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Film / Sisters (1973)

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"There was no body because there was no murder. Repeat."
Dr. Emil Breton

A cult Psychological Thriller/Horror film from 1973, directed by Brian De Palma. It was the first of his films in the thriller-horror vein, and featured Margot Kidder in an early starring role as well as De Palma regular character actor William Finley, who would go on the following year to star as the Phantom in his Cult Classic horror rock musical Phantom of the Paradise.

Young model Danielle Breton (Kidder) goes on a date with Phillip Woode (Lisle Wilson), but they have an awkward encounter with Dr. Emil Breton (Finley), who Danielle says is her ex-husband. Phillip sleeps over at her apartment, then the next morning awakes to the sound of Danielle and her twin sister Dominique arguing in French. Then, newspaper reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), who lives in an adjacent building to Danielle, is certain she's seen a murder in Danielle's apartment, and calls the police. As the story unfolds, it becomes frighteningly clear that the relationship between Danielle, Dominique and Dr. Breton is much more complex and disturbing than it first appeared to be.

The film is, in part, an homage to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, and in particular borrows from and references Rear Window and Psycho. (It doesn't hurt that Bernard Herrmann, frequent Hitchcock collaborator famed for "Psycho" Strings, composed the score.) The influence of Mario Bava, Roman Polański and Ingmar Bergman are also on display.

A 2006 remake with Lou Doillon as the twins, ChloŽ Sevigny as Grace, and Stephen Rea as the doctor was released Direct to Video.

Not to be confused with the 2015 comedy from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

This film contains examples of:

  • Amateur Sleuth: When the police refuse to investigate the murder she witnessed, Grace takes matters into her own hands.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: Danielle developed her "Dominique" personality after her twin sister's death from Dr. Breton's separating them through surgery.
  • Anyone Can Die: Phillip looks for all the world like he's going to be the male lead, but he gets stabbed 28 minutes into the film. Also a case of Black Dude Dies First.
  • Bedlam House: The residential mental health facility that Grace follows Dr. Breton and Danielle to is very much in the "sinister asylum" category.
  • Berserk Button: For Dominique, any man getting intimate with Danielle.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Danielle seems gentle and sweet, but suffers from trauma-induced Split Personality, one of her personalities a violent murderess.
  • Big Applesauce: Takes place in Staten Island, with a couple references to it being the "forgotten borough" of New York City.
  • Big Bad: Danielle Breton, or rather her alter Dominique, is the murderer.
  • Binocular Shot: Used when Grace is watching the PI she hired search Danielle's apartment.
  • A Birthday, Not a Break: Danielle kills Phillip on her birthday.
  • Black Comedy: While still a thriller, there are some laughs throughout the story, particularly Breton and Danielle's scheme to hide Phillip's body.
  • Candid Camera Prank: Peeping Toms, the game show in the opening scene, is a variation on Candid Camera, where the start of a prank is shown, then the contestants have to guess how the victim will react, then the rest of the footage plays. The prank becomes a Meet Cute for Danielle, who's part of the prank, and Phillip, who's the victim.
  • Carrying a Cake: Grace, finding the birthday cake during the investigation of Danielle's apartment, proudly bears it out to the detectives as proof of the existence of Danielle's twin, only trips and drops the cake onto the unimpressed detective's shoes.
  • The Cassandra: The police dismiss Grace's claim that Danielle stabbed a man to death in her apartment. She really did, but it was under the influence of her dead twin Dominique.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Grace wakes this way screaming when the Nightmare Sequence culminates in Dr. Breton cutting her and Danielle apart with the cleaver.
  • Chekhov's Gift: Danielle's prize for playing the blind woman on Peeping Toms is a cutlery set. And she uses one of the knives to kill Phillip.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The psychiatric ward is mentioned by Grace's mother in the first half of the film. It doesn't make an appearance until toward the end of the film.
  • Compartment Shot: When Grace has a look into Danielle's fridge.
  • Compelling Voice: Dr. Breton uses a deep, calm voice while he hypnotizes Grace.
  • Conjoined Twins: The Blanchion twins, who underwent separation surgery and became a media sensation, including a feature story in Life magazine. Unfortunately, Dominique died, which severely affected Danielle's psyche.
  • Conveniently an Orphan: As explained in the documentary Grace sees, the parents of the Blanchion twins "died in an automobile accident only days before their first birthday."
  • Dead Man's Chest: The body of Phillip is hidden inside a couch.
  • Decoy Protagonist: It starts out looking like it's going to be the story of Phillip falling in love with Danielle, then struggling with her Crazy Jealous Guy ex-husband Emil Breton but instead the rest of the movie is about the aftermath of Phillip's murder.
  • Discretion Shot: During Grace's hallucination nightmare, when Dr. Breton operates with the cleaver.
  • Disposing of a Body: Phillip's body gets stuffed into a couch and sent off to some remote place.
  • Duck Season, Rabbit Season: When Grace confronts an assistant at the psychiatric home about Danielle, Dr. Breton shows up and acts like Grace is a new patient named Margaret, who thinks she's a newspaper reporter named Grace. The assistant is taken in by the ruse and follows Breton's instructions to ease her into treatment by calling her Grace, which agitates her and makes her slip up.
    Assistant (patronizingly as he takes her away): Grace, I believe you're serious in what you think.
    Grace: Let go of my arm!
    Assistant: Well, it's a little rough going here in the dark, Grace.
    Grace: Stop calling me Grace!
    Assistant: Then you really do want to be Margaret?
    Grace: No, dammit, my name is Grace!
  • Dying Clue: Subverted. Grace sees Phillip writing "Help" on the window with his blood. However, Breton cleans it up before the detectives arrive at the crime scene.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Dr. Breton is at first just a face in the audience of the opening sequence game show (though he's Conspicuous in the Crowd by reading a book rather than applauding).
  • The End: The last scene ends with a "The End" title card.
  • Epiphany Therapy: Dr. Breton tries this with Danielle at the climax, showing her the knife that killed Phillip, to get her to try to remember the murder. Instead, "Dominique" returns and kills him.
  • Evil Twin: Dominique, for Danielle, except we never actually see Dominique, because she's dead and Danielle has adopted her as a Split Personality.
  • Eye Remember: The Nightmare Sequence zooms in and out through Grace's wide-open eyes.
  • Fake-Out Opening: The film opens with a scene where a blind woman wanders into a men's locker room and draws the attention of a man who's in there. Then she starts undressing and he gets nervous. A film about voyeurism? Nope, it turns out to be a filmed prank for a game show called Peeping Toms, with pretty model/actress Danielle Breton as the blind woman and advertising man Phillip Woode as the unsuspecting victim.
  • Foreshadowing: When Danielle and Phillip make out, we see a nasty scar on her thigh. That's where she was conjoined with Dominique before their separation.
  • Go Among Mad People: Dr. Breton convinces his staff that Grace is a new patient.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: The reason the Blanchion twins were separated. Dominique found she was sterile and tried to kill a pregnant Danielle out of spite.
  • Instant Death Stab: Dr. Breton dies within a minute after receiving what looks like a non-critical slash to his groin area.
  • Ironic Juxtaposition: Danielle squirms with pain on the bathroom floor while the confectioner takes her time writing the names on the birthday cake.
  • It's for a Book: Grace asks people relevant questions for the investigation, but tells them it's for one of her articles.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: Grace trying to convince the detectives that the murder in fact took place at the apartment.
  • Jewish Mother: Grace's mother, while seemingly not Jewish, constantly pesters her about settling down with a man of respectable profession and just generally treats her like My Beloved Smother.
  • Kafka Komedy: Grace, whose character arc starts with her dutifully calling the police to report a crime, and ends with her as a hypnotized mental wreck, all because she has the bad luck of dealing with people who are either Jerkasses or genuinely disturbed, and it's effectively played for Black Comedy.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Dr. Breton is so deeply in love with Danielle that he violates medical ethics by having a relationship with her, and ultimately helps cover up a murder she commits.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Dr. Breton, who's not above using hypnosis and drugs to influence people.
  • Meatgrinder Surgery: The hallucination nightmare scene.
  • Mind Rape: Dr. Breton on Grace.
  • Mind Screw: The final act takes what seemed like a fairly standard (though artsy) Psychological Thriller and gives it a complex, surreal and troubling climax.
  • Missed Him by That Much: The detectives almost bump into Breton in the hallway.
  • Mood Whiplash: In the first few minutes, the film goes from seeming to be a comedy about a wacky game show, to seeming like a romance, then turning into a Psychological Thriller, then it depicts a horrific, bloody stabbing death.
  • Mr. Exposition: Life reporter Arthur McLennen (played by Barnard Hughes) explains the basics of the Danielle/Dominique backstory to Grace and shows her a documentary about them made by the clinic in Quebec.
  • My Sibling Will Live Through Me: Dominique's death induces Danielle to try to keep her alive by periodically becoming her sister in her mind, à la Norman Bates.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits: Rare (and deadly) female version. Danielle, as "Dominique", murders Philip and then Dr. Breton to keep them away from Danielle.
  • Mysterious Watcher: For the first half of the film, Dr. Breton.
  • Neat Freak: Arlene at the mental ward, who's so Terrified of Germs she thinks they travel through telephone lines and cleans the phone with Lysol.
    Arlene (regarding Grace with suspicion): You're not supposed to be in here...I think you have a cold...
  • Nightmare Face: Danielle during the murder.
  • Nosy Neighbour: Grace, with good cause.
  • One-Word Title: Since this was one of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite tropes, it's only natural that De Palma would use it here.
  • The Ophelia: Danielle is beautiful and totally deranged, and worst of all isn't aware of it because she thinks Dominique is still alive.
  • Police Are Useless: The detectives are reluctant to even investigate the murder, preferring to argue with and belittle Grace in the lobby of the apartment building while Danielle and Dr. Breton are cleaning up the evidence above.
  • Poster-Gallery Bedroom: At the end of the film, Grace is back in her girlhood bedroom at her mother's house, with a wall full of pictures and posters, including ones of Ricky Nelson, Robert Mitchum and The Beatles.
  • Private Detective: Joseph Larch (played by Charles Durning), hired by Grace to help investigate Danielle.
  • Psycho Psychologist: Emil Breton is a brilliant doctor, but also a bit of a sociopath and a stalker, and seems a few short steps away from Mad Scientist.
  • Psychotic Love Triangle: In an unusual form. Dr. Breton is mad for Danielle, and Dominique is obsessive over her sister. Of course, Dominique now exists in Danielle's mind only as another personality.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: Ultimately, Dr. Breton fails to make Danielle remember the murder and he's murdered by Dominique. Danielle is arrested and she's still unaware about her split personality. Grace remembers nothing of the murder she was investigating, courtesy of Dr. Breton's hypnosis. However, Larch has managed to follow the couch all the way to Quebec, leaving us with a pint of hope that he'll find Phillip's body and the case will be solved eventually.
  • "Rear Window" Investigation: Larch snooping around the apartment wich Grace watching from across the street. Then more people arrive on the scene.
  • "Rear Window" Witness: Grace, and subsequent "Rear Window" Investigation.
  • Red Herring: Dr. Emil Breton looks Obviously Evil when he's first introduced wearing his Conspicuous Gloves, but as the film goes on we see that he's more of a Jerkass Woobie than anything else.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Danielle is the pleasant, outgoing Red twin, Dominique is the moody, disturbed Blue twin. This is even noted by the doctors when they're still conjoined.
  • Secret Chaser: Grace, unfortunately for her and others.
  • Shadow Discretion Shot: Danielle stabbing Phillip in the back is shown as a shadow on the wall.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Much of the film operates as a "spot the Hitchcock allusion" game. There's Grace as a "Rear Window" Witness, a major character who dies early in the film and someone suffering from a severe Split Personality (Psycho), a dead body hidden in plain sight in a piece of furniture and a long tracking shot (Rope), and a character who is maliciously tagged with a false identity (North By Northwest). Also, note that there are characters named Grace and Detective Kelly.
    • The dream/flashback at the climax is an obvious stylistic nod to Rosemary's vivid nightmare scene in Rosemary's Baby.
    • Most critics don't think it's a coincidence that the game show in the opening scene is called Peeping Toms.
    • The name Breton was chosen in honor of André Breton, one of the founders of Surrealism.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Grace (a small-time intrepid newspaper reporter who sees herself as a crusading, cutting-edge journalist), Detective Kelly (a patronizing cop who's more concerned with holding petty grudges than solving crimes) and Joseph Larch (an undistinguished private eye who brags of his expertise, while choosing the most complicated investigation methods) all suffer from this.
  • Soapbox Sadie: Grace is one, going by her arguments with her mother and the headlines of her newspaper columns. Police Brutality seems to be a pet issue of hers (one column has the headline "Why We Call Them 'Pigs'"), which is why the cops aren't eager to help her find out what happened in Danielle's apartment.
  • Split-Personality Takeover: A combination of hallucinatory flashbacks and exposition from Dr. Breton give The Reveal that Danielle adopted Dominique as an alternate personality after Dominique died, but Dominique is deeply jealous of Danielle's love life, and it was Dominique who took over Danielle's personality to kill Phillip, and later Dr. Breton himself.
  • Split Screen: The murder clean-up.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Dr. Breton follows his ex-wife Danielle a year after their divorce, demanding she come home with him and standing outside her apartment at night.
  • Stalking Is Love: Danielle eventually submits to Dr. Breton's attention, and embraces him lovingly after his death.
  • Tragic Dream: Dr. Breton hopes to cure and remarry Danielle.
  • Tragic Stillbirth: Amid the Mind Screw of the hypnosis scene, there's an important bit of Exposition that's revealed. While they were still conjoined, Danielle became pregnant by Dr. Breton, while Dominique learned she couldn't have children. Enraged, Dominique stabbed Danielle's womb with garden shears, killing the unborn child and harming Danielle. This was the event that led the doctors to decide to separate them.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The original trailers give away the first major plot twist, Danielle and Dominique being separated Conjoined Twins, in the opening lines of the voiceover.
  • Tuckerization: The head of the Canadian institute is named Dr. Milius.
  • Yandere: Dominique is violently jealous of any man who becomes involved with Danielle.
  • You Have to Believe Me!: Lampshaded by Grace when she gets institutionalized against her will and her claims otherwise don't come off as convincing as she hoped:
    Grace: Please. Now, you've got to believe me. I am perfectly sane. [...] I'm afraid my life is in danger.
    Ward: I understand.
    Grace: Oh, God! I know what that sounds like.