12 Films from The Twisted World of Filmmaker Brian De Palma
As the unofficial Brian De Palma month begins, we look back at some of his more independent and eclectic work.
June is going to be a month where movie lovers will be given a serious case of Brian De Palma on the brain, as a spotlight is shined on a genre filmmaker who’s been so influential on so many filmmakers and cinephiles, yet has maybe never gotten the same respect as other greats.
For the entire month of June, New York’s Metrograph theatre is having a month-long retrospective that’ll showcase every single one of De Palma’s films—“film” being the key word there since most of them will be projected on original or restored 35mm prints—although some of his earlier films were only available to play from VHS tape.
On top of that, the Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow documentary, De Palma, will be released in select cities by A24 on June 10. It’s a fantastic overview of the filmmaker���s work over the years, literally covering his entire film career from the earliest of student films at Sarah Lawrence to 2012’s Passion.
De Palma has had such an interesting career starting with his early artier films, often starring a very young Robert De Niro, but the first big game changer was his 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s bestselling book Carrie, which has long been considered one of the better King adaptations. De Palma kept making films independently but he had some bigger hits along the way, including 1983’s Scarface, controversial for its violence, 1987’s The Untouchables, which helped turn Kevin Costner into a box office superstar and won Sean Connery an Oscar, and 1995’s Mission: Impossible, a blockbuster that launched a multi-billion dollar franchise for actor Tom Cruise. During this time, he helped to boost the early careers of De Niro, Costner, John Travolta, Sissy Spacek, Melanie Griffith, and many more.
What’s great about De Palma (the doc) is that it’s centered around a long interview with the filmmaker talking about all of his films, sharing a number of anecdotes about some of the things he wasn’t able to achieve, and admitting the failures, which gives a very different perspective on his career as a whole. (It’s also interesting to see how De Palma frames the filmmaker’s position as an underdog while many of his filmmaking friends like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese were having huge hits.)
In honor of “De Palma Month,” we’ll take a look at 12 of the more interesting and twisted films by the filmmaker.
Get To Know Your Rabbit (1972)
I recently saw this comedy for the first time, and the premise for it sounds like it work better as a Monty Python sketch with Tom Smothers—one half of the Smothers Brothers (just look them up on Wikipedia if you’re under 50)—playing an executive who quits his job in frustration in order to become a tap dancing magician. Of course, when it’s Orson Welles giving the lessons, who can blame him? The film proceeds to follow him touring across the country, sleeping with lots of pretty women while his old boss (John Astin aka Gomez from The Addams Family show) decides to start up a profitable industry to give other execs a chance to get out of the rat race and become tap-dancing magicians. Needless to say, it’s a pretty absurdist film that hasn’t aged well at all.
A pre-Superman role for Margot Kidder where she plays Siamese twin sisters separated at birth, one good and one evil, which is also when De Palma started playing around with the split screen filmmaking that he’d use many times in the movies that followed. It’s a very low budgeted indie film that was also De Palma’s first true foray into the thriller genre that would become his calling card for the next four decades.
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
It’s shocking that this movie ever got made (by a studio, no less), let alone became such a big cult favorite, especially if you know the premise for this horror-comedy-musical that predated the Rocky Horror Picture Show by a year. It stars Paul Williams, who had become world-famous for writing songs like the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection,” as Swan, a record exec who finds a new talent in singer/songwriter Winslow Leach (played by another De Palma classmate, William Finley), now a hideously-deformed “Phantom” that haunts a rock club—oh, and he also has a crush on a singer named Phoenix, who becomes his musical muse.
One of De Palma’s stranger films, it was trashed by critics and bombed theatrically but then went on to get Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for its music. (And yet, it’s still not even remotely as beloved or known as Rocky Horror, which is soon to be remade as a TV musical.)
The Fury (1978)
Probably one of my favorite horror films, even though it’s not held in the same regard as classics like The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, or even The Omen, The Fury involves a pair of siblings with psychic abilities being groomed by a government agent to be used as weapons. Based on a book by John Farris, the movie stars Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes (in a great villain role), and Amy Irving. But what makes the film twisted is how the kids’ psychic abilities are used to destroy their enemies in the most De Palma way possible, causing their enemies to bleed with one poor baddie literally turned into a blood sprinkler.
Dressed to Kill (1980)
Another thriller that helped define the De Palma filmmaking style—as well as his love for all things Hitchcock—with Angie Dickinson as a sex addict who goes to see a psychiatrist, played by Michael Caine, only to be killed by a mysterious blonde woman with a sharp knife. While talking about some of the more twisted elements of the film (like Michael Caine in drag) would essentially spoil it, there were aspects to the film that have appeared in many of De Palma’s thrillers that followed including Body Double, Femme Fatale, and Passion. It also began a long-running feud between De Palma and the media, the latter of whom began labeling him as a misogynist for the way women are brutally slaughtered in his movies.
Blow Out (1981)
Considered one of De Palma’s greatest masterpieces, this film stars John Travolta as a sound engineer whose audio explorations give him the clues to the death of a politician whose car goes off the side of a bridge—similar to the Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick incident. This time, De Palma went to Antonioni’s Blow-Up as inspiration for a film that quenched some of his filmmaking interests that would pop up in a few later films.
Body Double (1984)
This is probably one of my all-time favorite De Palma movies, and considering that it has Melanie Griffith playing a mostly semi-nude porn star, who can blame me? Again, this explored many of the Hitchcock influences that have been mentioned many times in regards to De Palma, specifically Rear Window and Vertigo. It stars Craig Wasson as a young actor in Hollywood. The young would-be thespian often spies on his beautiful neighbor before witnessing her being killed—another theme that De Palma has explored a lot. There’s a lot of twisted stuff in the film but nothing more than the killer’s ridiculously long electric drill used to murder one of his victims in a very overt bit of symbolism.
Wise Guys (1986)
If you had seen some of De Palma’s earlier comedies, maybe this one wouldn’t seem like such a career twist, but after making so many bloody thrillers and the controversially violent Scarface, a dark comedy about mobsters starring Danny De Vito and Joe Piscopo (from Saturday Night Live) seemed like a drastic departure. It might be one of De Palma’s worst movies, but it also may have contributed in getting him the gig directing The Untouchables.
Casualties of War (1989)
Considering how many filmmakers had already commented on the Vietnam War, including Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, and Francis Ford Coppola, it was only a matter of time before De Palma would do the same. Coming off the hit that was The Untouchables gave De Palma the power to make his own Vietnam movie, this one about the kidnapping and rape of a Vietnamese girl by a U.S. soldier that featured Sean Penn (maybe not that big a surprise) and Michael J. Fox (who definitely was an unexpected choice).
De Palma would explore similar material in regards to the Iraqi War in his 2007 film Redacted, but this picture includes some great anecdotes about the hatred between Penn and Fox on set in the upcoming doc.
Raising Cain (1992)
Playing with some of the same ideas of good and evil of Sisters, this time De Palma had John Lithgow portraying a child psychologist suffering from multiple personality disorder, which raises its craziness by having Lithgow—whose Harry and the Hendersons opened against The Untouchables and got slaughtered by it—playing a (literally) crazy killer and giving a very creepy performance, especially in regards to his relationship with his daughter.
Snake Eyes (1998)
Many look at this film as one of the finest examples of Nicolas Cage’s famously batshit crazy performances and delivery, although that probably originated 10 years earlier with The Vampire’s Kiss. It’s another conspiracy thriller, a la Blow Out, involving an assassination at a boxing match and an opening with an amazing single tracking steadicam shot, which has been another one of De Palma’s signatures. Maybe this film isn’t as twisted as some of the others, but it’s pretty bad due to Cage’s performance and the overly complicated plot. It also feel rather dated compared to other movies of the period.
Femme Fatale (2002)
And here is yet another thriller, a more recent one too that stars Antonio Banderas and Rebecca Romijn in a bizarre chain of events involving a model and her would-be kidnappers, as well as an elaborate diamond robbery at the Cannes Film Festival. The picture was trashed by critics and bombed at the box office, but it also has all of De Palma’s fingerprint in terms of cinematic storytelling that makes it a better film visually than it does story-wise.