Dread Ringers

Bill Cosford of the Miami Herald, a dependable critic who has had to sit through his share of turkeys over the course of a long tenure covering movies in this area, hinted at a pervasive problem when he assessed 1992's films in a column last Thursday. After dutifully clumping together the summer's most sizable lumps of excreta, he concluded -- in a nonconfrontational tone typical of Herald columns these days -- that "this is a very bad season" for cinema. Then on Friday, Candice Russell of the Sun-Sentinel unleashed her critical thunder on Brian De Palma's Raising Cain: "The worst film of 1992," she declared, awarding the thriller/suspense a grand total of zero stars. I can't remember a time when critics have been so listless in their response to the movies -- but then again, I cannot recall a time when cinema was so excruciatingly dimwitted and dull.

This is not the time to launch a comprehensive discussion of the critic's craft (nor, perhaps, the forum) but nonetheless I intend, at a later date in the near future, to address the current moviegoing climate, the audience, and the critical function -- and its detractors -- in some detail.

As for Brian De Palma's new film, his first since the malodorous The Bonfire of the Vanities, Cosford's hit list can boast yet another unwitting member, while Russell's fire, given the catastrophic incompetence of this multiple-personality claptrap, is surely too mild by half. John Lithgow plays a child psychologist named Carter Nix (his background is Norwegian), whose wife, Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), begins to have doubts about Carter's obsession with their daughter (whom he monitors on TV even while the child is sleeping), and proceeds to embark on an affair with a former boyfriend, Jack Dante (Steven Bauer, and just awful). And the expected off-your-head homicidal urges ensue.

Carter's alter ego is a half-brother named Cain, but the villain running the show is Carter's dad, a lunatic former child psychologist who kidnaps infants for some indeterminate -- and obviously unorthodox -- experiments. The multiple personalities are dispatched by Lithgow with all the flair of a toad hopping from one mud-infested lilypad to the next. (His Norwegian accent for Carter's papa sounds about as authentic as if Lithgow had learned it from a Brooklyn barber who was friends once with a New Jersey seamstress who dated a great-grand-nephew of the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg's scullery maid.)

After a lifetime of parasitic posturing and shameless borrowing from such cinematic front-runners as Sergei Eisenstein and more second-tier pop icons as Alfred Hitchcock, De Palma has taken the next inevitable step: He has begun quoting himself. Now I have nothing against recycling as an environmentally visionary philosophy. But to perform this relentless rehash of perishable material in the arts is to shamelessly admit its status as trash -- which of course it is, and mightily -- something so low I never would have imagined even De Palma had the face to do. Predictably, the director shows us a disposing plant's worth of Hitchcockian editing and composition -- including, yes, Psycho's famous low-angle shot of a hand grasping a knife and slashing, and another shot of a car slowly descending toward the murky depths. De Palma has all the dignity of a 79th Street hooker, and roughly a quarter the creativity.

The one single amusing moment in the film comes when Frances Sternhagen, playing a psychological expert on multiple personalities, enters to interview Carter wearing a black wig. Now, keep in mind Sternhagen is in her sixties, and good character actress though she is, a raving beauty she is not. But her sensuously long locks are worthy of an Isabelle Adjani. Then she complains about the fact that her wig isn't gray, and tells the cop that he's not a very good liar, adding (in another version of mock-Scandinavian lingo), "I look like a transvestite." Never was movie dialogue more precisely penned to depict the resulting image on the screen.

This is, in sum, an appalling spectacle. But I daresay there are those in the audience who will be titillated by it, and therefore might wish Carter Nix's knife on me. Indeed, just as critics have found fewer things to applaud on the screen, it seems that many readers are offended when a critic dares to state the obvious.

I must close with a single tidbit from the critic's scrapbook. I received a call the other day from a woman, who left the following message on my Voicemail: "Mr. Navarro, you hate every movie I like. What's your problem? I hate you! I'm never going to read you again!" She ended her greeting with a few choice comments that, back in the days of the Nixon Administration's printed transcripts of Oval Office vulgarities, would have read "(expletive deleted)." And yet, we must remember that 1992 is an election season as well, and in politics as in the arts, Hell hath no fury like a scorned advocate for the status quo.

Written and directed by Brian De Palma; with John Lithgow, Lolita Davidovich, Steven Bauer, Frances Sternhagen, and Gregg Henry.



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