This Underrated Brian De Palma Film Is Perfect For Valentine’s Day

Raising Cain

There aren’t all that many horror thrillers set around Valentine’s Day. We have Valentine and My Bloody Valentine. But watching one of the same two selections every February 14th can be a bit of a drag. With that in mind, I am coming to the table with a recommendation that I think deserves more acclaim. I’m talking about Brian De Palma’s Raising Cain. The film may not get everything right but it serves up some effective thrills and chills against the backdrop of the holiday of love. And when you think about it, even De Palma’s lesser efforts still pack an impressive punch. 

Raising Cain follows Carter (John Lithgow), a psychologist with designs to study personality development in early childhood. Rather than going through proper channels, Carter begins kidnapping children (and killing their mothers) to further his research. When Carter learns that his wife, Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), is having an affair, he becomes even more unstable, leading to a downward spiral that involves deceit, murder, and the re-emergence of unspeakable childhood trauma. 

The film’s theatrical edit has been the source of much controversy since its release in 1992. Test screenings yielded feedback that De Palma’s use of a nonlinear storyline was confusing. So, the studio demanded a recut, which inevitably took some of the mystique out of the version of the film presented to audiences. On that basis, De Palma superfan Peet Gelderblom recut the picture to preserve more of the mystery until later in the film. That version has since won the favor of De Palma and garnered a significant fanbase.  

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While the structure of the theatrical cut does take something away from the experience, I would vehemently argue that it still has plenty of merits exactly as it is. So, for the sake of simplicity, I will focus this essay on the theatrical version because it remains the most widely accessible incarnation of Raising Cain. But for anyone keen to track down the alternate cut, Shout Factory has released Gelderblom’s version as part of a collector’s edition Blu-ray.

No matter which cut of the film you watch, John Lithgow’s ever-versatile performance is a key element of the picture’s success. The actor shines in his turn as several different characters and personas that live inside Carter’s mind. Lithgow manages to convey a sense of real menace in his turn as Cain, helplessness as Carter, and a level of unhinged fury in his portrayal of Dr. Nix.  

Like so many of De Palma’s films, Raising Cain is filled with giallo influences. Although it may not have been De Palma’s initial intent, the theatrical cut sort of functions as an exercise in dream logic. There’s a constant surreal quality to the proceedings that feels reminiscent of the output of Argento and Bava. The inclusion of multiple dream sequences combined with narrative developments that feel very dreamlike make the proceedings a bit chaotic. But given my deep appreciation of the Italian murder mysteries of yesteryear, I don’t mind. 

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The film is also helped along by a number of signature De Palma techniques, including some beautiful split screen and split diopter shots. Not to mention, the director frequently demonstrates his keen ability to craft tension. The sequence where Jenny believes she’s left a gift for Carter in her lover Jack’s (Steven Bauer) hotel room is supremely suspenseful. The footage is assembled masterfully and paired with a chilling Pino Donaggio score. The exchange serves to keep the viewer in a state of perpetual dread as Jenny sneaks into Jack’s room in the middle of the night. There’s a jump scare associated with this setup that makes me leap out of my skin every time I see it. Even though I know it’s coming, I still react the same way.

Moreover, the picture’s final shot is absolutely phenomenal. The way it’s framed and what transpires within only serves to make me love this film all the more.  

As I mentioned previously, Raising Cane is set on and around Valentine’s Day. There are plenty of references to the holiday to make this flick a logical alternative to the obvious choices we revisit each year. Valentine’s Day works as a nice backdrop, giving Jenny a reason to buy gifts for both her husband and her lover. But it’s not a central theme, which makes it accessible all year.

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If you decide to give Raising Cain a look, keep in mind that the depiction of dissociative identity disorder is largely inaccurate and often offensive. I don’t imagine De Palma was deliberately trying to demonize this rare mental health condition or suggest that those who experience it are predisposed to violence. But the film is a product of its time and prospective viewers should take that into account going in. 

On the whole, Raising Cain is a flawed film that still manages to deliver some intense and suspenseful sequences. John Lithgow shows real versatility as a thespian here. And, as always, De Palma manages to imbue the picture with a sinister energy that is sure to leave the viewer ill at ease. 



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