Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Census Bloodbath: Fashion Victim

Year: 1980
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes 
MPAA Rating: R

The slasher genre in 1980 was full of belated riffs on Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal slashterpiece Psycho, from the sleazy motel settings of Silent Scream and The Unseen to the All-American killers of Fade to Black and Schizoid. Hell, Don’t Go in the House is literally about a mother-obsessed killer who takes orders from her corpse and murders women in his secluded home. But if you want to see a Hitch rip-off done right, look no further than his premier acolyte Brian De Palma.

De Palma’s 1980 feature Dressed to Kill almost doesn’t count as a slasher movie. The body count is anemic, and if the investigation into a single murder qualified a film as a slasher, we’d be stuck reviewing hundreds of crappy whodunits and nobody wants that. But Dressed to Kill is so eagerly, flamboyantly translating Psycho for the modern era that there’s no way it could be excluded. If you haven’t seen Psycho, tread no further, because the spoilers are instant and abundant.

Anthony Perkins was an alien the whole time!

From the first-act murder of the apparent main character to the transvestite villain to the Dr. Explain-o character who arrives at the end to dump a heaping pile of exposition for the slower members of the audience, Dressed to Kill doesn’t just pay homage to Hitchcock’s film. It mugs it, beats it to a pulp, and rummages through the pockets of its broken, bleeding form, feverishly searching for another fix of suspense. It’s tarted up with certain, more 80’s-oriented details, blood, and nudity, but it’s a bald-faced, brazen act of copycatting.

When frustrated housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) is slashed to death by an enraged transvestite, the only witness and prime suspect is high-end escort Liz Blake (Nancy Allen). In order to clear her name, Liz teams up with Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) to solve the murder. They start by investigating the records of her therapist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine), who ahs been receiving threatening phone calls from a transsexual ex-patient of his but has hidden this fact from the police.

He’s the doctor Kate deserves, but not the one she needs right now.

Fortunately, one good thing Dressed to Kill has going for it is that of the very few contemporary directors with the chops to remix Hitchcock, De Palma is one of the best. He brings enough of his own personality and aesthetic to the table that it frequently doesn't feel like a trite imitation, which is really something of a miracle.

De Palma’s chilly, precise style is more or less the defining feature of Dressed to Kill, a film that’s intrinsically about surfaces and how they reflect and refract reality. The fractured identity of the killer is represented by the use of deliberately placed mirrors in the corners of shots, giving us a distorted second angle of the character in the frame. On top of that, we get a bunch of gooey cinematic gloss that glides right off the screen, from the director’s signature split-screen effect (which he only utilizes once, though frequently some element in a single frame like a wall or a doorway will also act as an in-shot splitting device) to an elegantly-timed series of smash cuts.

Dressed to Kill finds a cinematic master at the top of his game, so much so that you almost don’t notice the tawdry, shallow nature of the plot. I really don’t want to launch into a political diatribe and I won’t, except to say that the transsexual antagonist is a blatant case of vilifying the Other that lacks the relative sensitivity and/or lampshading that makes it slightly easier to swallow a film like Silence of the Lambs. But even beyond that, Nancy Allen is a protagonist with very little agency, being yanked through a plot that could have easily gone on without her. A plot which also ends ten minutes too late, going all-in on a tacky shock gag that lessens the film’s impact and drains every last drop of energy the film has accumulated.

But Nancy Allen gets naked, so apparently this scene’s presence is justified.

Dressed to Kill certainly boasts its share of suspense, especially in the central setpiece of Kate’s murder in an elevator. The deliberate pacing and gorgeous cinematography are reminiscent of the best of the Italian giallo, and this approach works wonders once more in a scene set in the flickering, claustrophobic interior of a subway train.

Occasionally, this pacing will hit a snag and drag on a bit too long, like in the part-stalking, part-seduction sequence set in a museum (this scene is also littered with completely inscrutable, unmotivated actions that dilute whatever emotion its attempting to convey), but for the most part Dressed to Kill is a tightly-wound thriller working with clockwork precision.

It’s far from a perfect film, and I’m not tempted to retroactively add it to my Best of 1980 list, but it is nonetheless a movie without peer in its station within the rise of the slasher. This kind of glamorous, upscale approach to the subgenre would become quite common in the early 90’s (Sleeping with the Enemy, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct), but at the time the idea of a slasher rising from the gutter of grindhouse cheapies was a far-off dream.

Dressed to Kill is a contradiction: ahead of its time and tragically retrograde, classy and tactless, a cheap rip-off and an aesthetic triumph. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s definitely unique, and that’s always worth something,

Killer: Bobbi [(Michael Caine)]
Final Girl: Liz (Nancy Allen)
Best Kill: It’s not like there’s really a choice here, but the elevator slashing is quite gorgeous.
Sign of the Times: Kate’s conquest has a newfangled digital clock that’s s elaborate it looks like a nuclear device.
Scariest Moment: Liz is chased through the subway by a gang, leading her right into the arms of the killer.
Weirdest Moment: Kate tries to convince her son that the general Napoleon invented the baked good napoleon.
Champion Dialogue: “You’ve got a lot better motivation than I do: your ass.”
Body Count: 2
  1. Kate Miller is slashed to death with a straight razor.
  2. Nurse is choked to death.
TL;DR: Dressed to Kill is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, but the plot is a downright shambles with a tasteless core.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1075


  1. Ah, too bad. I loooove Dressed to Kill. It's not even my fifth or sixth favorite De Palma, but you know, there's a lot of love there to go around.

    I wouldn't call him "chilly," by the way, though "precise" is spot-on: I perceive De Palma as incredibly hot-blooded, and at his best when he's doing near-operatic tragedy, like Carrie, Blow Out, Carlito's Way--hell, even Mission: Impossible has elements of that. Everything is sex and violence with him, and he's way, way into it. Maybe too into it! (Though, intriguingly, he's demonstrated an ability to tone it down: when dealing with a true story of a rape and murder in Casualties of War, the central crime is presented with astonishing and uncharacteristic gravity.)

    Anyway, Dressed to Kill, though not his masterpiece, is maybe his most personal film (that is, maybe the one that best benefits from outside reading, which is arguably not any kind of strength of the work itself) and I've never thought of it as chilly. The Keith Gordon character is essentially autobiographical, after all--the difference being that De Palma's mom wasn't murdered, his dad just cheated on her, and he stalked him with a camera to prove it. (He, also, was the little engineer.)

    And, for what it's worth, while I know good and well that DtK is super-offensive along that one dimension (it's so insanely, intensely transphobic, and so luridly good at presenting its transphobia, that, yeah, even something as accidentally-TERFy as Silence of the Lambs is still probably more sensitive), it's nevertheless got a kind of garbled, half-exploitative feminism to it. For one thing, I like Nancy Allen's character more than you do. For the second thing, I really enjoy the way the son cares so little about his mom's promiscuity that he never even mentions it; all he cares about is solving her murder. (Meanwhile, it's pretty clear that while BDP couldn't resist that VENEREAL DISEASE!!! gag, he doesn't really punish Dickinson otherwise. Her tryst with the sunglasses man has nothing to do whatsoever with her death. Hell, it didn't even put her in the wrong place at the wrong time: iirc, she was being hunted, and going to be killed regardless. So there's that.)

    Then again, my girlfriend says my defenses of the film are full of poo. She hates DtK (and BDP) with a fiery passion.

    As for you, dear Brennan, you might like '81's Blow Out a bit better. It's slightly more of a proper slasher, anyway, and it doesn't hurt that it's a somewhat better film overall.

    1. Well, I loved Phantom of the Paradise, if that helps tip the scales in any particular direction.

    2. Phantom is indeed most excellent, though I have finally swung around to the consensus, and admitted Rocky Horror is a little bit better.