These days, when a studio announces a remake of a popular horror classic (or not-so-classic, the way things are going recently), they usually pay a lot of lip service to emphasizing that the project is actually a “re-envisioning” or a “re-imagining” of the original film or concept. In the end, the resulting movies turn out to be nothing of the sort. Instead, they’re either a slavish copy of the original (as with The Omen or The Amityville Horror) or have little to do with the original other than the marketable title (13 Ghosts or House of Wax, for instance). But director/co-writer Douglas Buck’s remake of Brian DePalma’s 1973 psycho-thriller Sisters turns out to be the real thing: a creative, well-executed re-imagining of the original film which not only retains the basic structure (and several set piece sequences) from the original, but also has enough of a fresh take on the material that it feels like an original film in its own right, free of the restrictive confines of the world of remakes.
Immediately distinguishing itself from the original by its setting within a Cronenbergian medical world (the character played by William Finley has become a sinister doctor who runs a bizarre childrens’ asylum), the new Sisters is about Angelique (the fascinating-looking Lou Doillon, daughter of Jane Birkin), a young woman who is both an assistant to and a patient of Dr. Lacan (Stephen Rea). Seemingly trying to break free of his mental enslavement – and you know you’re in for an atypical remake since Buck and co-writer John Freitas have named their villain after influential French philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the father of post-structuralism! – Angelique accepts a ride home from a party at the facility with young doctor Dylan Wallace (Dallas Roberts). And from here and through the rest of its first hour, the plot of the film proceeds much as the original did, though transposed from Manhattan and Staten Island to the Pacific Northwest. There’s some playful banter between the two as Dylan discovers more about troubled Angelique, a night of lovemaking, a birthday cake, the revelation from Angelique that she has a twin sister named Annabelle, and a shocking murder witnessed by investigative reporter Grace Collier (this time played by Chloë Sevigny), who turns to the police for help, to no avail. But unlike the De Palma original, Grace has a much closer connection to the other characters, not only Lacan and his dangerous medical work, but also Angelique. The revelations about her identity and the spiritual bond shared by the two sisters – in the solidarity sense, rather than the familial one – make up the remainder of the movie, and delve much deeper into the fractured minds of the leads, as well as the psychological causes which made them that way.
Anyone familiar with Buck’s trilogy of short films (Cutting Moments, Home and Prologue, which were also collected a couple of years ago into the feature-length Family Portraits) will find Sisters a close sibling to these earlier stories of scarred individuals trying to come to terms with their true identities, often through ritualized acts of violence. Much more than a remake of the DePalma film, the Sisters redux feels like a natural extension of Buck’s earlier career as a filmmaker, and no surprise there, as this is what seems to have attracted him to the material in the first place. Eschewing De Palma’s stylistic flourishes – no split-screen here – and most of the intentional humor that fills the earlier version, the film’s tone is much colder and chillier, feeling at times like an early Cronenberg movie (an intentional similarity, it turns out) or Buck’s hour-long Prologue, about a young woman confronting the man who has abused and violated her. And like that short film, this Sisters concerns itself much more with the root cause of Angelique’s disorder (and, as it turns out, Grace’s as well) than with the bloody results of it. The set piece murders are still there, and still very bloody (knitting needles substitute this time for the apartment murder’s kitchen knife), but like most of Buck’s previous characters, the deeper scars appear on the inside of these womens’ minds. And in an intelligent updating of the earlier film’s sexual politics, Buck and Freitas turn the power dynamic on its head with their ending, much more disturbing here than in the 1973 version, which finished with the dated “women’s-lib” Collier character having been brainwashed by the doctor into believing that the murder she witnessed never happened. In the remake, the violent climax is one of rebirth and a renewal of identity, the main characters having broken free of a patriarchal domination by boyfriends, ex-husbands, and the paternalistic medical establishment. Like her terrible French-Canadian accent, the dated, overly-Freudian portrayal of Margot Kidder as a seductress who is turned into the crazed, castrating man-killer twin when she’s sexually aroused is gone (note that both murder victims in the original are slashed or stabbed in the crotch, but not so here), and in its place Buck has crafted a much subtler, more intelligent, and downright disturbing tale of how, in a repressive world of power-mad males who can treat their women only as subjects for experiments or objects upon which to project their own sexual fantasies, sometimes the only option for women is to go crazy.
Sisters is playing as part of the '07 Philadelphia Film Festival.