Raising Cain isn’t one of Brian De Palma’s best films but boasts moments of absurd brilliance indicative of one of Hollywood’s great filmmaking stylists. A flawed but curiously twisted treat.
Brian De Palma has made some great films. Raising Cain isn’t one of them. However, it has become a cult curiosity, a film lavished with a sentimental kind of love by De Palma aficionados if not genuine praise. That might be because it has the distinction of being the only film ever made that becomes watchable – entertaining, suspenseful and genuinely funny – on second viewing. Initially, Raising Cain is a messy, confusing affair with artificial melodramatics and awkward tonal shifts. It’s only after its intricate surprises and plot twists have been revealed that you can go back and actually appreciate its mini triumphs. It has plenty of good points, even if it takes another go around to actually see them.
Raising Cain can at least claim to offer a far more enjoyable couple of hours than the film De Palma preceded it with (The Bonfire of the Vanities) despite it not allaying fears the writer-director was past his best. In what can be described as another unashamed homage to his icon Hitchcock, this 1992 thriller sees John Lithgow’s Carter battle a split personality disorder that appears to cause him to kidnap children for his crazed, megalomaniacal father’s psychological experiments with his twisted, chain-smoking “twin” brother pulling the strings.
Perhaps De Palma was in an indulgent mood but Raising Cain’s principle premise has shaky foundations that, while allowing for some notable dramatic turns, don’t stand up to scrutiny. It feels rushed and unloved, a bit like some of the obscure camera angles and lighting that differentiate Carter’s “multiples” but end up feeling like a production line of the director’s favourite extravagances. A similar problem can be found with the film’s plotting, De Palma frequently losing his audience because of implausible character development and improbable motivation. Some scenes are so bad they’re unintentionally funny (notably a sequence when Carter’s wife – a doctor – begins an affair with the husband of a patient while standing over said-patient’s death bed).
It’s these problems that are most glaring on first viewing. And they’re unfortunately damning. But go back, with the knowledge where De Palma’s taking you and suddenly you’ll forget the film’s trashy construction and energy-sapping soap opera and see Raising Cain’s delightful treats. Like John Lithgow’s multi-personality performance that’s best evidenced by Carter’s sadistic “twin” Cain who coaxes the comparatively timid Carter into finding the children for their father’s pet project. Lithgow’s ordinariness lends itself to the role, making the different shades of his split personality tangible depictions of good and evil as well as a psychologically twisted grey area in between.
And when De Palma gets it right, Raising Cain can, momentarily, rank alongside his best work. There’s a brilliant single take following Frances Sternhagen’s Dr Lynn Waldheim through a police station to its basement autopsy room. Along with the director’s wonderful composition, including a neat angled turn that follows the characters diagonally down some stairs, the expositional sequence bears the qualities of a campfire story as Waldheim relays her experiences of terrible historical experiments carried out on children by Carter’s father. The scene also boasts an amusing running gag as the wayward old Doc wanders off and needs to be ushered in the right direction by a pair of detectives engrossed in her story.
The final third is classic De Palma. It’s a twisty concoction of visual grandstanding, operatice melodrama and plot diversions to the tune of Pino Donaggio’s big, bold score. Raising Cain can even boast a concluding scene nearly as shocking and memorable as De Palma’s great dead-hand-rising finale in Carrie. For some, the film’s flaws may have already damned it but give Raising Cain a chance and you’ll realise this strangely entertaining oddity is a curiously lovable treat.
Written by Dan Stephens
Top 10 Films reviewed Raising Cain courtesy of Arrow Video which released the film on dual format DVD/Bluray January 30, 2017. Boasting one of the distributor’s best pieces of cover art, a darkly cartoonish representation of a young child being stalked by several assailants in woodland, the release also enjoys some great additional features including brand new interviews with star John Lithgow and composer Pino Donaggio