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The Life of Brian

The terrifying and thrilling ’70s work of Brian De Palma.

by Chris Herrington

espite directing more than 20 features over a 30-year career, Brian De Palma’s reputation as an auteur, if not as a bankable Hollywood commodity, springs from the handful of stylized, Hitchcockian thrillers and horror films he made in the Seventies. Since Scarface (1982), he’s been churning out big-budget Hollywood films, both successful (The Untouchables, 1987) and dismal (Bonfire of the Vanities, 1990). His latest, Snake Eyes, is an attempt to bring the style of his Seventies thrillers to the scope of something like Mission Impossible (1996).

The best of De Palma’s Seventies films come in two linked pairs, the teen horror of Carrie (1976) and The Fury (1978), and the visually audacious thrillers Dressed to Kill (1979) and Blow Out (1981). From Hitchcock, De Palma not only learned cinema’s visual vocabulary, but he picked up some specific elements that mark all of his films from this period. From Psycho there is the fetishization of knives and blood, from Rear Window the helpless observer, and from Vertigo romantic obsession and horror as dream state. Also, like the Master of Suspense, De Palma’s cinema of this era is rigidly formal, and suffused with the blackest of humor.

Carrie and The Fury are archly comic horror films that brought teen exploitation flicks to an unprecedented level of stylization. Like the films David Cronenberg was making at the same time, Carrie and The Fury relocate horror to within the body. In De Palma’s case, the hormonal changes and heightened perceptions of adolescence take the form of psychic and telekinetic abilities for two teenage girls, who find their superhuman powers to be as unmanageable as a case of acne. But where Cronenberg’s films, despite their comic undertones, were (and still are) coldly cerebral, De Palma’s horror is pure style. Carrie and The Fury are sleek visual machines drenched in blood.

Carrie, based on Stephen King’s novel, is structured as a journey from one kind of bloodbath to another. The film opens with the first of many De Palma shower scenes. It’s a teenage boy’s fantasy of sneaking into the girls’ locker room – a dreamlike vision of bare-chested nubiles, with Pino Donnaggio’s score bringing the joke home. The camera settles on Carrie White, the school outcast, who shatters the camera’s wet dream by having her first period right there in the shower, only she thinks she’s bleeding to death. Her ensuing freak-out brings the ridicule of her classmates. That scene is almost too much to take, but it sets up a climactic retribution scene – a prom-night holocaust shot in mostly split screen and with a red tint.

If Carrie is an allegory of the confusion and shame wrought by the onset of sexuality, then The Fury uses psychic and telekinetic ability to present a comically pure vision of teen love. Amy Irving is a high-school girl with paranormal abilities who is infatuated with a similarly gifted guy she’s never met. They’re linked psychically, and the adult world is incapable of understanding their special bond. With a muddled plot not much worth going into, The Fury is structured as a progression of mentally inflicted bloodlettings – revenge on the adult world for mistreating our young protagonists. The film ends with a pair of grisly, over-the-top slayings – a bizarre exsanguination topped by poor John Cassavetes (playing the bad guy to finance his own films) getting literally blown to pieces.

After Carrie and The Fury, De Palma got the chance to work with his own scripts, and the immediate results were his two best films. Dressed to Kill is a stylistic tour de force. Like Hitchcock, De Palma uses a relatively disreputable genre as a pathway to pure cinema. Ostensibly about a transvestite murderer, Dressed to Kill is a fantasy version of Psycho right down to the cheap psychology and tacked-on explanatory scene. It’s even framed by two “shower scenes,” – one a sex fantasy, the other a nightmare – and contains the bare bodies and graphic violence that Hitchcock surely would have if production codes hadn’t held him back. It’s De Palma’s most lurid film by far, and it has a misogynist streak, but as an example of filmmaking technique, it’s extraordinary.

There is very little dialogue in Dressed to Kill, which is essentially a series of visual set pieces linked by the pulpy story, and most of the best sequences are almost entirely silent (save for Donnaggio’s lush, intentionally comic score). The film’s most masterful sequence is a stunning romantic cat-and-mouse game in a museum, with Angie Dickinson’s frustrated housewife being pursued by, and then pursuing, a “handsome stranger.” The sequence lasts 15 minutes and not a single word is spoken between them, and the whole thing is breathtaking.

As if that weren’t enough, De Palma stages an equally virtuoso scene just a few moments later. After Dickinson’s afternoon tryst with the man from the museum, she is attacked and killed by the transvestite murderer (to write it makes it sound even sillier than it is). Though De Palma’s films are filled with shower scenes, his true homage to Psycho’s shower scene is here, in an elevator, with Nancy Allen’s prostitute standing in for the audience as a helpless witness. Where the museum sequence used tracking shots and deep focus to explore the spaciousness of the museum, this enclosed-space scene is a montage of mostly still shots (it also contains no dialogue).

Those two scenes, and the shower scenes that bookend the film, are spectacular, but the film is littered with visual flourishes. Dressed to Kill contains about the most effective and non-gratutitous use of split-screens and screen within a screen that you’re likely to find in a commercial film. De Palma’s camera also plays cruel jokes on the characters in much the way Hitchcock did in his early, silent feature, Blackmail (1929). In the museum scene, Dickinson is shown looking at the paintings and seems very contemplative. She pulls what appears to be a journal out of her purse and writes. The camera peers over her shoulder to see what she’s written: “buy turkey.”

Having mastered Hitchcockian technique, De Palma then applied his trademark style to something new–a film with soul. Blow Out, a conspiracy-theory thriller that borrows heavily from both Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (as the title acknowledges), features John Travolta as Jack Terry, a sound-effects man for exploitation movies who accidentally records a sound suggesting that the Chappaquiddick-like death of a presidential candidate was not the accident it was assumed to be.

With Blow Out, the distance that De Palma had created between himself and his material all but disappears. Blow Out has a much more fluid structure than Dressed to Kill. The technical arsenal that Dressed to Kill put on display is all there–split screens, tracking shots, a great scene with a 360-degree pan–but this time it’s all put to the service of story. Blow Out is even framed by a pair of imaginary shower scenes, just like Dressed to Kill. But instead of a personal fantasies, these shower scenes are public ones – scenes from Coed Frenzy, a movie that Jack is working on. Blow Out begins with Jack’s director asking for a better scream than the actress on the screen is providing, and, without giving too much away, it ends with Jack finding that scream.

That scream is De Palma’s cruelest joke of all. It’s so powerful in part because Jack Terry is a stand-in for De Palma himself. Like De Palma, Jack Terry is a talented film technician working in genres usually populated by hacks. And the woman that Jack meets and romances in the film is played by Nancy Allen, De Palma’s wife. Blow Out’s final scene is obviously descended from Vertigo’s stunningly masochistic conclusion, and it cuts every bit as deep. Blow Out’s finale is a gaze into the abyss. It’s not surprising that De Palma’s films haven’t been the same since.

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