When I was in college, it seemed like one out of every one other person I knew had a poster of Scarface in their dorm room or apartment. I saw it; it ain’t all that. That was the beginning of my watching films by Brian De Palma and not really liking them. All he did was ripoff Alfred Hitchcock! However, with filmmakers of a singular point of view, someone like a David Lynch or a Stanley Kubrick for example, sometimes you need a little extra time to marinate. Not all of De Palma’s movies are good, but 1992’s Raising Cain is one of them that’s mostly good.
I feel like, much like Lynch, Brian De Palma is at his best when he’s given close to free reign. He’d had enough successes by the early ’90s that he could make the kinds of movies he wanted without much hindrance. Raising Cain is a twisty, creepy, rather confusing psychological thriller that keeps the audience engaged and guessing for the bulk of the short runtime. At times, it detours in to full-out horror and we’re left guessing what sort of movie we’re watching. It’s schlocky to its very core.
John Lithgow plays Dr. Carter Nix, an irritatingly nice child psychologist who has an almost unhealthy interest in studying his little daughter. At the beginning of the film, the mother of another child, presumably Carter’s friend, drives them all home from the park, whereupon Carter discusses his plan for a sort of facility to study the behavioral patterns in children. He’s going to have his own daughter be a test case, and he thinks his friend will want her son to join. She’s aghast, and while the kids are sleeping in the back seat, Carter knocks her out. He’s terrified by what he’s done, and suddenly he’s joined by his “twin brother” Cain who is usually in some kind of lockup somewhere. Cain is an evil sort, telling Carter he’ll handle the woman (he kills her and dumps her body in the river).
Meanwhile, Carter’s wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), a doctor herself, begins having an affair with Jack Dante (Steven Bauer), the widower of a former patient. She plans to leave Carter for Jack, and Jenny has increasingly weird nightmares about it, and about Carter finding out. Carter does find out, and Cain decides he needs to help his brother out, amid their spree of murdering mothers and kidnapping children for scientific study. It’s all in aid of their father, Dr. Nix (also played by Lithgow), an apparently dead and disgraced child psychologist; Carter is continuing the family legacy. Cain decides to pin all of the murders on Jack, but it’s soon evident from the police speaking to Dr. Lynn Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen), who is Dr. Nix’s former associate, that Carter isn’t who he says he is. It’s very likely he was the subject of Dr. Nix’s cruel tests, and that Cain is one of many alternate personalities that Carter was given through torturous mind studies.
If that sounds confusing, believe me, it’s meant to be. There’s also a whole section where Cain/Carter tries to kill Jenny but she doesn’t die and then comes back for revenge only to have her daughter kidnapped by Dr. Nix who may also just be an alternate personality of Carter’s. I mean, I think De Palma knew what he was doing. He does a really ingenious thing visually of having Lithgow, which ever character he’s being, talking directly to camera when he’s talking to “himself,” meaning whole conversations are had with Lithgow looking right down the barrel of the camera lens and then flipping to show Lithgow’s other character doing the same. It’s a great way to make the audience feel very uneasy, to keep costs low by never needing Lithgow in a shot with himself, and to ensure we never know who’s real and who’s just his other personality.
De Palma is known for rather extreme camera movements and exceedingly lengthy and complicated takes, and Raising Cain is no exception. There are lots of ghastly shock moments involving people’s dead bodies lying with their eyes open to a sting on the soundtrack and a zoom. There’s also a very, very long scene of exposition in which Dr. Waldheim explains to the two police detectives (Gregg Henry and Tom Bower) everything about Dr. Nix and the experiments, and about Carter’s whole mentality. But they aren’t just sitting in chairs; they’re walking from upstairs in the police building all the way down to the ground floor and then the basement in an elevator and ending up in the morgue where the scene ends with a sheet being pulled off of Cain’s first victim, with her eyes wide open. All in one take, this happens. Not to mention a finale all done in slow-motion. De Palma got real De Palma-y with this one.
Not everything about this movie works, but the stuff that does is almost totally because of John Lithgow’s performance(s). He’s totally able to change himself physically and vocally when he plays the five different characters he plays. Carter has a different way of speaking than Cain, who is markedly different from the 7-year-old personality, Josh, who’s deathly afraid of the nanny personality, Margo, who doesn’t have any dialogue but is incredibly dangerous in her own way. He’s a physical chameleon which is impressive given his height and large build. You wouldn’t think he could be that nimble, but he is.
Raising Cain is far from perfect. A good portion of the middle drags and the plot is convoluted to the point of absurdity. Still, if you like De Palma, or even think you might after seeing movies like Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, and Sisters, you might do well to watch this one. And thanks to Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray, you not only get to watch the theatrical cut, but also a “director’s cut” which places Jenny’s affair storyline at the beginning of the film where it was originally intended and most of Carter’s storyline being shown in flashback. It’s interesting to compare and contrast. Neither works perfectly, but it makes a lot of sense for a movie like this to have two fractured points of view.
Images: Universal Pictures