NEW YORK–Brian DePalma’s thriller “Raising Cain” is a superficial, often risible, exercise in pure aesthetics that’s likely to turn off mainstream audiences, spelling a fast flop for Universal. As a showcase for John Lithgow’s acting talents and a visual tour-de-force, the film may delight the director’s camp followers.
As he followed the big-budget “Scarface” with 1984’s scaled-back “Body Double ,” DePalma shifts gears from the notoriously overstuffed “The Bonfire of the Vanities” to make a modestly budgeted ($ 11 million) shocker.
With new wife and highly successful producer Gale Anne Hurd partnered, the film could reasonably be expected to be more commercial. Instead, DePalma the writer is so self-indulgent with cute homages and in-jokes that the bravura stagings by DePalma the director are merely ends in themselves. It’s a fatal case of playing to the buffs.
Though there are plenty of nods to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 “Psycho” here, DePalma’s point of departure is Michael Powell’s classic “Peeping Tom” (also released in 1960), in which a scientist experimented on his young son, causing him to grow up as a psychotic killer.
John Lithgow portrays both the scientist and the son, among several other contrasting roles, in an impressive display of surface acting skills. Like the rest of the cast, there’s no depth to his showy turns.
Lithgow’s central role is Carter, a milquetoast of a child psychologist who dotes on his young daughter Amy, even rigging at home a closed-circuit TV surveillance system to keep tabs on her at all times.
Film begins promisingly with daylit horror, as the meek Carter turns suddenly sinister, attacking a family friend (Teri Austin) to kidnap her young son.
He’s almost apprehended, with her unconscious behind the wheel of her car, when out of nowhere his alter ego/twin brother Cain pops up to take over Carter’s identity.
It seems that 20 years ago their father, Dr. Nix (also played by Lithgow with convincing makeup job), was performing experiments in child development that required a control group of five kids.
After being arrested for attempted child-buying, the doc fled the country. Now their dad has returned to America to complete his experiments, so Carter and Cain are rounding up five kids, including Carter’s daughter. But instead of buying kids, they’re ruthlessly killing whoever’s minding each child.
That’s the stuff of scary melodrama, especially with children in jeopardy. Unfortunately, DePalma fails to deliver real fright or titillation to his target audience, instead opting for satire.
Picture loses its footing midway with the introduction of a spoofed romantic subplot involving Carter’s wife, Lolita Davidovich, and her old flame, Steven Bauer. Using awkwardly inserted (on purpose) and very showy flashbacks, DePalma deconstructs his narrative and has trouble regaining forward momentum.
Notably failing in this regard is a sudden flashback of Davidovich and Bauer smooching in the hospital room where Bauer’s beloved wife is expiring from cancer (that’s what brought him and nurse Davidovich together). The wife sees them and dies in shock, a melodramatic joke that sets the tone for ensuing silliness.
Lithgow elaborately frames Bauer for his murders of mothers and babysitters in the film’s most clever plotting. Davidovich’s frequent nightmare wakeup scenes serve to involve the viewer in a game of deciding how much of the obviously bizarre footage is real and how much is a dream, somewhat like John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London.”
However, when Davidovich keeps coming back after Lithgow has apparently killed her (recalling the famous ending of DePalma’s “Carrie”), “Raising Cain” lapses into farce.
En route to a couple of audience-groaning anti-climaxes, film is sustained by Lithgow’s multiple personalities, allowing him to portray a nutty Norwegian father; a 7-year-old child (Josh); a sinister woman (Margo) and the two contrasting twins.
DePalma’s trademark mobile camera, executed colorfully by cinematographer Stephen H. Burum and two Steadicam operators, is used for some lengthy takes including an “in and out of an elevator” homage to Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.”
At one point, nutty scientist Frances Sternhagen (in terrific comic form) is rattling off ridiculous exposition to cop Gregg Henry in an endless walk-and-talk scene and Henry catches himself before almost breaking out laughing, typical of the film’s nod-and-wink approach.
With a romantic and suspenseful score by Pino Donaggio, it’s a shame the director didn’t make the emotional investment to play the Davidovich/Bauer coupling or Lithgow’s predicaments straight.
In 1976’s Paul Schrader-scripted “Obsession” (also featuring Lithgow), DePalma proved he could handle honest sentiment without sending it up. Here he tips the balance toward self-satire.