Synopsis: Although she is married to Carter (John Lithgow), who her friend claims is the perfect husband, Jenny (Lolita Davidovitch) is stuck in a place she does not want to be. Hubby is taking a year off from his practice to help raise their bright young child, sure, but he is turning a little different. Cold, distant, a bit off . . . So, when old flame Jack (Steven Bauer) shows up, she finds herself longing for a little of that old spark. They have an affair and she soon learns that the perfect husband is anything but perfect. He is in league with his twin brother Cain (John Lithgow) to perform a series of unspeakable murders and kidnappings centered on a local children’s park for their father Dr. Nix (John Lithgow). Writer/Director Brian De Palma’s twisty thriller Raising Cain (1992) tackles captive children, broken psyches and one of the sickest psychos this side of, well, Psycho (1960).
Raising Cain was the first Brian De Palma movie I can recall seeing in theaters, and it was memorable for being an experience I did not particularly enjoy. I rather loved John Lithgow’s performance in the feature—he is a powerful actor who place menace and innocence in believable ways. I have enjoyed his work since seeing him glowering and growling through that oddball feature The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension way back in 1984. A unique and talented actor.
At the time Raising Cain saw release, Brian De Palma still shone bright in my mind as the man ultimately responsible for one of my favorite crime films from the ’80s, The Untouchables (1987). I was geeked to see Cain because it sounded right up my alley. What I got was . . . well, a compromised vision. Of course, I did not know that at the time. All I knew was that the movie gave away its secret near the start and then rambled around in ways I didn’t really grok for an hour and a half and ended up leaving me puzzled, frustrated and hating the thing. Over the years, I revisited the thing and found it less frustrating but still overflowing with choices I just did not understand. De Palma’s career has had movies that really work for me (in addition to The Untouchables, 2002’s Femme Fatale and 1981’s Blow Out). A few films brought me a strange thrill but also make me want to brush my teeth (1984’s Body Double, 1980’s Dressed to Kill, and 1983’s Scarface come to mind). A few flicks left me utterly cold. Later, I came to learn Raising Cain had a troubled history with test audiences and ended up being completely recut.
For the Shout Factory Blu-ray release, the company released a double disc edition that included both the theatrical release as well as a director’s cut of the film. The latter restored the feature’s scenes to the sequence they appeared in the original screenplay. The result is not only a testament to the power of editing—these are the same damned scenes but shuffled into what I consider a more approachable and engaging narrative—but to De Palma’s eye for scenes. The man has an unparalleled understanding of how to best use cinema to manipulate his audience, how to stage some exceptional set pieces, and how to build a narrative that disorients and sets up his audience for a few major kablooey moments. The director’s cut of the film opens slowly, builds to a shocking moment, backs up in time to show us another character’s side of the story hinted at during the opening sequences, and then carries on toward a memorable climax and conclusion. Such playing around with time would be better received only a year or two later with Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). At the time, test audiences could not parse what was happening when and why. I guess they were not a well-read crowd, since this sort of storytelling has been employed through novels aplenty in the crime fiction field since, oh, the 1930s. Maybe even before that. But I digress.
For the director’s cut, the film opens with Jenny’s story, giving us a sympathetic view of her character. She is a frustrated housefrau, and we can wholly understand why. Her hubby is having a weird crisis and she has no idea what he’s really experiencing or why. Of course, she has her own crisis, which builds to an incredibly sexy and dreamy encounter with the one who got away. We eventually learn that she has never really gotten to know her hubby when he lashes out at her with unexpected violence. The moment is a powerful shock, throwing a monkey wrench into the languid, dreamy pacing thus far. Sure, we’ve had a couple of dream sequences forecasting the impending violence—a nightmare involving a car wreck and a poorly positioned knight’s lance is charged with erotic and horrific implications—but the moment is not telegraphed. For such a nice seeming schlub to turn so coldhearted quite so quickly is unexpected. The narrative twists then, showing us why Carter has done what he does, and then his story catches up to the moment where things broke and the plot carries onward through shocks and lovely horror . . .
There is a delightful black humor to the calculations and casual cruelties in this feature. Much of this comes from Lithgow’s spirited performances, particularly as the bad boy brother Cain. However, some visual tricks and audio tricks offer plenty of fun little moments, as well. Of course, De Palma’s spiritual mentor was no stranger to black humor (often of the droll variety) even in his most gripping thrillers and horrors.
I will not be making any shocking statements when I say how much Brian De Palma has learned from Alfred Hitchcock. This movie echoes some of Psycho‘s plot beats and mirrors a few of that film’s shots—Cain pushing a car into a watery grave mimics Norman Bates’ favorite disposal place for the evidence of his crimes. Heck, there’s even a psychological expert giving us the facts behind some of the psychological issues at the heart of the horror here, as in Psycho, though this time the information is given during a lengthy tracking shot that echoes some of the work Hitch performed with Rope (1948). De Palma wears his influences on his sleeve, and while some might argue he is bringing nothing new to the things Hitch was doing sixty or more years ago, I would argue that De Palma’s gift is one of stylish image making. Sure, the plot points are perhaps familiar—and those owe as much to Robert Bloch’s fiction as they do to Hitch’s masterpiece. Sure, the visuals sometimes homage the various influences a little too closely. However, the film as a whole delivers some extraordinary images and a powerhouse performance from Lithgow, who plays no less than five different characters. It is homage and not rip off because while these elements refer to other (and arguably better) films, there is still something De Palma-esque here. Shots and subject matters the old master would not have touched with a ten-foot pole.
Whereas the theatrical version of the film is a bit of a weird mess, the director’s cut is an exceptional bit of psychological horror. I never thought Raising Cain would rank high in my estimation of the director’s oeuvre—it seemed to be nothing more than an interesting opportunity made into an uninteresting release. However, this cut leads me to reevaluate the film. Not the weird experience I recall, Raising Cain is a little gem, imperfect perhaps and maybe a little too devoted to its influences for its own good, but an engaging, powerful story well told.
Raising Cain is available in the DVD, Blu-ray and streaming editions. The Director’s Cut is only available on Blu-ray and streaming editions. I think we ought to give a standing ovation to Shout Factory for this release. It really does demonstrate all the good and bad qualities of a film’s post-production lifecycle. Students of film could learn a lot here.
Next week, we leave Psycho and its many sequels and influences behind for a chance to explore another topic altogether. As we roll into July and the promise of fireworks fills the American imagination, let’s take a gander at some women filmmakers. Next week, we will kick off a brief stint of two movie reviews a week, as well. One review centers on Dead Hooker in a Trunk, the first feature from the Soska Sisters. It is available in DVD, Blu-ray or streaming editions. The other review tackles another grindhouse informed flick, 1990’s Blood Games, available in Blu-ray and streaming editions.
“Movie Mondays: Raising Cain” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and still image taken from IMDB.
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