If RAISING CAIN (1992) does not register as premium De PALMA, please consider that ALL movies that fail to feature NANCY ALLEN are inherently flawed. Beyond that gross defect, CAIN, unsteady and riling though it may be, is thoroughly fascinating. So what if it loves leaving the audience in a lurch, how can anyone who adores film not recognize that same affection mirrored on the screen? Don’t expect me to be one of those goofballs who whines about De PALMA’s glorification of HITCHCOCK. First off, that’s nothing to be ashamed of, secondly, I never get tired of directors unabashedly exploring what inspires them and thirdly, De PALMA brings more than enough of his own idiosyncratic voice to the table, thank you very much. His visual excesses, unfathomable choices and awkward self-awareness are exactly what curl my toes; if anything, I wish I could lure him even further out on his favorite limb. CAIN is completely oddball beneath its misleading suburban surface and somehow unique even while presenting an almost “greatest hits” version of the director’s previous thrillers. It’s exquisite, it’s a mess, and it will make you wish you were provided a map or at least some post-it notes to identify what is dream, memory or hallucination. If you don’t particularly take to this movie, I can’t particularly blame you but here are five things that I love about RAISING CAIN…
1. The voice-over: De PALMA’s original idea was to open CAIN focusing on the internal world of Jenny (LOLITA DAVIDOVICH) who is contemplating having an affair (a la DRESSED TO KILL). Only later did he plan to let the cat out of the bag that cuckold husband Carter (JOHN LITHGOW) was juggling an assortment of personalities, of which, at least one was homicidal. In a bout of charity toward the viewer, De PALMA re-cut the film in order to expedite the focus towards hubby Carter’s madness. It does work in helping us understand Carter is bonkers from the get-go but we are left with Jenny’s story floating in a bubble closer to the center of the film. The ripple effects of the switcheroo results in Jenny delivering a tardy, gawky voice-over exposition that discontinues as abruptly as it materializes. Maybe it makes sense. Maybe Jenny is loopier than her husband. When we shift to her perception, the whole world is fuzzy Valentines and her love interest Jack Dante (STEVEN BAUER) happens to be impossibly slick, ripped off the cover of a Harlequin romance. They even share a hospital-set soap opera-style kiss (she’s a doctor) as his ailing wife watches, wails and politely drops dead. Jenny’s screamingly artificial narration actually fits her gauzy, trapped in a daydream existence but yeah, I mostly love it because it’s weird. The device follows her snapping out of a nightmare, as if she’s woken up to find herself in a movie (and yet another dream). I’m not lost. I think I’m right right around the corner from MULHOLLAND DRIVE.
2. The creepy kid: So Carter is insane. I can safely tell you about at least three of his personalities. One is his twin brother Cain who is elected to do all the dirty work, one is his child self, “Josh” who gets to feel all the emotional pain and then there is “Margo” who should not be disturbed because she doesn’t put up with nonsense. De PALMA certainly has PSYCHO on the mind (especially when it comes to victim disposal but let’s submerge that vehicle later) and he’s also eyeing that film’s sibling flick, MICHAEL POWELL’s PEEPING TOM. Both films are ostensibly about crazy people doing murderous things but at their core, if you ask me, they’re really about shitty parents. Carter’s dad was a child psychologist who tortured and traumatized him in order to record the results (much like PEEPING TOM) and tellingly, not one word is spoken about his mother. We know nothing about her except the primary knowledge that she clearly failed to protect him. This is perhaps why the shadow of the Margo personality looms so large; she is the protector Carter was denied (not to mention the protector he longs to become, our very first view of Carter is of him wrapped around his own child in a guarding maternal pose). Trickster De PALMA has a blast playing with different ways of presenting Carter’s selves. One of the freakiest representations occurs when out of the blue, a curly headed, cherub looking tyke confronts Carter with a distorted, almost demonic, voice, “I know what you’re going to do! It’s a bad thing and I’m going to tell!” The viewer has no clue at the time that we are witnessing a projection of Carter’s youngest identity (or that the person the kid is threatening to inform is Margo). It’s out of left field, ELM STREET- level surreal and as bizarre as it is alarming.
3. Morning has broken: This tribute is a work of art. Carter/Cain, like Norman Bates before him, means to hide a dead body in a car and roll it into a lake. The water is black as tar and the car and all that floats atop the lake are ochre, copper and gold. But wait! The prey is not dead! As she screams, the accusing spotlight sun awakes, the curtain of night drops and gossiping birds shriek like alarm clocks. The morning light spreading over Cain’s face is fantastic. It’s played for suspense that his murderous crime might be exposed but it’s also a clever portrait of Carter’s eclipsing identities. I’m guessing De PALMA is less interested in mimicking a method of body disposal than he is giddy to duplicate HITCHCOCK’s predilection for feeding the fires of viewer collusion.
4. The longest yard: PSYCHO doesn’t get grief too often but when it does, it’s typically over the way Norman’s condition is (some say) heavy-handedly explained by a killjoy psychiatrist at the film’s conclusion (De PALMA nabbed DENNIS FRANZ for a similar thankless job in DRESSED TO KILL). Personally, I don’t mind a little post-trauma pow-wow and who takes one lone character’s viewpoint as gospel anyway? De PALMA has loads of back story and clarification to get off his chest in CAIN and he kindly gets it out of the way relatively early and in a most entertaining way. Enter FRANCES STERNHAGEN as scene-stealer Dr. Waldheim who due to cancer wears a jet black wig which she claims makes her look like a transvestite. No need to pull up a chair! Dr. Waldheim is taking you for a little walk! There’s nothing not to love as the good doctor fills us in on everything we need to know in an incredibly lengthy continuous shot while the camera spins around her and she is humorously yanked to stay on course down several floors and tilted flights of stairs toward the payoff of an almost comical screaming corpse. I like a show-off and this incredible scene has at least two…or three.
5. The closer: There is no way to fully explain the climax of RAISING CAIN. It’s like a multi-layered clashing collage or a cinematic scrapbook of postcards from places the director has visited or conquered. Critics would walk away with boring accusations that De PALMA was cannibalizing himself but meanwhile dude was double dipping his corn chips in the meta mash-up bean dip years ahead of schedule. I can’t explain it and I don’t have to. It should be enough for you to know that the epic finale involves a cross-dresser, a mad doctor with a Norwegian (?) accent, a baby carriage, a tot in a red hoody, slow-mo spilling groceries, lightning flashes, a deadly sundial on a wayward truck and a couple unexplained belligerent drunks and that the entire concoction utilizes three floors of a neon lit motel. It’s a symphony of insanity and wanton black humor and no other director in the world would dream it up. There’s plenty to pick apart in RAISING CAIN but none of its foibles can overshadow the pure crazy brilliance pounding through its veins. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think much of it when I saw it in the theater way back in 92′. I was riveted by some of what I saw but most of it turned to mush in my head. That’s O.K., love at first sight is overrated anyway. Did I mention that the bulk of the movie takes place on Valentine’s Day? Think of RAISING CAIN as a Valentine from De PALMA. It’s not the sweetest chocolate from his heart shaped box but I reckon it’s one of the chewiest. Hopefully you are not allergic to nuts.