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‘Raising Cain’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 07, 1992

In his new thriller, "Raising Cain," director Brian De Palma addresses his most vivid personal issues -- his obsession with Hitchcock and twins, and the loss of innocence -- but he runs through them impersonally, as if the luster of his own obsessions has worn off.

That luster is about all that's missing from this flamboyant, skillfully crafted bit of moviemaking, but its absence makes "Raising Cain" seem like something of a rehash. It's a fall from the heights of "Casualties of War," and though not as deep a plunge as either "The Bonfire of the Vanities" or "Wise Guys," it still makes us long for better days.

The movie, which De Palma also wrote, is the filmmaker's attempt to explore the theme of child abuse, and, as usual, he does so by way of homage, to both Hitchcock's "Psycho" and Michael Powell's "Peeping Tom."

The villain here is straight out of Powell. A brilliant child psychologist, Carter (John Lithgow) looks at first glance like a loving father to his young daughter and a gentle, caring husband to his wife, Jenny (Lolita Davidovich). Everyone keeps telling her she's got the perfect man.

But Carter, it seems, is something more than a doting super-dad. So much more, in fact, that the rooms inside his head are starting to get a little crowded. As a result of the brutal experiments perpetrated by his own loving father, Dr. Nix (again, played by Lithgow), who was himself an eminent child psychologist before he lost his license for stealing babies, Carter is a multiple-personality with a whole menagerie of alter egos vying for control over his psyche. The most dominant is an evil twin named Cain (Lithgow, again, this time in a black leather jacket and shades), who takes over whenever something unpleasant has to be done, like dumping a body into the marsh.

The cruel twist here is that Carter didn't merely become a multiple-personality; he was intentionally and methodically raised as one by his dad to test out his theories on abnormal psychology. He's a lab rat -- and all that's needed for the older man to complete his studies is a control group of other babies against which to test his findings.

This last detail is what sets the film's plot in motion. When the father decides he wants to take up his research again, he enlists Carter and Cain to do the kidnapping for him. Carter, who is far too afraid of his old man to deny him, usually initiates the crimes, but it's usually Cain, who licks his lips over this kind of job, who's called in to finish them up.

Yet as the killing and kidnapping spree progresses, the movie becomes less and less interesting. Though De Palma is a great director, he does some things better than others, and what he does badly he does really badly. Plotting has never been one of his stronger suits, nor has screenwriting, and whatever meager talent he might have shown for either completely deserts him here. With its exaggerated, claustrophobic style, the movie is never less than fascinating, but at the same time, it's something less than engrossing. The movie is scary, but then De Palma never had to prove his ability to get us on the edge of our seats. Still, the narrative is so disjointed that it feels a little schizoid too. There's no flow to the story and no way for us to be anything more than superficially involved.

Our only real connection and about the only source of fun is Lithgow. (Davidovich and Steven Bauer, who plays Jenny's former lover, seem almost intentionally bland, like the colorless heroes in many of Hitchcock's films.) Though Lithgow is listed in the credits as playing four roles (the last and perhaps most vicious is "Margo"), the actor is far more Promethean than that. Before he became a star, Lithgow specialized in these kind of dissonant, spooky villains, and he's great at it. Switching effortlessly back and forth between identities, Lithgow plays Carter's multiple personalities like a concert virtuoso. And while Cain is truly bone-chilling, it's Carter, the spineless weakling, who is perhaps even more disturbing.

The most frightening shot of the movie may be its first. It's an image picked up off the video monitor in the daughter's room of Carter curled up in bed, whispering gently to his little girl while she sleeps, and it sends a flash of cold fire through your veins -- especially when we learn what his father did to him. And we keep waiting for De Palma to dig deeper into the subject of child abuse -- to follow up on the truly horrifying implications of that first shot. But De Palma (and his studio) must have decided that, given our current hypersensitivity to the issue, audiences wouldn't sit still for a movie that took us any closer to the dangerous edge of this subject than "Raising Cain" does. And they might have been right.

Still, the failure to go beyond implication blunts the movie's power and leaves De Palma stranded. As a result, the film becomes merely a scary prank. It's as if he forgot why he was making the movie in the first place.

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