15 July 2024

Born on September 11, 1940 in Newark, New Jersey, Brian Russell De Palma originally planned on pursuing a career in physics, enrolling at New York's esteemed Columbia University.

But, inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) among others, De Palma changed course midstream and transferred to Sarah Lawrence College - where he studied as a theater major.

His earliest films included several collaborations with actor Robert De Niro, including Greetings in 1968 and Hi, Mom! in 1970.

His first horror film was the mesmerizing Sisters (1973). The story: a young woman (Margot Kidder) is tormented by the memory of her dead Siamese twin sister. And it seems her psychological torture is compelling her to commit acts of savage violence and murder.

A Hitchcock-inspired work, Sisters showcased De Palma's reverence for the Master of Suspense by featuring a score from semi-retired composer Bernard Herrmann.

Next up for De Palma was the bizarre Phantom of the Paradise (1974). A horror musical mixing equal parts of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, Goethe's Faust and the penny dreadul character Sweeney Todd, De Palma's Phantom tells the story of down and out musician Winslow Leach, betrayed by a greedy record exec and left to die in prison. But Leach escapes from jail and transforms himself into the mysterious Phantom, a creature of revenge and retribution.

A blending of genres, Phantom was too out of the box at the time of its release and failed commercially. Still, it's garnered a wide cult following in the decades since.

Back to Hitchcock and Vertigo: De Palma next directed the satisfying identity thriller Obsession (1976). The story of a man who loses his wife during a botched kidnapping, only to meet her seemingly exact duplicate years later, Obsession was clearly De Palma's most overt homage to Hitchcock to date. Starring the lovely Genevieve Bujold and veteran actor Cliff Robertson, it was a hit - and featured another sumptuous score by Bernard Herrmann.

No doubt Carrie (1976) is Brian De Palma's best and most influential movie. And that's as it should be. Based on the 1974 novel by Stephen King, De Palma's exceptional adaptation stands the test of time as one of the standout horror films of the 1970s, if not one of the best of the modern era.

The tragic story concerns Carrie White, a social misfit and painfully shy teenager who discovers she's possessed with powerful gifts of telekinesis, dark gifts which she can keep at bay inside her, which she can use for good...or which she can unleash in a maelstrom of personal revenge.

De Palma's careful use of split screens, his ability to elicit exciting, provocative performances from his cast, and his thoughtful application of Pino Donaggio's elegant score - all serve to make Carrie an unrivalled classic.

Following on the heels of Carrie - and thematically similar - was The Fury (1978), which expanded on the theme of telekinesis and adolescent insecurity. Starring Amy Irving, Andrew Stevens and Kirk Douglas, it proved an exciting espionage thriller, containing one of the single most mind-blowing endings ever - the demise of the evil character Childress (John Cassavetes). Must be seen to be believed.

In 1980, De Palma gave us Dressed to Kill, in many ways his own personal answer to Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960). A stylish slasher buoyed by the first-rate acting of Nancy Allen, Angie Dickinson and Michael Caine, Dressed saw De Palma honing the talents he had explored previously in Carrie and The Fury, namely a strategic use of split screen technology, split focus effects, and slow motion sequences.

The film was about an adulterous housewife (Dickinson) murdered by a razor-wielding maniac, and the cat-and-mouse game that ensues between the killer and the unfortunate prostitute (Allen) who happened to be at the scene.

De Palma's next feature was the slick thriller Blow Out (1981). With echoes of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, Blow Out is about a sound effects technician (John Travolta) who witnesses a car accident and rescues a young woman (Allen) from the wreckage. Turns out he may have *actually* just witnessed a real political assassination...and he may have the audio recording to prove it.

Not a completely even effort from start to finish, nevertheless Blow Out is still an entertaining journey from De Palma delivered at the height of his game.

In 1984, he directed the feisty voyeur/horror Body Double. A modern revisioning of Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), this one tells the story of an out-of-work actor who sees a brutal murder committed in an adjacent high rise apartment building. Or has he? Soon, he's drawn into a web of terror, intrigue, deceit and lies. Not up to par with his earlier efforts, Body Double would mark the last horror film De Palma would make until Raising Cain in 1992.

In the years since, Brian De Palma has dabbled in various slick crime dramas and the occasional blockbuster Hollywood action extravaganza.

Blow Out 1981
Body Double 1984
Carrie 1976
Dressed to Kill 1980
The Fury 1978
Obsession 1976
Phantom of the Paradise 1974
Sisters 1973
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