Home Video Hovel: Raising Cain, by Tyler Smith
Is there inherent artistic value to homage? And, if so, exactly how far does it extend? One artist paying tribute to the stylings of another can often be a delightful surprise to those that value art history. Homage is certainly nothing new in film, as directors will often incorporate visual or editorial references to the older classics. Sometimes these references can help frame the current story being told, and on rare occasion can shed new light on the older work. However, when a film is propped up almost entirely by the audience’s previous experience with the referenced classic, our interest in the newer story can start to wain, and homage can turn to overt comparison, which seldom works out well for the newer film.
Such is the case with Brian DePalma’s Raising Cain, his 1992 psychological thriller that owes more than a little to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho. The story of a friendly-but-awkward man (John Lithgow) with intense psychological problems is already an obvious echo of Norman Bates. And as those problems are slowly revealed over the course of the film, the similarities mount until one can’t help but anticipate further stylistic or narrative references to Hitchcock’s masterpiece. It eventually gets to the point that the story we’re watching no longer matters, except insofar as it puts us in mind of the much superior film, reminding us of how great it truly was and that we should probably watch it again.
DePalma is no stranger to homage, what with his interesting choice to incorporate Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin into a climactic gunfight in 1987’s The Untouchables. And his fondness for referencing Hitchcock – in films like Dressed to Kill and Body Double – is plain as day. In some ways, it is delightful to see somebody so adeptly capture the tone and pacing of Hitchcock, whose playful-yet-deliberate style was as elusive as the psychology of his subjects. Many filmmakers have tried to perfectly imitate the Hitchcock touch, with DePalma arguably coming the closest. In that way, there is much in Raising Cain to admire.
But, then what?
Setting aside the Hitchcock homage, there isn’t that much to the story to keep us engaged. It isn’t particularly thrilling or scary. I didn’t feel invested in the fates of any of the characters, which seems like a major flaw in a film that features both women and children being abducted by a madman. The film doesn’t seem very interested in engaging with the viewer on an emotional level; only an intellectual one. And, even then, its primary intellectual allure is that of recognizing where it is paying homage to past films. So there is nothing about the story itself that grabs and keeps our attention.
If there is anything original in the film worth recommending, it is John Lithgow’s campy performance(s). I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to reveal that the main character, Carter, suffers from multiple personality disorder. Not only are the Psycho references telegraphing that, but savvy 2016 viewers will be able to pick up on it almost immediately. But, unlike Norman Bates, who only has two conflicting personalities, Carter has several, each of them distinct, requiring the actor to change his physicality and cadence. Often, these personalities will talk with each other, giving Lithgow the opportunity to play off himself (though only through shot-reverse shot editing that we would see in such later films as Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings). The manic energy in these scenes is enough to hold our interest, though I never quite felt that I was engaging with these characters so much as the actor playing them. I am glued to the screen less to find out what ultimately happens in the movie, but to see what an old pro like John Lithgow will pull out of his hat next.
As is standard for DePalma, there is some solid virtuoso camerawork in the film, as when the detectives investigating Carter walk through their precinct discussing the case, which is done all in one tracking shot. Moments like this are where the film really shines technically, as DePalma isn’t so much paying homage to Hitchcock as allowing himself to be inspired by Hitchcock’s style and taking the next step.
There are also a few other performances that deserve mention. Gregg Henry is always a welcome presence, here grounding the story in much-needed reality as an incredulous police detective. And specific praise is due to Frances Sternhagen as a scientist whose penchant for exposition suggests the Simon Oakland character in Psycho, but who owes more to Donald Pleasence’s alarmist psychiatrist in Halloween. In a film dominated – both in screen time and tone – by Lithgow, Sternhagen is a strong and distinct presence that firmly holds our attention.
But, in the end, Raising Cain feels like little more than Brian DePalma once again paying tribute to a master filmmaker that has so clearly inspired him. And while film fans might enjoy DePalma’s stylistic homages to Hitchcock, and John Lithgow’s total commitment to concept and character, there is little else to recommend about Raising Cain. The film acts as a signpost, always pointing us towards Psycho. And, as is the case with any other signpost, we eventually follow its direction, walk past it, and never think of it again.