Raising Cain, 1992.
Directed by Brian De Palma.
Starring John Lithgow, Lolita Davidovich, Steven Bauer, Frances Sternhagen, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower, Mel Harris, and Amanda Pombo.
The wife of a respected child psychologist starts to suspect that her husband’s obsession with their daughter’s behaviour may not be very healthy.
Returning to the well of Brian De Palma movies to give their meticulous treatment the wizards at Arrow Video have turned their attention to his 1992 thriller Raising Cain, a movie sandwiched between the disappointing The Bonfire of the Vanities and the brilliant Carlito’s Way in the director’s filmography and a film that was possibly his most blatant nod to Hitchcock – and Psycho in particular – since Dressed to Kill back in 1980.
John Lithgow (Cliffhanger/Blow Out) stars as Dr. Carter Nix, a child psychologist who is married to nurse Jenny (Lolita Davidovich – Gods and Monsters) and who dotes over their young daughter Amy (Amanda Pombo). Whilst obsessing over Amy’s behaviour and attending to her every need Carter has failed to notice Jenny rekindling an affair with Jack (Stephen Bauer – Scarface), a widower whose wife died whilst under Jenny’s care, but someone who has noticed is Cain, an alter ego of Carter’s who appears every time something bad is about to happen in his life. Also in on the action are Margo and Josh, Carter’s other personalities, as it becomes clear that the mentally unstable doctor seems to be continuing his father’s work in conditioning children to develop multiple personalities, and after Cain tries to set Jack up with a murder charge it is up to a desperate Jenny to try and make sense of who her husband is and what he has done with the now-missing Amy.
Having spent his previous few movies moving away from the Alfred Hitchcock-worship of his earlier films, Raising Cain does see Brian De Palma putting on those comfortable old psychological suspense thriller slippers and giving us 91 minutes of what one could call ‘typical De Palma’ because within minutes of the film starting we’re thrown into all sorts of potentially confusing scenarios as dream sequences, flashbacks and reality weave in and out of each other to create a narrative that threatens to alienate the viewer before we get to the meat of the story; not that De Palma could be accused of being an inaccessible filmmaker but after the relatively straightforward and linear storytelling of Casualties of War and The Untouchables it does at first feel like De Palma is trying a little too hard to mix things up again. However, this film has a major plus point in John Lithgow, who manages to hold our attention from the very beginning just by making Carter a very nice man on the surface; it is mentioned that he took time off from his full-time job to care for Amy and even Jenny’s friends think he is the world’s most attentive father and husband. But it is when Cain appears and Carter starts to lose his mind that Lithgow shines, with De Palma’s camera using Dutch angles and extreme close-ups to signify things not being quite right and Lithgow giving us a sneaky look at what his take on The Joker could have been like in the rumoured Joe Dante-directed Batman movie that never got made.
But because John Lithgow is so good in his multiple roles – even that of Margo, which is probably more frightening than De Palma could have imagined once you see it – it means that the film suffers whenever he is not on-screen. Gregg Henry (Slither) appears as the detective investigating Carter’s missing child case and he does make an impression, as he always does, but he isn’t in the film enough and doesn’t have a scene that really establishes him as anything other than a cop that is two steps behind Carter/Cain most of the time. Frances Sternhagen (Misery/The Mist) also stars as Dr. Waldheim, a former colleague of Carter’s father and tasked by the police to try and get through to Carter and assess what is going on, but apart from some exposition about her involvement with Nix Snr. she feels very underused and merely there to explain Carter’s illness, much like the doctor at the end of Psycho who gives you everything in a few lines of blurb, just in case you didn’t quite figure it all out.
And that isn’t the only thing that Brian De Palma ‘borrowed’ from Psycho as the score is noticeably Bernard Herrmann-esque in places, and one scene even has Carter disposing of a body in a similar fashion to Norman Bates, only with a slightly more sinister twist. Elsewhere, De Palma uses lighting to accentuate mood and highlight certain characteristics of people on the screen that comes straight from Hitchcock, and as these are tricks that we have seen De Palma employ before there is a strong case for the director not only mimicking Alfred Hitchcock but also beginning to parody himself. He does, however, redeem himself with the final shot of the movie that plays with themes we saw in Psycho but with De Palma’s own mastery of timing and composition making it highly effective and easily the best moment in the whole film.
If you do manage to pick up this limited edition dual-format set, not only do you get Brian De Palma’s original theatrical cut of Raising Cain on Blu-ray and DVD but also included is a Blu-ray disc featuring what has now become known as ‘The Director’s Cut’, a re-edited version of the film by Peet Belder Gelderblom that rearranges the scenes in the order that De Palma originally intended, giving the film a different feel by making the story flow a lot more in what is actually the better version. There is also a ton of cast and crew interviews that go into a lot of detail about making the movie and working with Brian De Palma, although don’t make the mistake of watching the interview with John Lithgow before you watch the main feature as it does spoil the whole thing, including that final shot.
Overall, Raising Cain is an interesting and, at times, exhilarating thriller full of twists and turns but somehow it doesn’t quite pack the same punch as Brian De Palma’s previous forays into similar territory. Perhaps it is the combination of over-familiarity with this type of material and the made-for-TV feel of the first act but originally coming in the wake of The Silence of the Lambs (ironically, John Lithgow is a dead ringer for Anthony Hopkins when he is in old man make-up playing Dr. Nix Snr.) in the early 1990s didn’t really do the film any favours as it felt like it wasn’t offering up anything audiences hadn’t seen before. Watching it now and putting it into context, Raising Cain feels like a second-tier Brian De Palma film, albeit one from the top of that second tier and one that is still entertaining and enjoyable, although it is the case that it is the Director’s Cut version that offers up a more thrilling and rewarding experience.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★