“On Second Thought” is a new segment at Monkeys Fighting Robots where we reconsider a film from the past. Sometimes, films are derided and dismissed immediately when they may actually have something to offer. Other times, they are lauded and celebrated and the blind momentum of praise allows the film to grab the “great” label when, in fact, they may be something much less. “On Second Thought” defends those poorly-received films, and it looks at those “great” films with a little more critical thought.
Up first, Brian De Palma’s wild psychological thriller, Raising Cain…
Brian De Palma has made a career out of copying the imagery of auteurs past, most notably the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Raising Cain, in that sense, is De Palma sending up Hitchcock’s seminal 1960 classic, Psycho. Only Raising Cain is so much more than Psycho, so much more. It is Psycho on steroids, and it takes the very basic premise of Hitchcock’s film and adds in the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, the neighbor’s sink. It is a psychological horror film, but it is also a melodramatic soap opera and a film loaded to the brim with dream sequences, intentionally flat acting, and some impressive scenery chewing from John Lithgow in multiple roles.
Lithgow plays Carter, a child psychologist and loving husband and father who has taken a few years away from his practice to raise the daughter he has with Jenny, played by Lolita Davidovich. But almost immediately, we realize Carter isn’t the most stable of stay-at-home dads. Carter chloroforms a mother and kidnaps her child to take to his own father, also played by Lithgow, who is conducting strange experiments. If that wasn’t enough, when things get tough for Carter his personality splits and his “twin brother,” Cain, emerges.
Cain is merely one of Carter’s multiple personalities. He does the heavy lifting when Carter isn’t up for the task. From this ambitious opening act where all of these hectic aspects of Carter’s life are thrown relentlessly against the screen, we settle into the story. It involves Carter and Cain stealing kids, and Jenny sparking an affair with a former lover, Jack, played by Steven Bauer. The scenes between Jenny and Jack are where the soft-lit soap opera, which leans into late-night cable soft core, are purposefully flat and poorly acted. At least I think they are. The insanity swirling all around Carter’s life and Lithgow’s over-the-top performance need a flat and deadpan juxtaposition from Jenny and Jack. If they were giving it their all, the screen might melt.
Raising Cain unravels gleefully, with seedy sexual moments, uncomfortable violence, and children in danger. Jenny has a sequence in the middle of the film where she wakes up from a dream, is in another dream, and wakes up from that dream where she is in yet another dream. But the dreams are things that actually happen, so they serve as flashbacks… I think. It is an absolutely absurd sequence, but it works here. You can’t help but grin when Jenny lurches forward in bed ager waking up from her third dream and the reality she finds herself in is much more frightening.
As for the references to Psycho, they are all over the screen in not so subtle hints, easter eggs the size of a house, and direct ripoffs. The score quietly mimics moments of the Bernard Herrman score from Psycho. There is a scene near the end of the second act where Carter (or Cain, I think Cain) is watching a car sink into a marsh with a woman in the backseat, and it stops. The sun is coming up, just like the situation Norman Bates found himself in. Only this time, in De Palma’s attempt to crank up the intensity, the woman in the backseat lunges to life and screams for help as the car sinks into the water. Later in the film, we get the police department exposition from a psychiatrist, explaining Carter’s multiple personality disorder. Of course, this time, Carter isn’t simply imitating his mother like Bates, he has the personalities of Carter, a woman, and a small boy. De Palma is a talented filmmaker in his own right, so he knows exactly what he is doing. He is taking Hitchcock and turning the dial up to eleven.
Raising Cain was universally demised by critics, and it sits at a 5.9 rating on imdb. But the initial reaction was misguided here. This was not a ripoff as much as a sendup of Psycho. The story takes so many wild detours and De Palma adds in so many of his own camera tricks and stilted acting, that despite those direct homages to Hitchcock, the film takes on a life of its own. And John Lithgow’s multiple performances are unhinged and in the realm of Willem Dafoe or Al Pacino chewing up scenery and spitting it out. Raising Cain will never be confused for De Palma’s best work (Blow Up, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way), but it cannot be simply regarded as a failure. It is gleefully bonkers, and wildly entertaining from start to finish. Watch it with a grin in mind, and you will find plenty to enjoy.