Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bernard Herrmann and Brian De Palma's "Sisters" (1973)

The other week I had the pleasure of watching Brian De Palma's 1973 horror-thriller "Sisters", a film I've been dying to see for a long time, it being one of the last films that the legendary film composer Bernard Herrmann worked on. Herrmann had an amazing career in film composing, spanning from his very first score -- Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941) -- to his very last -- Martin Scorcese's "Taxi Driver" (1975).

My introduction to Herrmann's work came totally by chance when I was maybe eight or nine years old. Being a child of the 1980's, my musical tastes were confined to the likes of A-Ha, Alphaville and Bon Jovi, but I can remember clearly walking past my father's study one day and having my mind blown by a musical epiphany; my father was not in the room at the moment, but he had his radio turned on, and from its speakers flowed this amazingly enigmatic, mesmerizing and thrilling piece that made me stop dead in my tracks and just listen.

As the piece ended, the announcer informed me that it was the title music from Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960). I never forgot that, even though it would be several years before I actually would see the film. Herrmann's amazing score for "Psycho" is of course best known for those shrieking, stabbing violin notes in the shower scene, but the Bartòk-esque title music that I heard on the radio as a child is simply an amazing piece of music and just as exciting to me today:

As I grew more interested in film music over the years, I discovered other key works in Herrmann's oeuvre, such as the scores to Vertigo (1958) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 - probably the first time a theremin was used in a Hollywood movie). Herrmann was without a doubt one of my key influences as a teenager, along with Danny Elfman (who, honestly, based a lot of his own music on Herrmann's style), before I put my film music ambitions aside in favour of more experimental waters.

As for "Sisters", it's a delightful 1970's horror-thriller containing everything you might expect from the period; beautiful afro hairstyles, split-screen sequences, and fake blood that looks like housepaint. There's no denying De Palma's Hitchcock influences -- there are clear traces back to both Psycho and Rear Window (1954), although this film probably has more 'morbid' aspects than an orthodox Hitchcock movie would allow. Another exciting bonus is the amazing character actor William Finley, who I recognized as the title character from the highly enjoyable "Phantom of the Paradise" (1974), De Palma's next film after "Sisters".

The score for "Sisters" is unmistakingly Herrmann through and through, although at times unusually 'psychedelic' for Herrmann -- for instance, I don't think I've ever heard as many synthesizers in a Herrmann score before. Of course, to me, there's no getting around the fact that the trimmed down string orchestra score for Psycho is and will always be Herrmann's great masterpiece. In any case, I recommend the film to any fan of Herrmann's work and in particular to anyone who appreciates the refined flavours of 1970's horror. Watch the trailer below, and enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. Busta Rhymes sampled a piece of the Psycho score for "Gimme Some More." It was bouncing around my head when I was listening to it just now. I can't say I enjoyed Sisters, but then again I don't really enjoy Brian De Palma, except for the Untouchables, which I saw a few weeks ago followed by a Q and A with a very sardonic Mr. Mamet.