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Thrills That Kill: 3 Brian de Palma Films

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Brian De Palma’s movies are frequently sorted into two categories: thrillers like Blow Out, Sisters, and Dressed to Kill and commercial films such as The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, and Scarface. While I would say I am a devotee of his more independent productions, there is something in his portfolio for everyone. His films skirt the edges of exploitation and art, and I love that he isn’t shy about his obsessions, with his trademark colored lighting and split-screens. With The Frida just having its three-hour DePalm-a-Thon this past weekend – featuring secret movies known only to those who were there – it made sense for me to share a list of my favorite De Palma films!

Phantom Of The ParadisePhantom of the Paradise (1974)

As someone who was once a 13-year-old girl, I love The Phantom of the Opera. But my favorite adaptation isn’t the famed three-decade-long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but the glitzy, trashy, Roger Corman-esque Phantom of the Paradise. I find it an uproarious send-up of rock music, and I loved how De Palma translated the story into a satire of the commercialization of art. For the uninitiated, Phantom of the Paradise follows a naive but gifted musician, Winslow Leech (William Finney), whose music is stolen by the evil Swan, a music producer (played by Paul Williams, incidentally also the songwriter for the film), and transforms into the vengeful Phantom of the Paradise as he tries to protect Swan’s newest diva, Phoenix (Jessica Harper), from his corrupt clutches. Even though the film blends Gaston LeRoux’s novel with elements of Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray, I think it’s one of the best retellings, maybe because I’m so tired of seeing movies where they don’t do anything new with the source material, and while a lot can be said about Paradise, you can’t say they didn’t do anything new.

De Palma is able to pack so much into this movie in just 90 minutes while still cutting to the chase in his trademark breakneck, unpredictable style. I never find myself distracted from its message of the hollowness of popular music. The movie received criticism at the time it was released, mostly focused on how its humor was too referential and didn’t provide anything transformative to the parody genre. However, I feel like what might be a simple story on the surface is elevated because of the performances in it, Finney’s expressive, astonishing faces, the campiness of Williams’ Swan, the soundtrack, as well as De Palma’s signature techniques. It is a film defined by its cast, not just its director. It is intentionally cartoonish, but with the expressionistic horror of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

CarrieCarrie (1976)

A haunting, quintessential tale of teen angst, Carrie shows troubled, sheltered high schooler Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) discovering her telekinetic abilities, which comes to a dramatic climax at the school dance after a cruel prank. Who can say they haven’t felt like Carrie at some point, identified with her struggle? Maybe part of the thought experiment of the movie is the idea that even people who have been the bullies recognize themselves in her, everyone has felt like an outcast, and no one pictures themself as the bad guy. Carrie represents a dilemma: if things had gone differently, could she have been the hero?

TikTok has widely popularized the expression “Good for Her” in terms of movies, especially with horror that focuses on women, but I often feel like it’s misguided. For example, I think it is a fundamental misunderstanding of Midsommar to say that somehow Dani won. In the same way, Carrie doesn’t get a happy ending, I don’t find myself happy for her, and I credit De Palma’s direction for that. One thing the film does that subsequent remakes haven’t is that it shows Carrie as an unreliable source; we get to witness her snap. We see the prom from outside and inside her perspective, and we are able to see that most people are shocked and disgusted by the prank, but when we shift to Carrie’s point of view, the camera literally becomes her eyes; surrounded by laughter, everyone has betrayed her, and therefore no one can be spared. It is devastating, the silence, the slow motion, Sissy Spacek’s skeletal Lady Macbeth form descends as the iconic split screen shows the doors lock, and the fire spark to life. Even when she kills her mother, while we can all agree Margaret deserved it, it doesn’t feel like a triumph, instead you are watching Carrie realize she has lost everything. Under De Palma’s guidance, Carrie is less of a revenge film and more of a Greek tragedy.

Body DoubleBody Double (1984)

Body Double is nothing except a hedonistic love letter to Hitchcock, and I love it. It delivers on everything I want from a De Palma film: it is perverse, right down to the bone. Failed actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) agrees to house-sit for a friend and finds the ultra-modern eyesore has a surprise: a neighbor who happens to do an erotic dance in front of her window every night. But as Scully is pulled into a murder, he uncovers a conspiracy that goes deeper than he ever expected.

There are so many memorable moments in this film, my favorite being the drill scene, as Scully watches helplessly as the bloody instrument pierces through the floor. It doesn’t bother to conceal its references to Rear Window and Vertigo but has a frank graphicness I find refreshing. De Palma is clearly fascinated by pathology, and his hero Jake Scully is so twisted, but his phobias give him complexity. You can’t help but relate to him, even when he is operating at the basest level as he watches Gloria from the telescope. When you see him overcome his claustrophobia, you root for him, which is, of course, a callback to Jimmy Stewart and his fear of heights in Vertigo.

Body Double is a gritty portrayal of LA and all its ugliness in the ’80s, comparable to Chinatown, right down to the iconically awful Chemosphere Scully stays in. The film uses LA as a backdrop to enhance the themes of artificiality and authenticity in Hollywood. Jake has this fantasy of Gloria, and the irony is, of course, that this image he has of her is actually a completely different person. On the other hand, the porn star Holly Body is the opposite of this seductive, fallen angel that he has made Gloria into in his mind, when she speaks, she is a human being, assertive and in control of her body. In this same way, the city is sort of shown through a voyeuristic lens. Jake’s expectations of making it in the film industry do not align with reality, a stark contrast to the fairy tales we are sold about Tinseltown.



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