Thursday, December 8, 2016

Off the Shelf: Raising Cain (Blu-ray)

by Erich Asperschlager
Hickory Dickory Dock. Cain has picked his lock.

In 1992, I was working as a dish washer at a summer camp. I was too young to have a car, so I glommed on to whichever older counselor with wheels made plans to drive to the nearest town on days off. One break, a group of us decided to go to the movies. Most everyone wanted to see Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. I lobbied to see Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain, based solely on the commercials I had seen on the communal TV the staff lounge. I was outvoted, and probably for the best. Unforgiven went on to redefine modern westerns and win Best Picture. Raising Cain fell into relative obscurity for all but diehard De Palma fans and it would be 25 years before I got around to seeing the film that had tickled by early teenage imagination.

Scream Factory released Raising Cain earlier this Fall in one of their deluxe 2-disc “Collector’s Editions.” The main draw of this new set, beside the audiovisual upgrade that comes with the Blu-ray treatment, is the inclusion of the so-called “Director’s Cut” of the film. Although Brian De Palma wrote and directed Raising Cain, he was not entirely happy with the version that was released in theaters. Watching that cut of the film, it’s easy to see why.
Raising Cain is the story of a child psychologist (John Lithgow) who suffers from multiple personality disorder. After years of stability his psyche is shattered by two events: the re-emergence of a shadowy figure from his past, and the discovery that his wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich) has rekindled an affair with the man (Steven Bauer) she was in love with before they met. It’s a tale of suspense, mystery, revenge, kidnapping, and murder in De Palma’s thrilling signature style. Unfortunately, it doesn’t entirely work.

The best things about Raising Cain are the best things about any of the director’s films. De Palma knows how to build tension in the disconnect between what the characters and audience know, and the dreamlike way he doles out that information. There are twists and shocking revelations. Bits of backstory come to light as the stakes ramp up to a corker of a finale. That story is brought to life by the performances of Davidovich, Bauer, Frances Sternhagen, and a host of character actors playing people who, though flawed, fit into a recognizable cinematic representation of reality. The wild card here is John Lithgow’s Carter Nix, aka. Cain, whose hidden split personality and tragic history amplify the human drama of his wife’s romantic entanglement, turning it into something even darker.

Raising Cain comes together by the end into a tight thriller, but the journey is fractured. The biggest problem with the theatrical cut of the film is that it reveals Lithgow’s character as psycho killer from nearly the opening scene. There’s no mystery, no ramp up. It focuses on Carter, Cain, and their father’s scheme first, with the more relatable stuff about his wife relegated to B-plot. We know he’s a troubled guy well before she does, and it makes her emotional struggle less impactful as a result. Who cares that an old flame is back on the scene when her husband is cracked and stealing babies?
The “Director’s Cut” on Disc Two fixes some of these issues. It saves the Carter/Cain reveal until after the infidelity plot is well-established, which sets up the kind of unnerving twist De Palma utilizes in films like Dressed to Kill. The problem is that to maintain the purity of the reveal, the two halves are stitched together with narration and non-chronological storytelling. It’s less jarring in one way, more jarring in another. The other oddity with this cut is that wasn’t technically De Palma’s doing. In 2012, fan and director Peet Gelderblom took a leaked copy of Raising Cain’s original screenplay and the DVD, copied the film into his computer and re-ordered the scenes to match De Palma’s vision for the film. “Raising Cain Re-Cut” garnered praise from critics and fans, and even got the coveted blessing of De Palma himself. The legendary director was instrumental in convincing Scream Factory to include Gelderblom’s edit in this set. The “Director’s Cut” is a fascinating counterpoint to Raising Cain‘s theatrical incarnation, but it doesn’t magically fix the film. For all its improvements, it still feels like a fan edit. As close as Gelderblom got to De Palma’s original intent, he was limited to material in the theatrical version; several planned sequences were lost forever on the cutting room floor. It’s a valiant effort, but maybe there’s no “fixing” Raising Cain — and that’s okay. Its messy approach to storytelling echoes Carter’s fragmented psyche and other characters’ fumbling to put the pieces together. Discordant as the dreamlike elements of the film may be, De Palma’s bold filmmaking carry Raising Cain through 91 arresting, imperfect minutes.

Whichever version of Raising Cain you prefer, Scream Factory delivers a gorgeous 1.85:1 1080p transfer. The film has a purposely hazy look that doesn’t detract from fine detail and rich color. Given the standard-def roots of Gelderblom’s cut, I assume whoever prepared it for Scream Factory re-cut it from better source materials. Whatever the process, there’s no difference in quality between the two versions. Both cuts have the same audio options: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 mixes, both crisp with clear dialogue and ample power behind the Pino Donaggio score.

The “Director’s Cut” on Disc Two is the most substantial bonus feature included in the Raising Cain: Collector’s Edition, but there is plenty more to enjoy. Disc One has interviews with John Lithgow, Steven Bauer, editor Paul Hirsch, Gregg Henry, Tom Bower, and Mel Harris that add up to more than an hour and half in total; along with the theatrical trailer and a stills gallery. Disc Two has two short featurettes focused on the Director’s Cut. In “Changing Cain: Brian De Palma’s Cult Classic Restored” (2:25), Gelderblom talks about the inspiration behind his re-edit and reactions to his work, while the longer, standard def “Raising Cain Re-Cut: A Video Essay” (13:02) gives the fan editor the space to discuss the film, and detailed differences between the two versions. The set also comes with a slip cover and reversible cover art if you prefer the original poster to the new design.
Raising Cain doesn’t make the best first impression. It’s too bad, because Brian De Palma’s psychological thriller has some delicious reveals. Scream Factory provides two excellent ways to watch the film, in equally gorgeous theatrical and re-cut versions. Neither edit completely captures what the director seems to be going for, but both are great fun and worth experiencing for De Palma’s mastery and John Lithgow’s fearless performance. Scream Factory adds even more bang for your Blu-ray buck with the addition of a hefty collection of retrospective interviews and (sadly too-brief) “Director’s Cut” making of featurettes. Two flawed cuts equal one fascinating mess.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed reading this. After checking out both cuts on the Blu Ray I'm with you, the new edit is an interesting experiment, but ultimately fails. While the story may be more "pure" in the new version the pacing seems way off. I think I'll stick with the original in future viewings but I love having the option of both. Also I agree with your statement about a bad first impression. The first time I saw this I was underwhelmed, but I enjoy it slightly more each time I watch it.