Raising Cain

Raising Cain
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Brian De Palma
Stars: John Lithgow (Carter / Cain / Dr. Nix), Lolita Davidovich (Jenny), Steven Bauer (Jack), Frances Sternhagen (Dr. Waldheim), Gregg Henry (Lt. Terri), Tom Bower (Sgt. Cally), Mel Harris (Sarah), Teri Austin (Karen), Gabrielle Carteris (Nan), Barton Heyman (Mack), Amanda Pombo (Amy), Kathleen Callan (Emma)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1992
Country: U.S.
Raising Cain Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray
Raising CainWarning: This review contains significant spoilers of the film’s plot. If you have not seen the film yet, proceed at your own risk.

Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain is one of the divisive director’s most divisive films. Marking a return to the Hitchcockian aesthetic that had dominated his early career (1973’s Sisters, 1976’s Obsession, 1980’s Dressed to Kill), but hadn’t been seen in any substantial form since the ill-received Body Double (1984) nearly a decade earlier, it arrived after several years of De Palma trying to expand his range, most recently with the emotionally wrenching Vietnam drama Casualties of War (1989) and the disastrous big-budget Tom Wolfe adaptation The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990). Thus, Raising Cain had all the marks of a “return to form,” which, of course, means that it was laden with expectations. And, not surprisingly, it had only a middling critical and popular reception.

That less-than-stellar reception was possibly—and most likely—compounded by De Palma’s decision to radically re-edit the film after several test screenings, changing what was intended to be a densely layered, complex temporal structure into a more-or-less conventional linear narrative. This introduced any number of problems relating to characters, the flow of the plot, and the timing of certain revelations, all of which suffered from the re-edit. One could imagine that, following the catastrophe that was The Bonfire of the Vanities, De Palma was not at his most confident, which is the only thing that could possibly explain his decision to rework the film so substantially and, ultimately, to the film’s detriment (in a 2013 interview, he cited Raising Cain as the one film he would go back and change if he could).

That issue has since been resolved, as Danish filmmaker Peet Gelderblom took it upon himself to recut the film a few years ago, returning it to its original form, a labor of love that was eventually seen and blessed by De Palma and is now getting an official release via Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray. Comparing the theatrical version with the “Director’s Cut” easily demonstrates the superiority of the latter, which is much more sinister, brooding, and engrossing; the elliptical narration, which doubles back on itself, only heightens the film’s underlying dream-to-nightmare structure. Like Dressed to Kill, it begins in wistful, almost soap-opera-like fashion with a major female character’s story before shifting perspective almost entirely to focus on a male character, a device that is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), but here plays more like De Palma riffing on De Palma. In either version the director showcases himself in more ways than one, making Raising Cain one of his most distinctly self-reflexive films and explaining to a large extent why some viewers didn’t take to it. Unless you know De Palma inside and out, it just doesn’t have the same impact.

The story concerns the strained relationship between Dr. Carter Nix (John Lithgow) and his wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich). Carter is a child psychologist who is taking time off to be with their young daughter; meanwhile, Jenny, a doctor, has recently extricated herself from an extramarital affair with Jack (Steven Bauer), a man she met at the hospital while treating his dying wife (Mel Harris). When the film opens (in the Director’s Cut), Jenny runs into Jack again and reignites the relationship, despite warnings from her friend Karen (Teri Austin) to not get involved again. After that things start getting dicey and complicated, as we begin to learn more about the family history of Carter, the seemingly benign, loving father. It turns out that his father (also played by Lithgow) was a controversial child psychologist who committed any number of ethical violations—including experimenting on his own children (shades of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom) and kidnapping others’ children—in his relentless quest for knowledge and understanding. This has resulted in both Carter and his twin brother Cain (also played by Lithgow) suffering from psychological maladies, the only difference being that the former hides it well behind his placid suburban existence while the latter wears it openly and defiantly as a cackling psychopath.

But, of course, the twin brother isn’t real—he is just an alternate personality that Carter developed (along with several others) to deal with his trauma, a plot twist that arrives late in the film, but is unfortunately not very well disguised. The manner in which De Palma shoots the conversations between Carter and Cain in deliberate shot-reverse shot fashion that keeps them visually separated hints at the eventual twist, as does his use of canted angles and distorting lenses when shooting Carter. He is visually out of step with the world Carter inhabits, and therefore it is not hard to decipher that he doesn’t exist in physical form. However, audiences for the theatrical version were even more at a disadvantage in this regard, as the film’s advertising campaign, which used an image of Lithgow’s glowering face split down the middle, with one half in positive and the other half in negative color, hinted openly at the character’s true identit(ies). And, if the poster image weren’t suggestive enough, the film’s tagline—“When Jenny cheated on her husband, he didn’t just leave ... he split.”—removes all doubt, even as it incorrectly indicates the cause for Carter’s divided personality. So much for misdirection.

But, even with those textual and extratextural issues, Raising Cain still works superbly in its isolated setpieces, even as the film as a whole doesn’t quite hang together. There are a number of bravura De Palma moments, including a lengthy, complex tracking shot through a police station that follows a pair of detectives as they listen to a psychologist (Frances Sternhagen) deliver copious amounts of important background information and plot explication. It’s as silly and obvious as the scene at the end of Psycho when the psychologist gives his overt explanation of the Norman/Mother divide, but De Palma does Hitchcock one better in this instance by playing up the parody and making it aesthetically exhilarating.

Lithgow plays the role of Carter well, but he tends to overplay the hammy, cackling Cain, perhaps out of a similarly parodic intention that is meant to remind us not to take any of this too seriously. De Palma also throws in a few delirious shocks, including a set of rapid cut-ins to Jack’s pale wife’s accusing face from the hospital bed and the revelation of a corpse’s face that seems to be screaming right out of the screen at us (although, to be fair, this is one of De Palma’s least gory and sexually explicit thrillers, which ran contrary to the vibe in the early ’90s set by Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct in 1992 and all its various, and usually vastly inferior, knockoffs). In these moments you can sense De Palma having a great deal of fun, with all the orchestrated mayhem and suspense carefully timed to regular collaborator Pino Donaggio’s overly lush music, leading to a gloriously lurid final shot that has to rank among De Palma’s greatest singular moments.

Raising Cain Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • “Changing Cain: Brian De Palma’s Cult Classic Restored” featurette
  • Raising Cain Re-Cut: A Video Essay” by Peet Gelderblom
  • Video interview with actor John Lithgow
  • Video interview with actor Steven Bauer
  • Video interview with actor Gregg Henry
  • Video interview with actor Tom Bower
  • Video interview with actor Mel Harris
  • Video interview with editor Paul Hirsch
  • Stills gallery
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • DistributorShout! Factory
    Release DateSeptember 13, 2016

    Talk about overdue! I was surprised to discover that Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray is the first video release of Raising Cain since Universal Home Video’s 1998 nonanamorphic DVD, which I imagine used the same master as their early ’90s laserdisc release. Thus, it is no small surprise that the new, 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is a major improvement over the almost 20-year-old DVD, giving us a much sharper, clearer, more detailed image with greatly improved black levels, shadow detail, and color. There is no indication on the release as to the source of the transfer, but it looks like it came from a print that was in very good condition, as there are virtually no signs of age or wear and tear. It should be noted that both versions of the film included here (the theatrical version and the re-edited “Director’s Cut”) look to be the same in terms of quality. Both films offer a choice between the original stereo soundtrack and a remixed 5.1-channel soundtrack, both presented in loss DTS-HD Master Audio. The six-channel remix is very nicely done, with Pino Donaggio’s lush orchestral score being nicely rendered with space and depth. There is some action in the surround channels, but nothing overwhelming, and dialogue is clear and well managed in the front soundstage.
    Brian De Palma is nowhere to be found in the supplements in this release, which is certainly unfortunate, especially since he has appeared in quite a few supplements on other recent Blu-ray releases of his films. However, Shout! Factory has still put together quite a bit of material here, beginning with half a dozen new video interviews with key collaborators on the film: actors John Lithgow (30 minutes), Steven Bauer (24 minutes), Gregg Henry (16 minutes), Tom Bower (8 minutes), and Mel Harris (9 minutes) and editor Paul Hirsch (11 minutes). There are also two featurettes about the film’s restoration and re-editing: “Changing Cain: De Palma’s Cult Classic Restored,” which is a brief 2-minute introduction by filmmaker Peet Gelderblom, who re-edited the film, and Gelderblom’s “Raising Cain Re-Cut: A Video Essay,” a 13-minute featurette previously available online that he made to explain how and why he re-edited the film. Also on the disc are a theatrical trailer and stills gallery with various international posters and a few production stills.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Universal Pictures / Shout! Factory

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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