Writer-director Douglas Buck impressed with a run of grim, intense short films assembled as Family Portraits. His interesting feature debut is a remake of the 1974 thriller, which was Brian DePalma’s first full embrace of the psycho-thriller genre. Cannily dialling down the Hitchcock homages and more obviously commercial aspects of the original, Buck pays homage to his own cinematic roots, which means melding DePalma’s Hitchcock/Antonioni heritage with his own Cronenberg/Bergman style.
In a long prologue involving a Night of the Demon-style fancy dress party at a sinister rest home run by Dr Philip Lacan (Stephen Rea), apparent protagonist Dylan Wallace (Dallas Roberts) is struck by Angelique (Lou Doillon), a mystery woman working as an assistant in Lacan’s conjuring act, whom he takes home – after an ambiguous, unsettling argument with the controlling, troubled doctor – and goes to bed with. Introduced almost in aside is the actual investigative character, nosy reporter Grace Collier (Chloe Sevigny), who has dressed as a clown to infiltrate the party and is apparently persecuting Lacan for part-imaginary crimes. This is less playful (and, frankly, engaging) than the Psycho-style false lead and Rear Window-style coincidence DePalma used, but it makes for a tighter, more logical story set-up, and allows Grace to be as damaged and potentially demented as anyone else in the film – which feeds into later plot developments in ways which differ from the original depiction of a sane person driven crazy by the case and the unjust suspicions of the authorities (here, the cops have every reason to doubt her ravings). Of course, Dylan fails to pick up on clues (a scar, a photograph) and returns with a birthday cake for his new girlfriend, only to be stabbed to death with knitting needles by her evidently mad twin sister – a crime Grace witnesses because she’s broken into Lacan’s office to ferret out evidence and happens to look at his computer monitor, which shows views from Angelique’s apartment (which is, as it happens, across the street to allow for a recreation of DePalma’s staging).
A few moments play for an audience familiar with the earlier film, including a feint about where a body is stashed (this time, it’s not the couch) and the use of computer surveillance cams which provide a subtle equivalent to DePalma’s split screen effects, but Buck and co-writer John Freitas are also content to stay fairly close to the original storyline until a final stretch which interestingly literalises something (the heroine ‘becoming’ the murderess’s missing twin) DePalma presented in a dream sequence. Given that the Psycho-inspired twist was guessable first time round, this doesn’t make much of a pretense of selling the audience on the physical existence of the mixed-up Angelique’s secondary personality (her now-detached, dead conjoined twin sister Annabelle) and instead worms into the twisted psyches of all these folks.
It’s a cold, downbeat, tight picture told at an even pace, with mostly interior performances, inevitably less fun than DePalma’s exuberant stylistic exercise but an interesting gloss on it. Sevigny and Rea are subtler actors than Jennifer Salt and William Finley (Robert Englund is a subtler actor than William Finley) and fit in well with the Canadian-shot, depopulated, frankly depressing urban or sylvan locales of the story. Lou Doillon, Jane Birkin’s daughter, can’t hope to match Margot Kidder’s breakthrough performance(s), and with her exotic looks seems even more an alien presence in these drab surroundings – oddly, her Kidder-style French accent sounds forced, whereas her own Anglo-French accent (heard in the making-of short) is extremely distinctive. Sometimes too broad and sometimes out of tune, Doillon takes some getting used to – but it is a genuine reading of the role, rather than simple weak acting, and she is especially impressive in the finale. With William B. Davis in the surgeon role intended for David Cronenberg.