When most people hear the phrase "body snatcher" they think of the 1956 science fiction classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel and starring Kevin McCarthy, from Jack Finney's novel. There is, however, another movie a good 10 years prior which also bears the phrase "body snatcher," and it's based on a short story by the venerable Robert Louis Stevenson. Released in 1945 from the production company of the mighty Val Lewton, The Body Snatcher remains one of Boris Karloff's best movies, although, unfortunately, not nearly as famous as his Frankenstein films. Although it's not really fair to compare anything to his three Frankenstein movies, is it? It's also one of a handful of films that paired him with Bela Lugosi. It was released on DVD only in 2005, as part of the Val Lewton Horror Collection. Damn is that thing worth owning.
Dressed to Kill is a lurid and self-conscious thriller, director Brian DePalma's 1980 riff on even more Hitchcock tropes, dressed up as high art. Mostly vulgarizing Hitchcock for the excessive style-over-substance cocaine '80s, you can sense the sleaze dripping off every frame, and not in an appreciatively over-the-top manner but in a let-me-rub-your-face-in-filth way. It has more in common with the Italian thrillers known as giallos, as it's more concerned with formal, stylized cinematic tricks than story, character, human insight or motivation. As for the plot, cf. Psycho.
I certainly have no problem with sleaze or exploitation, etc., but when it's made by a major director (at least he was when he made this) I expect a little more finesse, substance, and irony rather than just amping up a then-20-year-old Hitchcock movie. At times it's a fun sleazy thriller, fizzy and intriguing at first, but it goes flat fast as the cheesy Herrmann ripoff score blows on and on, the silly twists, lots of sexual violence, and at the very end, when DePalma rips off his own Carrie.
"It's just so dirty," says perky prostitute Nancy Allen to psychiatrist Michael Caine. What is Allen talking about? An unexpectedly satisfying afternoon with a john? A sexual fantasy, something she thinks will arouse Caine? A blue movie she saw in Times Square? No, she's talking about a dream she's had - although she's making it up - about being raped with a straight razor.
Dude, what? Razor rape is not something I think of as "dirty." Okay, DePalma, what the hell? You wrote the screenplay, those are your words...
Some very good scenes transcend the pulpiness, of course, which is what gives this movie at least somewhat of a reputation three decades later.What are these enjoyable, brilliantly-crafted sequences? DePalma's use of split screen, and even split/split screen, is engaging, which he stretches nearly to the point of distraction, and then switches back to a single point-of-view. Voyeurism - I get it!I'm thinking of the now-famous art museum chase/seduction, or when Caine and Allen are in their respective homes and we learn about their lives and interests. There's a nice bit when the anticipation of a telephone ringing would shatter our nerves. The murder of Angie Dickinson's character, and then Allen's discovery of it, is terrifically, terrifyingly, framed.
But it's nearly indescribable how poorly this movie has aged. Misogyny, racism, gender identity politics: how could DePalma have gotten everything so wrong? Even insane asylum inmates come off poorly! It's not so much that he deals with these things - Taxi Driver certainly does - it's that you can't tell if he's serious or just smirky. The movie is smooth and assured but it's (mostly) a polished turd. So much of the movie is couched in dream and fantasy so DePalma can have his cake and eat it too, like those biblical epics of decades that past that promised the walls of Jericho would come down, but not before lots of Israelite ladies showed some skin. Every woman must pay in this uptown slasher flick.
I think DePalma was just clueless about his lack of taste and just going through stylistic motions, and inadvertently created a noxious stew of outrageous and ugly prejudices. Rape fantasies have particularly disappeared from pop art because they're just so... wrong. There's practically no way they can be presented as artistic or insightful before you gross out most of your audience. Tastes have obviously changed, so this could be a tough movie to revisit unless you're a fan of the incongruity of what was once considered acceptable entertainment but which now tastes like, well, a polished turd.
I am usually underwhelmed by Brian DePalma's movies. He's a stylist who wears his influences - his influence, as in Hitchcock and Hitchcock only - on his sleeve. I've enjoyed Sisters, Carrie, The Untouchables, and Carlito's Way, but schlock like Scarface, Raising Cain, and The Black Dahlia are some of the worst movies I've ever seen by a major director. Too often they rely simply on their relationship to another picture; in this case, Obsession'sis Vertigo (1958). But in 1976, long before Hitchcock's film had achieved its status as perhaps his greatest film (or just about the greatest film), not everyone pored over films at home like they can do today. You could get away with this kind of thing back then. I watched Vertigo last year and quite often watch moments of it when it's on cable; people seeing Obsession in '76 probably hadn't seen it in over 15 years. I felt like I was watching a watered-down version of Hitch's movie, not a film that existed independently.
This probably contributes to why it is one of DePalma's least-seen works.The DVD is out of print and it's not available from Netflix. Turner Classic Movies showed Obsession recently, as part of their celebration of composer Bernard Herrmann. Good timing, too, because I'd been rereading Schrader on Schrader and learned Paul Schrader and DePalma had watched Vertigo together and decided to an homage/remake of it. This was before Schrader gained Hollywood ascendancy with Taxi Driver. However the script was rewritten and changed so much that Paul Schrader dropped out of the project.
After his wife and daughter are killed in a kidnapping and ransom attempt that goes horribly wrong, Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) remains a grieving widower, although a successful New Orleans businessman. Fifteen years after the event that gutted his life, he finds himself in Italy near the church in which he and his wife had met. He is drawn to it and wanders inside, only to find the his long-dead wife's doppelganger, Italian art student Sandra Portinari (Genevieve Bujold). They begin a tentative romance and Courtland brings Sandra back to the States. Now he sets out to remake her in the image of his dead wife. John Lithgow, a smarmy Southerner, is Robertson's business partner and views this newfound fascination as alarming...
The Oscar-nominated score by Herrmann (someone Hitch used, of course, numerous times), is busy and intrusive; it plays for virtually the entire movie and rather than accentuating scenes, it overpowers them. Herrmann is one of cinema's greatest composers and it's always a delight to hear his work but in Obsession it only makes you think of Vertigo. DePalma's skills are used to good effect in an inventive sequence near the end in which Bujold relives a childhood trauma that brings the movie full circle. The less said about the climactic fight scene between Lithgow and Robertson the better. "Should we preserve the original or destroy it?" Genevieve Bujold says when Cliff Robertson meets her restoring a painting in the old Italian cathedral. Behind this painting lies another; the artist deemed it unworthy and painted over it. That's the heart of the movie, of course, both for Robertson's character and for DePalma's work in general. A fine question it is, but I never connected with Obsession, never felt Robertson was in the grip of mania like Jimmy Stewart's Scottie conveyed in Vertigo. All of Herrmann's lush, manic, swirling strings, DePalma's feverish camera work, and editor Paul Hirsch's rippling dream effects (to lessen the ultimate implications of the plot twist) can't make this movie rise above a mildly interesting, decidedly minor '70s thriller. This one is for completists of any of the filmmakers or actors mentioned, for fans of Herrmann, or that wonderful '70s era. I'll take Sisters or Carrie any day over Obsession.