Second Glance: The Dazzling Experimentation of the Restored ‘Raising Cain’

Brian De Palma's 1992 thriller got a new life from a new edit.

Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, on the eve of its 25th anniversary, we take a look at Brian De Palma’s stylish (and hilarious) suspense thriller Raising Cain.

Rarely do we get the opportunity to take a second glance at something that has become, without exaggeration, a new film. Yet that’s the case with Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain, 25 years old this month, but recently available (via an excellent Scream Factory collector’s edition) in a recut that changes the movie entirely. It’s labeled, as such things usually are, as the “director’s cut,” but that’s a misnomer; it’s a fan edit, originally assembled as an online video by director Peet Gelderblom, using an early draft of the script as his guide.

You see, De Palma had admitted, in interviews subsequent to Cain’s 1992 release (including those in the documentary De Palma), to a drastic eleventh-hour reordering of the movie during post-production — a knee-jerk response to poor test screenings, in which he shuffled its scenes into a more traditional and chronological structure. Gelderblom returned it to its original, more experimental form, and in the process, rescued it. This viewer (and De Palma fan) originally saw the film in its theatrical release, revisited it a few years later on video, and found it to be adequate but not particularly special both times – one of the filmmaker’s minor works. The new version stands with the best of his later films.

It’s a cheerfully bonkers movie, concerning split personalities, adultery, child kidnapping, and (of course) murder, full of fake-outs and shock turns, playful camera movements and formal experimentation. The new version, however, takes a bit longer to get to the nuttier elements, instead opening with the focus squarely on Jenny (the wonderful Lolita Davidovich), a doctor, mother, and wife who finds herself, rather suddenly, contemplating an affair with an old flame (Steven Bauer). She hesitates, though; as a friend points out, she is “married to the perfect man.” That would be Carter (John Lithgow), a renowned child psychologist who’s taken time off to raise their young daughter. But there’s something slightly off about Carter, and his wife has a “horrible feeling” that his compulsive nature “has something to do with his father.”

That’s the kind of little hint that De Palma loves to leave flapping in the breeze, while he attends to other matters. In the cast of the new Cain, that means following Jenny into her little affair, and the guilt, regret, and lust that follows, until the movie takes a hard right turn that reframes everything we think we know about Carter. (Well, okay, maybe that’s a little much – it’s John Lithgow in a Brian De Palma movie, so there’s a pretty good chance he’ll turn out to be evil.) It’s a diversion, of story and protagonist, similar to the one De Palma pulls with Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill (and that Hitchcock does with Janet Leigh in Psycho, the clear inspiration for both films).

Thus, the scene that reveals Carter’s true, deviant nature – in which he murders the mother of one of his kid’s playmates, while the toddlers snooze in the backseat – is a real rug-puller in the new cut. It was not so much in the original, theatrical version, where it was moved to the beginning of the movie, giving the audience a good, early jolt, but robbing us of Lithgow’s character turn (in that version, he’s nuts from the starter pistol), and making the Jenny scenes, when they arrive later, seem more incongruent and disconnected.

Instead, the screwy chronology of the director’s cut creates and maintains a perpetual state of uncertainty – we’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s fantasy, what’s past and what’s present, who’s awake and who’s dreaming, and if Carter’s twin (and later his father) are physical presences or figments of his imagination. The whole thing is so hazy and creepy that it could just be a nightmare, for Carter or Jenny, or even for her beau, who is deliciously set up to take the fall for Carter’s crimes.

It’s a tour de force performance for Lithgow, who’s clearly having a great time playing all these roles, sometimes with accompanying physical transformation, sometimes using only his voice and body language (he has an awe-inspiring scene, under hypnosis, as scared little boy “Josh”). This was his third collaboration with De Palma, who gives the actor ample opportunity to show off, and he doesn’t scrimp. It was also a reunion for the director and Baeur, who co-starred in Body Heat and Scarface, and though it was the filmmaker’s only collaboration with Davidovich, you can hardly tell; she has the devilish zestiness of his best heroines.

That comes in particularly handy in her early scenes, which replicate the charge of adultery – from a female perspective – that made Dressed to Kill so memorable. He also apes that movie’s blade-in-an-elevator scene, and then brings in an Untouchables baby carriage to boot. Oh, and when Frances Sternhagen arrives, about halfway through, to deliver a big slab of exposition and the rules for the rest of the movie it’s done in a long, unbroken, multi-building Steadicam shot, similar to the masterful one that opened his otherwise unexceptional previous movie, The Bonfire of the Vanities.

In other words, the degree to which De Palma is quoting himself in Raising Cain is its own entertainment, a parlor game for fans (and, I suppose, detractors too). And to top it off, these are often double frames of reference: the undying De Palma dig is that he spent his whole career ripping off Hitchcock, so I’d like to think that when he quotes Psycho as directly as he does here (first with a scene pushing a dead-body-carrying car into swampy water, and then with a scene of a shrink explaining the killer’s split personality to the cops), he’s doing it with a wink, acknowledging that he knows we see him, and sees us too.

When Raising Cain was released that summer of 1992, De Palma was at a low point. His last feature, the 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire, was an unmitigated critical and commercial disaster – so much so that it spawned a 1991 book, The Devil’s Candy, about its troubled production. Bonfire also found De Palma working in a style and tone not terribly familiar or comfortable, so as he so often has when an off-brand film failed, he immediately followed up with a more traditional De Palma picture, of the suspense/erotic thriller ilk. (He similarly chased Mission to Mars with Femme Fatale, and Redacted with Passion.) In fact, Cain was explicitly sold as such: the original marketing tagline was “De Mented. De Ranged. De Ceptive. De Palma.” And to that end, Raising Cain was a true “Brian De Palma movie,” in its purest form; the specifics change, but the subjects (and, often, the stylistic devices) stay the same. And this, more than any visual cues or narrative commonalities, is his real tie to Hitchcock, who spent most of his career revisiting the same themes, and building his narratives around the things he wanted to do with his camera. Movies don’t get much more De Palma than Raising Cain, and in its new and improved form, it can finally get the praise it deserves.

“Raising Cain” is available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory. The theatrical version is available for rental or purchase, but seriously, just see it the right way, don’t be a jerk.