and I really, love Dressed to Kill, and quite like Sisters (moreso after suffering through its remake), so I can't exactly say Raising Cain is an essential De Palma thriller when he has so many great ones to choose from (sort of like how Prince of Darkness is awesome but not even top 5 Carpenter. But it's deserving of more love than it gets, so I'm glad Scream Factory and Universal are working together a lot now, because otherwise there's little chance this minor little gem would have gotten a spiffy Blu-ray release. And I in turn probably wouldn't have gotten around to revisiting it until I decided to do some sort of massive De Palma appraisal/catch-up (I would skip Redacted, for the record), which is something I should do anyway. My favorite is Carlito's Way and it's been nearly 20 years since I watched that one! Plus he jumps genres a lot, so if I did them chronologically it wouldn't be repetitive or anything. I think I'll do this!

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. Prince of Darkness would probably be top 5 Carpenter for me.


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