After cutting his teeth with a series of irreverent comedies that received marginal releases, director Brian De Palma found his calling as a fearmaker—and his first significant box-office success—by merging his lurid fixations with a cinematic style borrowed from Hollywood’s master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. An unnerving thriller about a reporter who believes she’s discovered that her docile neighbor has a homicidal twin sister, Sisters owes a huge debt to Hitch (right down to the use of composer Bernard Hermann), but it’s also an impressive demonstration of De Palma’s storytelling gifts. As the author of the film’s original story and the co-writer of its script, De Palma has his fingerprints all over this movie, and Sisters sets the template for his many subsequent sexually charged suspense flicks.
The story is simple: Staten Island-based investigative reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) happens to look across the street during a frenzied murder in the apartment of French-Canadian model Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder). Collier calls the police, but after a skeptical cop (Dolph Sweet) fails to discover any evidence, Collier enlists a private detective (Charles Durning) to continue the investigation. The deeper Collier goes down the rabbit hole of her neighbor’s strange world, however, the more danger Collier invites. As in all of De Palma’s suspense flicks, the story is less important than mood and theme. With Hermann’s effectively bombastic score creating uncomfortable degrees of tension, De Palma sketches a world of biological abnormalities, dysfunctional sexuality, and rampant conspiracies; he also carefully sets the stage so Collier exists in a milieu of logic and rationality until circumstances quite literally land her in an insane asylum.
Produced for drive-in suppliers American International, Sisters is brisk and sensationalistic, with plenty of gore and a smattering of nudity, yet it’s also finely crafted inasmuch as De Palma designs each frame with an architect’s precision. Despite dodgy cinematography and set decoration (De Palma later benefited from larger budgets and longer shooting schedules), editor Paul Hirsch’s wonderfully methodical pacing makes the most of the footage. So even though De Palma’s later suspense pictures are more visually impressive, few of them can match the no-nonsense economy of Sisters.