Not too many films can claim to be as certifiably, outright insane as Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain. Crazy, off the wall, nuts, there’s plenty of that in Hollyweird,
but Cain is so thoroughly deranged that I’m curious how De Palma arrived at such a specific brand of left field lunacy when he sat down at his typewriter. Get this: John Lithgow pulls an overtime shift playing Dr. Carter Nix, a slightly disturbed child psychologist who shows an unnatural budding interest in his daughter’s upbringing, so much so that it unnerves his wife (Lolita Davidovitch) to a degree. I describe him as only slightly disturbed because his level of mania pales in comparison to his multiple emerging split personalities, which is where the trouble really begins. Carter’s father (also Lithgow) was a psychotic Norwegian doctor who had a habit of using children for bizarre mind control experiments, and it seems that one of Carter’s multiples has decided to take up his work. Soon there’s a rash of baby kidnappings in the area and all hell breaks loose. His wife is too busy having an adulterous affair with a hunk (steamy Steven Bauer) to really take control either. Sounds crazy in writing? The film takes it way further than you could ever imagine. Lithgow always seems a bit nuts, even when playing straight-laced characters we always get this vibe like he’s a court jester who has lost his marbles, and he revs that organic looniness into overdrive here. Frances Sternhagen is a hoot as the obligatory exposition here, a stern doctor who lays out Carter’s complex, condition to two cynical detectives (Tom Bower and Gregg Henry, both great) who try to keep up with this whole circus. I can understand why this film didn’t do too well, I mean… how do you even classify it? Almost everything about the subject matter is highly uncomfortable stuff that threatens to siege over into the lands of taboo, and there’s all kinds of freaky shit in this screaming haunted asylum of a flick. That’s the fun of though, if you’re able to have some. De Palmer has always had a gift for shocker material even when he’s not operating in the thriller genre. There’s a cold, caustic edge to this film that barely contains the sea of menace and mirth roiling beneath, which is an odd, off colour and chilling mix. See it for yourself.
Stranger By Night is an all but forgotten cop thriller starring Steven Bauer, a charismatic actor who, after a showcase role in Brian DePalma’s Scarface and a handful of other prolific 90’s appearances, fell from grace into the netherworld of direct to video releases, like so many other former heavy hitters. This one sits above the bilge water because of a uniquely psychological angle towards the ‘killer terrorizing an urban neighbourhood’ motif, a great central performance from him and some memorable scenes. Bauer his precinct are looking for a murderer, but the kick is that he has a sketchy mental mindset, experienced weird blackouts, fits of rage an missing hours, which not only makes tracking down any suspects difficult, but always puts the crosshairs of suspicion on him. He’s an unreliable protagonist who means well but keeps getting sabotaged by his own demons, a theme played up nicely. The story involving the killer is fairly run of the mill, but anything to do with his character developments is cool stuff, especially in an introspective conversational has with his father (J.J. Johnston). There’s another cop played by the great Michael Parks, but the underwritten role is wasted on an actor meant to shine, but at least the production benefits from his credit. This one is low key, but I enjoyed the exploration in character for Bauer, as well as a hectic opening montage that sets the maniacal tone.
Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear does a fine job of using opaque marketing to conceal it’s delicious, devilish secrets, a tactic that many films recklessly abandon and ruin far too much in trailers or posters. This is a careful exercise in serpentine plotting. Is it courtroom drama? Supernatural shocker? Psychological thriller? Pot-boiling procedural intrigue? Check it out and be as floored as audiences were for the first time back then. Richard Gere holds his end well as a legendary hotshot defence attorney in Chicago, one with a tarnished reputation and a penchant for defending unscrupulous clients. A weird case comes his way in the form of mentally challenged alter boy Edward Norton, accused of murdering someone high up in the clergy and causing a political hailstorm throughout the city. This is one of those thrillers that does genuinely keep you guessing, until literally the final frame, using human interaction and intimate performances to instigate reactions, rather than a barrage of special effects or manufactured narrative gimmicks. I’m being deliberately vague because this is the one film you don’t want spoiled for you ahead of time, it’s that cool. This was, I believe, the role that put Norton on the map, and he’s a gale force of electric energy, giving everyone else onscreen a huge run for their money. It’s fun watching Gere, an assured and confident pillar of law and order, slowly unravel and find himself at the mercy of malicious curveballs he doesn’t even see coming until they’ve hit. The cast is dynamite, with rockin’ turns from fiery John Mahoney as the worst mayor in Chicago’s history, Laura Linney as Gere’s hot tempered rival, Terry O’ Quinn, Alfre Woodward, Andre Braugher, Jon Seda, Frances McDormand, Maura Tierney, Joe Spano, Tony Plana and a slick Steven Bauer as a mob don with ties to Gere. This has all the trappings of a big, overblown thriller drawn from broad strokes, but Hoblit wisely brings it in in places, giving us a nuthouse claustrophobic shivers to go along with the big league intrigue. One of the best thrillers of the 90’s, and one that should get mentioned more often. I’ll also say it has to have one of the coolest DVD special edition covers ever, it’s always nice to see extra effort put into that arena.