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Looking Back: Raising Cain (1992)

For some people, bad break-ups are followed by a re-bound relationship. In the case of Brian De Palma, his disastrous relationship with Tom Wolfe led him to making “Raising Cain.” Specifically, De Palma’s 1990 helming of Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” was such a notorious, widely reported and despised flop, it resulted in a step backward. To go with the rebound metaphor, De Palma momentarily walked away from “mature” material and went for someone younger: himself. “Raising Cain” arrived two years later, sporting a notably small budget and demonstrated the kind of directorial go-for-broke and finesse that De Palma had displayed in earlier thrillers, such as “Sisters” and “Carrie.” It also reminded his naysayers just how much De Palma owed to Alfred Hitchcock in terms of his style and approach to filmmaking. Yet, to give De Palma the break he belatedly deserves, why chastise him for doing what he does best? The most popular works from Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen show them comfortable exploring their well established themes in their respective creative sandboxes. Why should De Palma be any different?

John Lithgow stars as Dr. Carter Nix, a much liked father and husband to Jenny (Lolita Davidovich). We learn quickly that Nix has a twin brother named Cain (also played by Lithgow) who recently escaped from prison and is a snarky monster. There’s also Nix’s father (again, Lithgow), who is supposedly dead but has been making appearances and conceals an unsettling past. With children disappearing from playgrounds and the sudden reappearance of Jenny’s former lover (Steve Bauer), it seems something sinister is up and only Nix knows all the angles. Another way of putting it is on the film’s cheeky movie poster tag line: “When Jenny cheated on her husband, he didn’t just leave…he split.”

Early on, we see Carter using chloroform to sedate an unruly mother. De Palma’s screenplay is so intentionally disorienting, it’s as if he were giving his audiences chloroform doses as well. “Raising Cain” is a tight, nutty and cruel thriller with a fiendish sense of humor. Like De Palma’s underrated “Femme Fatale” and “Passion,” it plays like a late-career medley of De Palma’s greatest hits.

Lithgow is astonishing. This isn’t “over the top” or hammy acting but a brilliant, theatrically trained actor’s embodiment of five different individuals. It’s a gift to watch Lithgow give five different performances in one movie, each with different approaches and layers of subtext. Davidovich and Bauer are good in roles that play like plot devices, though Frances Sternhagen is strong as a pivotal witness to Nix’s legacy.

I’m heading into spoiler territory, so please skip this paragraph if you’ve never seen “Raising Cain.” Considering how De Palma is utilizing so many of the story elements from “Psycho” (there’s even a motel in the overdone but gripping climax), you’d think he’d update the material. We’re supposed to be surprised to discover that Cain only exists in Carter’s head but really, it’s obvious from the start. Cain appears only in odd moments, is only seen by Carter and his father and comes across more like an apparition than a human being. It would have been a surprise if Cain were real. In fact, here’s another idea: There’s a scene near the end where Cain sits atop a file cabinet and taunts Carter. Whereas Carter is shot from a low angle, Cain not only looks like a leather jacket-attired gargoyle but sports a striking shadow. Considering how the character is supposedly in Carter’s head, the appearance of a shadow made me wonder if De Palma missed out on a golden opportunity: wouldn’t it have been a whopper of a twist had Cain been real and Dr. Carter Nix was imaginary?

The point here is the blood curdling suggestion that the biggest monsters lurking in our kids playgrounds aren’t strangers but the parents. The final scene, which is both truly scary and pretty outrageous, has such a dream-like texture, it’s enough to consider that De Palma is commenting on how films can often feel like dreams…or nightmares.

Watching this movie as the father of a little girl is a very different experience than when I first saw the film. In the 90’s, I was drawn to “Raising Cain” by De Palma’s dazzling filmmaking and Lithgow’s tour de force work. Now, while the film is still impressive, the tale of a child snatching psycho, whose work is dedicated to psychologically harming children, made me uneasy. Yet, the disturbing premise is treated in such a weird, sometimes silly way, the thick layer of style dilutes how sick the premise is. In the same way Quentin Tarantino’s films demonstrate a loopy, hipster detachment from the carnage, De Palma is genuinely having fun with ghastly material.

“Raising Cain” lasted briefly in theaters during its late summer of ’92 run and was mostly dismissed by audiences and critics. It a wonder why, since it’s such a lively, twisted entertainment. In a year flush with thrillers, only Paul Verhoeven’s flamboyant, controversial “Dressed to Kill” rip-off, “Basic Instinct,” is more outrageous than “Raising Cain” (though it’s fun to watch Verhoeven doing De Palma doing Hitchcock).

The film is genuinely nasty but, unlike De Palma’s most controversial works, not explicitly violent. Unlike “Body Double,” the story and characters are involving and not merely set dressing for De Palma’s intricately choreographed set pieces. Sure, “Raising Cain” is an ode to Hitchcock and “Psycho” but here’s the thing- Hitchcock would have loved this movie.

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