Compared to 2022, where he’s consigned to scrape together the occasional film project with unreliable investors, Brian De Palma was riding high in summer 1992. He was also arguably at what was then a career low point. His previous project was The Bonfire of the Vanities, a big-budget, star-studded adaptation of a beloved novel that quickly turned into a new shorthand for notorious flops. Before that, he made Casualties of War, a better-reviewed but not especially successful Vietnam War picture that was overshadowed by Vietnam projects from his old Scarface screenwriter Oliver Stone. It had been a while since De Palma had made one of his signature Hitchcockian thrillers; his last one, at this point, was Body Double, eight years prior. So in the summer of 1992, De Palma returned to screens with Raising Cain, and accidentally established a new tradition: The once-a-decade straight-shot of palate-cleansing De Palma madness, to be revisited in 2002 and 2012 (though sadly not, so far, in 2022). It was, as the poster for Raising Cain concisely advertised it, a full course: “De Mented. De Ranged. De Ceptive. De Palma.”
Raising Cain is about a man murdering moms and kidnapping their babies in order to experiment on them. There is no getting around this, although so much of the movie occupies the headspace of Carter Nix (John Lithgow) that it might be hard to tell at first. Carter is a seemingly mild-mannered but easily agitated suburban husband and father who harbors a secret cadre of additional personalities, teased out by his abusive scientist father. These personalities work together to gather children for a continuing and ethically reprehensible study of trauma—which puts Carter in a tight spot as bodies start turning up. You may gather that none of this leaves him well-equipped to process the infidelity of his wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), which provides him with both a catalyst for further madness and (briefly) a convenient patsy for his murders. Are these plot twists that I’m revealing? It’s hard to say about a movie that is virtually all twist and no plot.
Plot is not the point of many De Palma pictures, and it’s especially not the point of these once-a-decade palate-cleansers. Raising Cain is very much the sight of a filmmaker joyfully freeing himself from the shackles of respectability. Even De Palma’s signature Hitchcock obsession gets weirder than usual. There are Hitch riffs galore in Raising Cain, especially related to Psycho: Multiple personalities; a killer with a nerdy affect; the car with a victim in its trunk, stopping short of sinking as far into a pond as a watching killer would prefer.
What makes the references so strange and specific here is how De Palma almost seems to want to make an entire movie based on the infamous Psycho ending, where a doctor arrives to deliver a torrent of exposition about the Psychology of Norman Bates—followed by a shot of Bates’ face, briefly superimposed with his mother’s corpse. (Notably, the final shot goes beyond this chilling image to show the pesky car being exhumed from the swamp, meaning that its homage in Cain also calls back to the last few minutes of Psycho, in an oblique sort of way.) Cain doesn’t save this exposition for its ending; the whole movie is knowingly lousy with it, whether it’s Carter explaining his father’s work to a friend/fellow parent/victim in an early scene, or the hilariously long and winding single-take walk-and-talk through a police station—where a woman who co-wrote a book with Carter’s father lays out his whole deal to a couple of cops—en route to the unveiling of a horrifying, horrified corpse.
De Palma’s films sometimes feel as if they’re alternating setpieces with exposition (a pattern not too far off from a lot of modern blockbusters, albeit executed less gracefully). Raising Cain makes gonzo attempts to flow those elements together into a single stream of consciousness. The movie has so many shock-dreams, fake-outs, flashbacks and conversations between multiple Lithgows that it feels like it’s in a constant state of fevered explanation. There’s even a director’s cut—first assembled by a fan, based on De Palma’s original script, then approved by the filmmaker for release on Blu-ray—that re-orders much of the action, and while it builds nominally better (it leads with Jenny’s affair, rather than Carter’s murders), the net difference isn’t especially revelatory. It’s a funhouse nightmare forwards and backwards.
De Palma had done feature-length dream-logic freakouts before Raising Cain. But what separates Cain from Dressed to Kill or Body Double, besides a number of years spent on non-thrillers for big studios, is how much it feels like a valve being turned on, releasing his pent-up indulgences. Its predecessor, The Bonfire of the Vanities, offers the awkward spectacle of De Palma occasionally applying virtuoso technique to material that’s at once grotesque and defanged—a limping monster of a seriocomic adaptation, where the serious performances don’t fit and the comic notes are held long and loud. Despite his experience working with big stars (The Untouchables), big budgets (Scarface), novel adaptations (Carrie) and dark comedy (take your pick), De Palma feels out of his element in Bonfire. He engineers a thrilling single-take opening scene featuring a drunken Bruce Willis, with screwball timing applied to dirtbag flair, and it barely feels connected to anything else in the movie. Even at its choppiest, in the original theatrical cut, Raising Cain feels all of a piece.
The pattern would repeat, under different circumstances, ten years later with Femme Fatale in 2002, and then ten years after that with Passion in 2012 (not released commercially until 2013, but surely the 2012 New York Film Festival audience that cheered in delight for Passion was as good as it was going to get for that movie). Femme Fatale, which turns 20 this autumn, is best of De Palma’s palate-cleansing trilogy, embracing dream logic to such a degree that it actually tightens the movie up, and enriches De Palma’s obsession with watching others and ourselves, processing events through a camera. (No accident that the opening shot is Rebecca Romijn’s character reflected in a TV screen as she watches Double Indemnity.) Meanwhile, Snake Eyes and Mission to Mars, the De Palma movies that preceded Femme Fatale, only have brilliant passages, fighting against the invisible restraints of big-studio moviemaking.
It’s unlikely that De Palma designed (or De Signed?) these three movies as neatly separated once-a-decade events, but in retrospect it makes them each look like an “erotic thriller” (the designation often applied to De Palma’s thrillers, and even moreso to their imitators) grown progressively more tangled and less recognizable. On paper, Raising Cain looks vaguely in step with other summer 1992 thrillers like Single White Female or Unlawful Entry, where domestic space is violated by an interloper in disguise. Cain is ultimately less reassuring: The threat comes from inside the family, and the disguise becomes literal, with the movie ending on Lithgow popping up from nowhere in drag as one of his character’s alternate personalities. Further down the line, the drift away from sexuality in American cinema is visible when setting Femme Fatale against more popular 2002 thrillers like Panic Room or Enough. (Unfaithful is the exception that proves the rule: A sex-saturated hit that was director Adrian Lyne’s last movie until earlier this year!)
By the time De Palma got to Passion in 2012, this style of movie had fallen so out of fashion that the opening section feels particularly stilted, despite the presence of Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace. Passion is its own hoot, replete with split-screens, knowing references to twins and opportunities for McAdams and Rapace to uncork—and looked positively alien in its day. None of these movies got especially sterling reviews when they were released; all of them look more comfortable next to each other. Cain and Fatale even share a particularly memorable image of a figure materializing behind a character, as well as a pet phrase (“cat’s in the bag”) and the threat of impalement by truck.
Notably, Raising Cain is the only movie in the palate-cleansing trilogy to be followed up by more mainstream triumphs: Next up for De Palma was Carlito’s Way, one of his best movies (by his own estimation, too), and Mission: Impossible, one of his biggest hits. These movies aren’t necessarily better, or, for that matter, less De Palma (Mission: Impossible and Raising Cain both open on surveillance video). But the ability to make a successful and satisfying movie in the studio system can be fleeting in the best of circumstances, and De Palma’s later-period genre workouts really do feel like he’s working something out. Femme Fatale may be the purest expression of De Palma’s sensibility; Raising Cain may be his purest exorcism.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.