Alfred Hitchcock captured lightning in a bottle, as it were, when he took it upon himself to adapt Robert Bloch’s Psycho in 1960. A horror/mystery novel about multiple personalities, the book endeavored to give some pop-psychological explanation to murder, and found a way to include transvestitism/transgenderism in the mix – which were not exactly new, but certainly weren’t as prevalent as they are today in the public consciousness.
Flash forward 20 years from Hitchcock and we have Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), clearly modeled on the film in many ways. From the blonde sinner/criminal (Angie Dickinson’s adulterous housewife here, Janet Leigh’s embezzling bank employee in the original) who gets murdered within the first hour or so; to the would-be investigators trying to figure out who did it, in this case Dickinson’s son played by Keith Gordon, Nancy Allen’s prostitute/witness and Dennis Franz’s less than helpful detective; to finally “Norman Bates/Mother” him/herself: in this instance, Michael Caine’s Dr. Robert Elliott/”Bobbie,” it smacks of Psycho through and through.
That being said, De Palma’s film may be inspired by a classic in many ways, but as with most everything he does, he puts his own unique stamps of modernity on it. Stylistically, De Palma experiments here further with split-diopter lenses, split screen, dream sequences, and even Steadicam shots, aided largely in the horror market by John Carpenter’s Halloween a couple years prior (1980 was also a big year for this, from Scorsese’s Raging Bull to Kubrick’s The Shining).
However, all of this question of homage and pastiche and rip-off and stylistic flourishes seem to distract from some of the “serious” questions worth posing about De Palma’s work. How serious does he take it, for example? What can be said of a man who casts his wife as hooker after hooker and has her nearly murdered time and again? What can be said of a man who regularly exploits the beauty (and nudity) of women in his films, only to mix them unnervingly with graphic and increasingly bloody violence? What can be said of a man who is willing to begin and end a horror film on a joke, rendering it all but a completely empty void of style and no substance?
Certainly these are the kind of accusations which have been levied against De Palma throughout his career, but examining his work closely makes these questions even more problematic. While his style is admirable, and his films are thoroughly enjoyable/effective as you watch them, it’s a little like a toy or game at Christmas – once you figure out how it works, you don’t wanna play with it anymore.
So where does this leave an artist (yes, artist) like De Palma? Can he survive on his style and his payments of homage and his genre tropes in a world of increasingly bored children (audiences) who constantly want to see something either new or unique done with things they’ve seen before? I’d like to think that as long as he remains talented and capable, De Palma will always have a place in cinema – both its history and its future.