Brian De Palma’s 1992 thriller is widely seen as some kind of cinematic disaster area, and I can see why, but I’m a genuine fan of this under-appreciated work. In fact, while De Palma’s big hits are venerated, from Carrie to The Untouchables, there is plenty of merit in his failures, from Obsession and The Fury to Blow Out to Body Double; the director was always willing to do more than just pay tribute to Hitchcock, he seemed intent on pushing on further, more sex, more violence, more tension and more shocks. It’s a mission that frequently put him on the naughty step as far as critics and audiences were concerned, but it certainly secured a unique niche.
Just to backtrack; I saw Raising Cain on release in a tiny cinema in Montpellier, dubbed into French. My schoolboy French was just about good enough to handle buying a ticket, but was somewhat stretched by a very talk-heavy film about medical experimentation, multiple personalities and marital infidelities. I had to work hard to figure out what was going on, and even watched again in English, Raising Cain still tests the patience. Child psychologist Carter Nix (John Lithgow) is murdering woman who attend his local play-park; he steals their children for his mad scientist father Nix Sr (also John Lithgow) to experiment on. Nix has frequent lapses of intent, so his evil twin Cain (also John Lithgow) often appears to sort things out. The cops close in with the help of a psychologist, but when she interviews Nix Jr, she finds herself talking to Josh, a seven year old child (also John Lithgow) Could the family nanny (also John Lithgow) have the secret of the family’s obsessions?
So far, so strange in the manner of M Night Shyamalan’s Split, but the above summary isn’t even the main plot of Raising Cain, which fragments to tell the story of Carter’s wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovitch) whoo is having an affair with Jack Dante (Stephen Bauer); as they frolic in the woods or hotel rooms, are they going to inspire the ire of the entire Nix clan when they find out? And why are there so many clocks in this story, from the gifts the lovers buy at the mall to the sundial which nearly impales the characters in a frenzied multi-level set-piece that ends the film?
Raising Cain really does not make much literal sense at all, but as dream logic, it’s an absolute belter, with tonnes of weird moments and shocks, from Jenny dreaming that she impales herself (while driving) on a pointed blade thrust by an equestrian statue, to Margo’s strikingly abrupt cameo at the end. The dialogue has a full time job keeping up with the explanations for the crazy visuals; Raising Cain feels like the final scene of Psycho, expanded to feature length, with cod-psychology constantly used to provide context for crazy, disturbing visuals.
So what’s great here? De Palma off the leash, Lithgow having a lot of fun, and lifts from Peeping Tom, Psycho, Tenebre and more making this amusing for cineastes and thriller addicts. In any language, it’s all too silly for works, and is no primer for real world mental-health issues, but the technique is breath-taking, and under-appreciated. A fan recut, apparently, is available, and I’m tracking that down right now.