Five Favorite Brian De Palma Films
by Julian Garcia
To me, the instant appeal of a Brian De Palma film is in the way he splits the experience between deadly fiction and whirlpool reality. In the style of his films, he wears his influences proudly on his celluloid sleeves, yet I can’t help but get wrapped up in the sumptuousness of his very unique approach to image-making. His films are hypnotic, funny, empathetic, and horrifying. As it is the season of spooky films, I thought it would be a good time to highlight his work.
Whenever anyone talks about a De Palma film, “splits” is always a keyword used. De Palma deals with characters who have tortured double lives, whether they are aware of it or not. His scenes cross tones constantly, from bawdy comedy to extreme terror. And, of course, many of his greatest set pieces involve the use of split screens—he conjures up images which feel both like fever dreams as well as antagonistic nightmares. It comes as no surprise that that antagonism has split audience opinion on De Palma directly down the middle.
Perhaps surprisingly, De Palma’s antagonism is the quality that I find most appealing about his work. The excessiveness of his imagery, often violent, suspenseful, or anxiety-inducing, is something I continuously find throughout his work to be his most moving quality. No matter how romantic or pessimistic the scene gets, I always feel like I’m floating along with the rhythms and pulsations of the film’s true beating heart. He transcends the constraints of plot and genre in that regard, and many of the best sequences in his films are gleefully operatic, making sure they stick in your mind long after you’ve forgotten the names of the characters or even the precise plot of the movie.
Although De Palma is a versatile filmmaker with work ranging black comedies to action films to Scarface, his thrillers and macabre films are the ones that make me feel most delirious. You can catch my five favorite De Palma films below:
5. Body Double (1984)
Simultaneously voyeuristic while also implicating (and even criticizing) the way us audience members can be voyeurs, Body Double is a wonderfully-wild, zesty, and deliberately trashy film, that nonetheless entertains us with its soaring romanticism, out of left field twists and turns, and shocking, grotesque set pieces.
Body Double, above all, is delirium-inducing in its almost total disregard for good taste, logic, and storytelling depth. The film will stop on its heels to swing around the main character living out his fantasy in a romantic scene on the beach, or in the almost orgiastic music video scene that stops the film in its tracks to kickstart the third act. It is just as much about cheap thrills (and the audiences who love them) as well as the aesthetic excess. De Palma delivers in spades.
4. Sisters (1973)
De Palma’s most frequent critics usually deride him as nothing more than a Hitchcock imitator. Even if Hitchcock’s subject matter was lurid and not to the taste of high art, his approach always remained elegant, rigorous, and sardonic.
De Palma, on the other hand, approached the lurid subject matter of his films with more griminess, elevating filth to beautiful standards. Sisters, his first proper thriller and the film that would define his career stylistically for decades to come, is gleefully subversive in its tale about twins Dominique and Danielle (both played by Margot Kidder). One is a timid, kind-hearted soul, the other a psychotic murderer. Throughout, there are exploitative thrills, but also deep sympathy for the outcasts of society and an understanding on display for what makes these people tick the way they do (paving the way for such films with an empathetic viewpoint like Carrie and Dressed to Kill).
3. Raising Cain (1992)
De Palma’s parody of his own style is still thrilling, both in a conventional sense—regarding the story of Dr. Carter Nix and how he is kidnapping other mothers children to do developmental experimentation on them, along with his psychotic, murderous twin brother—and in an aesthetic sense, as De Palma takes his total disregard for structure, plot, and likability to new highs.
Usually, I hate films in which every scene plays out information that is only necessary to the reveals of the film as it progresses (hello, Hereditary). These films have no lives outside of themselves, and tend to take themselves too seriously. In this film, though every scene plays like a soap operatic joke, it still manages to be deeply disturbing. New pieces of information are introduced randomly, and only for the sake of the scenes that proceed it— character motivations, backstory, and the events of the plot itself seem jammed into the piece to make it make sense. However, De Palma flourishes in the ridiculousness of it all, creating terror (and laughs) in the way people look, whether its Lithgow’s gleefully off-kilter performance or De Palma’s own glee at filming faces of death in trashy but total fear.
2. Dressed to Kill (1980)
As far as films that kill off their main character midway through the story, De Palma surpasses his greatest influence here. Dressed to Kill takes the same trope from Psycho, magnifies its strengths to something more dreamlike, empathetic, and sumptuous, and in this process, somehow eliminates all of the faults attached. At its center is a magnificent museum sequence that De Palma builds the film towards and subsequently continues building from—we are implicated in everything Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) sees, and we understand that when she looks at a loving couple or a child or a painting, it is as if we are seeing her very thoughts played out in reality themselves.
The plot takes a similar approach to what De Palma did with Sisters some years earlier, however, De Palma ratchets up the dream factor in this film. The look of Dressed to Kill in comparison to Sisters is less sordid and more heavenly, softer and more passionate, which makes the eruptions of extreme violence all the more shocking and horrifying to bear witness to.
1. Blow Out
Much of what I feel towards De Palma’s films makes it look like he is an artist who does nothing but take chances to mess with audience expectations of what your typical thriller should be. It might also seem like I enjoy the intensity of the film’s violence and sexual content, but that is not always the case. I am more enamored with how well his techniques work on me, and how much I feel the glee that he communicates inside my head as each image gives way to another, and how they all work together to bring themselves up to glorious cinematic heights.
Blow Out, which is typically everyone’s favorite De Palma film (for all those who have seen his filmography past The Untouchables and Scarface), is something altogether different, in the way it tears tragedy and the campier aspects of his work apart.
It horrifies itself and its own universe, and while De Palma brings the same energy to this project that he brought to everything else he had shot, the horror at the events of the story is much more involved and aware of the implications, rather than our own voyeuristic pleasures at the cinematic pyrotechnics that he employs throughout his films. This isn’t to say that De Palma doesn’t carry the same glee, as he even has the guts to laugh cynically at the face of tragedy in many of the scenes, but only so we don’t hear the towering cries and anguish central to the premise. The ending of the film, one of the best in his entire oeuvre, melts into something that is at once like Greek tragedy and pitch black comedy.
— Julian Garcia is a Film Correspondent for Siblíní.