Raising Cain: Official Brian De Palma film club meeting!

by Sara Gran
Cover of "Raising Cain"

Cover of Raising Cain

Even after two watchings it’s hard to say for sure what was real and what was dreams in this Hitchcock homage (or deconstruction, for lack of a better work). As in many DePalma movies, time is disjointed and not particularly sticky, both in terms of the action and in terms of cause and effect. Clocks are everywhere here, but they confuse more than clarify; likewise childhood events (and the people who inflicted them, supposedly long gone) are front and center. Janet Maslin might have said it best: “Raising Cain is best watched as a series of overlapping scenarios that may or may not be taking place in the real world.” On the second watching, things were far more clear, but I’m not sure if that’s the point. Like my favorite V.C. Andrews novel, My Sweet Audrina, this isn’t a movie interested in plotting things out on a timeline and straightening them about. It’s about throwing a bunch of ideas, images, and obsessions into a pool and diving in.

There’s a lot in here from my favorite Hitchcocks, and some other favorites as well–Carter (John Lithgow), a child psychologist, has multiple personalities due to childhood abuse (Psycho). But in this case, the abuse was intentional–Carter’s father, the Norwegian Dr. Nix, was a child psychologist (Spellound) at an “institute for child development” (Oh, DePalma and his institutes!). Dr. Nix intentionally tortured his children into developing split personalities. Now Carter lives in the Bay Area (Vertigo), where he’s a stay at home dad in a nice suburban community (Orson Wells’ The Stranger), until–well, until all kinds of stuff happens. Carter’s father, Dr. Nix, who may or may not be dead, needs more children for his experiments, so Carter and his multiples/siblings/aspects go about taking some, which means killing their parents. Meanwhile, Carter’s wife Jenny runs into an old flame, Jack. In a long sequence that drifts in and out of dreams, hallucinations, and reality (Nightmare on Elm Street), Jenny and Jack make love in various places (or don’t), Carter catches them (or seems to), and Carter kills Jenny (or doesn’t).

The attention here is on Carter and his father–but I found myself most interested in two minor characters. The first was Carter’s own daughter, Amy. Carter has a video-camera baby-monitor set-up via which he can watch Amy, and we can watch him watching Amy. Remember, Carter was tortured by his father into developing multiple personalities, and now his father wants Amy to experiment on. Watching Carter and Amy through the video monitor is creepy and terrifying because of what could happen–but nothing really does. Carter, as far as we see him, is a great dad. And in the end, the personality that rises to the top of Carter’s psyche is the mysterious Margo–a Kali-ish kind of mother figure who will (and does) kill to protect children. What exactly did happen to Amy–did Margo and Carter protect her, or did the other personalities have their way with her?

The other character who really entranced me here was Frances Sternhagen as Dr. Lynn Waldheim (Spellbound again), a  doctor who’d worked with Carter’s father. In a beautiful long tracking shot, Dr. Waldheim explains the story of Dr. Nix to two policemen as they walk through a municipal building to the morgue, veering off into wrong turns at every chance.  I can’t say what it was about her, or her character, or the story–but somehow, in some sense, she was the lynchpin that made this all come together.

I also want to say this: for reasons I don’t understand, the near-to-final scene of John Lithgow, in an elevator, wearing a wig, a trenchcoat, and no shoes, holding up a bag of groceries to cover his face, is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why John Lithgow’s feet are so terrifying but trust me, they are.

37 Comments to “Raising Cain: Official Brian De Palma film club meeting!”

  1. Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is clearly a big influence here, too. This is one of those DePalma fantasias like Femme Fatale that barely hangs together and yet haunts my dreams, because it’s like peering directly into his id. Making this film stranger still is the fact that DePalma’s then-wife give birth to his first child during this period.

  2. I just found my grad school paper on the movie and I will spare you some of the embarrassing elements (man, did I like talking fancy!). Basically, I argued that Raising Cain was the climax of all DePalma’s past films, the riffs on Hitchcock and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (precisely, Vince!) that dominate his earlier films, then the riffs on his own riffs on them. So much so that, in the climactic scene, we get this:

    “The cross-dressed Carter, in the elevator with a trenchcoat, is an explicit reference to Elliott (Michael Caine) in Dressed to Kill — down to the fact that he has been mistaken for a psychiatrist. Moreover, the old-fashioned baby carriage is released, begging one to recall The Untouchables’ riff on Eisenstein’s Potemkin, with the baby carriage careening down the steps. The repetition functions much as Body Double’s shower scene; that is, instead of tumbling down the stairs, as we fear it will because of The Untouchables, the carriage rolls into the elevator and gets downstairs that way, perfectly safely. The anxiety and suspense are stripped away. In turn, the cross-dressed figure with the knife here does not kill the cheating wife, as in Dressed to Kill, but the one who threatens her: his own father. And the bizarrely lunging phallic sundial , which seems to exist purely to impale someone (the hotel desk clerk even shouts, “You’re going to kill somebody with that sundial!”), does not end up impaling anyone. This scene is then De Palma’s most compressed and cacophonous example of self-referentiality. Understanding the scene, in fact, almost entirely depends on knowledge of De Palma’s oeuvre, so rich is it in reflexivity.”
    Man, I was REALLY into DePalma! but Sara, you’re SO right–Spellbound for sure. I am guessing Spellbound influenced Powell too. It’s a wonderful circle within a circle within a circle. And yes, I can’t believe I didn’t see the link to VC Andrews—traditional narrative logic is so very irrelevant. These movies are playground for the unconscious and barely conscious!

  3. I have not seen “Peeping Tom” and need to, but have any of you seen “Mr. Brooks”? When I saw it in the theater, I could not remember the movie it reminded me of, but of course it was “Raising Cain.” John Lithgow is simply fearless in this movie, and I need to watch it again soon. Maybe I’ll do a “Raising Cain”/”Mr. Brooks” double feature.

  4. I like how Dr. Waldheim functions as a reminder of (and scoffing commentary on) the tracking shot, in the way she keeps threatening to derail it! It’s kind of hilarious. I also like how the movie spends 20 minutes or so sort of stuck in a groove like a scratched-up record, those dream sequences and not-dream sequences that stop the forward motion and make watching it feel like a dream where you’re trying to run but your legs are just so slow…

    • Hey Jack that’s a great point, her wandering off threatening to derail the exquisite tracking shot! “Cut!!!! We have to go again!!!” Just cost the production 15,000$. That’s super funny. And yeah there’s something so crazy about the first 5 minutes, they’re in a goddamn Volvo, he’s yammering on, it looks like shit, why did they shoot it at these stupid clumsy angles? And to commit the scene to the interior of a car is like throwing up a huge obstacle to anything interesting. Probably these things were very very much a choice and this makes me like the movie a lot more.

      • I know, the first 5-10 minutes looks really clumsy and low budget in a way I can’t quite figure out. That’s interesting about the tracking shot, I hadn’t thought of it like that. It’s also just really beautiful, I think–her walking through the halls with that wig. There’s something so grounded and real and down-to-earth about her–but at the same time she is such a Hitchcock-y character–I cant say why but she really pulls the whole thing together for me.

    • I know, that long sequence in the middle reminds me of that richard linkletter movie Waking Life, where they keep waking up from dreams to find they’re in another dream–at first it seems gimmicky and stupid but then starts to get really creepy and uncomfortable…

  5. Clair–I never saw Mr. Brooks but now I want to!
    Jack, I think that’s so true!–he’s like David Lynch in that way (capturing the way dreams “skip” and scramble) and yet exactly opposite Lynch–because it’s so much a Movie, and a comment on Movies, and a comment on his Movies, and other Movies and Movies. Postmodern to the point of delirium except with so much more joy and mayhem.

  6. Megan! You read my mind! I want to do a book about Brian De Palma, Alfred Hitchcock, Jerry Lewis, and David Lynch! Also, RAISING CAIN has Theresa and me going around the house creeping each other out by saying “I know what you’re going to do. It’s a bad thing and I’m going to tell!”

  7. Jack, we have to write that book together! I think we can do matching chapters (“he said/she agreed”)—but we have to begin and end with Jerry because everything begins (and ends) with him. And I think I want to talk about Eddie Bracken in the intro. And maybe Billy Barty.
    (you can pick whether we do the exclamation mark or not. you know my feelings on the matter.)

    (Okay, I just glommed onto your genius idea—I release it back to you, if I must!)

  8. Let’s do it for real! I have always thought that Lynch is Jerry’s only true successor as a director… something I have discussed with Jonathan Rosenbaum (politely disdainful, though he LOVES Jerry!) AND Elvis Mitchell (who scoffed, yet pointed out a new angle I had not thought of: Lynch’s/Jerry’s fear of sex). LET’S REALLY DO IT! Jack said, finishing another glass of wine.

  9. Theresa and I were watching BLOW-OUT just yesterday and I was thinking about how Jerry-like the opening gag (the amateurish scream) is… like something from THE ERRAND BOY.

  10. All four of them are all about doppelgangers, shifting or traded personae…

  11. They absolutely do! And there is something about the uneasy divide (which isn’t really a divide) between hysteria and maudlin sentiment and maudlin sentiment and genuine terror *(Hitchcock, actually, is the only cool customer among them.). The pitch is sooo intense that you never know what the tone should be, how you should feel. Laughing and screaming at the same time! And Mystery Man in Lost Highway, and Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet and Phantom of Paradise. The creeping Other whose bodies don’t even move like ours (e.g, like Jerry!). What if you took Lynch sound and laid it over a Jerry Lewis movie, or vice versa? Can you imagine!!!!

  12. I remember an interview that Charlie Rose had with Tarantino when this film came out. Tarantino being a DePalma fan felt like this was a movie that was intended to frustrate the audience. That he was tired of being known as “The Hitchcock Guy” and this was putting some nails in that coffin.

    I’m looking forward for these discussions about a director who’s films, with four or five exceptions, I’ve found never really enjoyed but find myself compelled to see with two great minds that I find myself agreeing with even when I disagree.

  13. Jesus where to start…ok I love love De Palma as much as everybody here but geez….

    first I want to concur that John in trenchcoat with wig in elevator + bag of groceries + bare feet was seriously frightening. Perhaps the only really frightening moment in this film I’d argue (except for the flashback with Jenny in hospital with lover and lover’s dying wife waking up in hotel bed, that was pretty scary too)

    I think Lolita Davidovich is brilliant in these roles, she literally looks like a animated sex doll and I think has more of a comedic flair than she’s given credit for (well she’s not given any credit)

    The opening is great and the creep out factor of the video camera on the kid is awesome.

    of course NOBODY does slo-mo like De Palma, It’s stunning, stunning, stunning, and I can’t think of anybody who’s employed it better in any film, even if we’re talking about something as compromised as RAISING CAIN. The slow motion stuff is just gorgeous. The technical quality of this film is amazing.

    He has a thing about prams too, right? Here’s the pram rolling out of the elevator….in the UNTOUCHABLES we have that excruciating and brilliant scene at the train station with the pram going down the stairs.

    But w so much respect to the past you Megan who wrote that grad school paper, I laughed out loud when the guy calls out “Hey look out for that sundial! You’re gonna kill somebody!” probably because of the specificity of the “Sundial” thing (a fucking sundial?? we’ll have to search the Hitchcock output for sundials….) and the fact that you’d only do that in a movie if you were (not clever) going to have somebody get killed with it or (only slightly more clever) have somebody not get killed with it, which actually made that weak ass scene where lover catches child / Dr. evil shoots out the sundial??? even more of a groaner cos you’re like THAT’s the payoff? But it’s gorgeous to watch her fall…I LOVE that

    The feeling I get when watching this is that De Palma is taking the piss out of himself in an angry way. Or that he and his buddies are just pissing in their pants at this hilarious film they’re making and throwing the kitchen sink at themselves and the viewer, having a ball, and they’re assuming nobody could possibly take this film seriously. Kind of his vibe in even his best films but somehow caricatured here. Lithgow’s hamminess, the (agreed it’s beautiful and technically jaw-dropping and I love Frances Sternhagen BUT) totally needless extreme camera tilt as we track though this impossibly Dr. Suess-y police station and Frances’ character “explains it all” old school style. The decision to actually REPEAT the scary cross-dressing thing (borrowing from one of his best movies which in turn was borrowed from PSYCHO etc etc)…really it’s like a big send up, made by someone who has created his own special new kind of film out of shards of other people’s work shot through his own prism/ psyche, and he wants to just rip it all apart. And I’m not 100% versed on his output after this, but isn’t this really more or less the last film De Palma made of this particular type?

    Anyhoo…there are a couple images/ setups that it seems to me have become iconic modern horror staples, those being the girl (or man) in a dress (or trenchcoat) with long hair and her face obscured (by a bag of groceries or her hair, whatever) in bare feet. I’m thinking of gross out and yet undeniably fucking scary stuff like THE RING (the Japanese version, girl-thing crawling out of the TV ala VIDEODROME) and countless Japanese and American horror films since. It’s become a big cliche but girl in the nightgown with hair in front of her face in a hallway is scary, it’s one of these images that I personally find so frightening that I’m annoyed at how effectively it nails me even in the crappiest horror movie.

    Also the moment when Lithgow is looking at the video monitor after “killing” his wife, it snaps back to the monitor of their daughter’s room and bang there’s Lolita. Scary! Boatload after boatload of contemp horror films rely totally on the video monitor scare. Of course they mash it up with the previous image as well, so you’ve got the girl with the hair on the video monitor in the hallway, or as they run out of ideas, girl crawling on the ceiling etc etc.

    So there’s some forecasting going on I think in terms of the future of scary. Otherwise RAISING CAIN strikes me as either an inside joke or a exorcism, or perhaps both…I guess the sad part is that I’m not sure if De Palma ever did get his groove back, can anybody help me on this one? That’s why I love the De Palma film club, I’m sure I’ll find out! Thanks all!

  14. Mr. Brooks would make a nice pairing with Raising Cain. Two thrillers that aren’t afraid of being lurid and ludicrous, and because of that go further than you’d expect. Laugh at them all you want, but they leave a mark.

    If any combination of Megan and/or Jack writes the DePalma/Lewis/Hitchcock/Lynch book, I will buy it.

    Speaking of Blow Out, I always associate it with Modern Romance, released the same year and also about a film industry technician. I think what Albert Brooks goes through to do his job in that movie is far more terrifying than what Travolta faces. Anyone can wrestle with a psycho killer and a conspiracy. Try making George Kennedy happy.

  15. Sorry Megan I missed that bit about the pram in your post grad paper! Ok now that’s one lofty source to be drawing from! I can’t recall tho…Potemkin?? Pram? Where and when?

  16. Nathan, In The Untouchables, De Palma does his version of Eisenstein’s famous Potemkin train steps-baby carriage scene (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euG1y0KtP_Q), so he’s doing a his riff on his own riff–brilliant!!!
    And, of course, to me, the sundial line is absolutely hilarious–it’s supposed to be. De Palma is having SO MUCH FUN with himself, his own bad rep (as a Hitchcock heister, as a misogynyst, as a shlock meister), his audience expectations. God, I love him all over agaain.

    (BTW, Modern Romance=one of my favorite scenes ever)

    • Got it! Wow I had forgotten that amazing scene in POTEMKIN. And De Palma even uses these old style prams (twice) which makes sense in THE UNTOUCHABLES but in RAISING CAIN it would more likely have been an orange nylon stappy umbrella stroller given the period….not quite as cinematic.

      I also find the daughter (and all the children in the film) ‘s behavior extremely robotic, which is interesting. You don’t feel the suspense quite so much as the kids get endangered because they’re so stiff. “Mommy, mommy”, really flat. My take at least. Vince mentions he was in fact just having a child himself…interesting

      I’ll say it again, how beautiful to watch the daughter float off that balcony in slo mo, that alone makes the film worth watching

      • Yeah, I think it’s interesting that the movie is in a way “about” the kids but they’re these non-entities. And we never know if Amy has already been involved in Cain/Nix’s “experiments.” I don’t know what to make of it.

      • Sorry Vince was not having the child: Vince sez: De Palma was having a baby at the time of making this film Sorry Vince!

  17. Vince: Blow-Out and Modern Romance would make a great double feature!

  18. Jack & Megan, will you put together a Jerry Lewis 101 for those us who are uninitiated? I don’t even know where to start!

    • Please, yes, for me too! I’ve seen the DISORDERLY ORDERLY (and how about the ’80s remake starring the rap group the Fat Boys? Anybody?)

      and of course Jerry Lewis is amazing in KING OF COMEDY (in a wayyyy totally diff turn) but I’m not well versed on Lewis’ classic stuff. Did he direct everything too??

  19. By the way, anyone have any thoughts on the whole Norweigan thing? Dr. Nix is in/from Norway and carter sings Norwiegen lullabies to his daughter–it comes up a few times.

    • My wife, who is Swedish, finds that Norwegian thing (and John’s accent) insulting cos “whenever Americans pretend to be anything northern European they sound like they’re making fun of Germans.”

    • Again my wife is Swedish so I understand the vibe up here (i’m in Stockholm now) and the attitude towards Norwegians, other Scandis tend to poke fun of them in the manner with which US citizens bust on Canadians, i.e. they’re too nice, talk funny, and are overly earnest

  20. Great discussion going on here!

    I’ve always had this idea that the entire film is a dream from which Jenny never awakens from until the very end– except De Palma (perhaps as another attempt to frustrate the audience, as Tarantino surmises) does not give us the closing shot of Jenny waking up from the dream (a shot he has already given us multiple times throughout the film).

    Let’s look at the last few seconds of RAISING CAIN: Jenny goes looking for Amy and finds her in the woods (a constant field for her nightmares throughout). As she bends down to pick Amy up, we see Margot standing behind her and Donaggio’s music pays homage to the music he used at the end of De Palma’s CARRIE and at the end of De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL. In each of those earlier films, De Palma showed the dreamer waking up– in RAISING CAIN, he has already established the idea that Jenny keeps on “waking up,” and so leaves the audience to fill in the joke here.

    If Jenny is dreaming the entire film, this may explain why the visual style so often apes the way soap operas are shot (re: what some above have called the clumsy opening sequence). Perhaps Jenny is not a doctor at all in real life (but sees many women doctors on her daily soap opera), and stays at home while Dr. Nix works all day. Her dream-life affair is with a typical sort of soap-opera hunk, who may or may not be a figure from her waking life. This is perhaps why the sun-dial threat leads to a happy ending– Jenny’s soap opera hunk is the hero who catches Amy, and now they can be a family together. (But then Jack had to bring the bunny for Amy in the final sequence– undoubtedly, symbolically speaking, the same bunny discarded by Nancy Allen and picked up by a little girl at the end of HOME MOVIES.)

    Soap opera has popped up in De Palma’s cinema since at least MURDER A LA MOD in 1967, part of which is seen through the eyes of a woman who sees life as a soap opera. In Hi, MOM!, Jennifer Salt’s character discusses the cancelation of PEYTON PLACE. In CARRIE, Margaret White interrupts Sue’s mom, who is enjoying her soap opera with a drink in the middle of the afternoon.

    Aside from all of that, another interesting thing to note about the last shot of RAISING CAIN is the way it matches (or echoes) and turns the tables on a shot from the first part of the film, when Cain (posing as Carter) is putting Amy in her bed and is startled by Jenny’s sudden appearance right behind him.

    One more pram of note in De Palma’s cinema: the body of Elizabeth Short is found by a woman pushing a pram in THE BLACK DAHLIA.

    • Interesting ideas Geoff, thanks! The whole soap opera thing went right over my head, such an interesting reference–that whole hospital sequence WAS really soap-opera-y. Also in the end of Body Double there’s this implication that the main protag was dreaming, and it’s unclear what was real and what wasn’t. And the music, yes–so bernard-Hermann-inspired, I meant to mention that in my post.

      Your site looks really interesting so I’m going to post it here for any fans who want to check it out: http://www.angelfire.com/de/palma/blog/. I’ll add link in our links, as well.

    • Hey thanks Geoff! I love the soap opera vibe you point out…and yup as a music guy myself I dig what’s going on musically, the short end shocker being the most present bit of music, the opening stuff is fantastic as well

      Ok that’s three prams thus far! Club, let’s stay alert for prams moving forward…

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