One of my chief criteria for mounting this marathon was allowing myself a limited number of accepted classics. There are certain dummy-proof horror classics that populate every single list. Google it sometime; The Exorcist is the accepted #1, and the top 10 is usually a variety that includes Silence of the Lambs, Jaws, Alien, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, and often The Blair Witch Product as their token concession to the modern era. Which, yawn; sure, they’re all varying degrees of good, but who cares? If a list’s purpose is, in some measure, to recommend, that doesn’t do anything for the dyed-in-the-wool horror devotee. The horror devotee has seen all of those. Multiple times.
Enter Dressed to Kill. You see, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is also a popular fixture on these lists; I’d wager that the most frequent “top two slots” configuration places it just behind The Exorcist at #2. With good reason — it’s a brilliant genre monolith, and my earliest gateway into the genre — but it’s simply too predictable. Not the film, mind you — if a person could go into it truly blind (unlikely, but if they could), they’d find it one of the most surprising films of all time — but its placement, and the fact that every beat of the story is all too familiar at this point. Director Brian de Palma, an avowed Hitchcock devotee and imitator, mounts his own tale of madness, Dressed to Kill, as a direct homage to (some would say rip-off of) Hitch’s most infamous film.
It’s an unsurprising turn of events for a polarizing director often accused of blatant cinematic forgery; indeed, there’s a sharp line in the sand drawn between those who find De Palma an exciting, imaginative stylist and a tawdry, hack-y rip-off artist. But, just as Quentin Tarantino reinvigorates the mediums of his past by infusing them with a cool patchwork sensibility, De Palma’s best work stands alone as some of the most purely entertaining cinema of the ’70s and ’80s. Carrie, Sisters, Obsession, Blow Out — they’re all masterfully executed thrillers, and Dressed to Kill, despite cribbing directly from one of the most famous horror movies of all time, is no exception.
Granted, it’s not nearly as innovative. All the familiar beats of the story are there, but twenty years removed from Psycho, we’ve seen them before. It’s fun to point out the multiple ways the films line up, though: we’re introduced to our ostensible heroine early on, she’s portrayed by a headlining actress (Janet Leigh in Psycho, Angie Dickinson here), she’s immediately introduced as morally dubious (Leigh’s character is on the run after stealing money, Dickinson’s sexually frustrated wife is bedding a complete stranger after some eye contact at a museum), she’s wracked with guilt immediately after her transgressions, and, perhaps most notably, is dispatched at the hand of a mysterious dress-clad figure before the moral crisis is resolved. At this point, the narrative shifts, and follows a plucky new heroine trying to get to the bottom of things. The simplistic outline is so exact that it’s almost like tracing the Mona Lisa, and then coloring it in with new hues. It’s a ballsy move either way.
Still, if you’ve seen Psycho too many times, Dressed to Kill is a delightful alternative. De Palma’s roving camera is exquisite here, hungry, detail-obsessed, colorful. The violent setpieces pop with cinematic verve — the central elevator murder is a masterstroke, and the man’s got a way of filming a corridor that makes it seem like the most terrifying thing in the world. Like Psycho, it’s more of a murder mystery with a blackly comic heart that earns its genre reputation on the basis of a few crucially-placed sequences, but the film’s overall look (the bright colors resemble prime Argento) and the insistence on paying homage to the Master of Suspense not only superficially but structurally is a thrilling gambit, and one that pays dividends. Also, Michael Caine is a force to be reckoned with when he wants to be.
So, the still-burning question: did I choose Dressed to Kill simply to buck predictability, and to subtly sneak Psycho onto this list? You don’t know… you’ll never know. And now you’ll take that uncertainty… TO YOUR GRAVE!
Wait, I meant to say: yes, yes I did.
Extra Credit: Well, go ahead and watch Psycho if you haven’t seen that. I’m not a Philistine.
More 31 Days of Halloween:
Day 1: May
Day 2: The Night of the Hunter
Day 3: The Descent
Day 4: Night of the Demons
Day 5: Them
Days 6 & 7: Night of the Living Dead // Dawn of the Dead
Day 8: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Day 9: A Tale of Two Sisters
Day 10: When a Stranger Calls // Amusement
Day 11: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Day 12: The Orphanage
Day 13: I Know What You Did Last Summer