Once I decided to dive into Brian De Palma’s films as part of It’s All Connected 2020, I had to figure out which ones leaned towards horror and which of those happened to be streaming right now. That got me to 1980’s Dressed To Kill which is currently on Amazon Prime. Now, compared to Phantom Of The Paradise, Carrie and The Fury, this film might just barely qualify as horror (most would probably go with the “thriller” label), but it certainly got me thinking, so here goes!
The film kicks off with Kate (Angie Dickinson) clearly unhappy with her housewife existence. She’s so bored with her husband that she plays a chaotic game of tag with a stranger at the art museum just to get a thrill. After bedding this guy, she finds out he’s got VD as the cool kids used to say back when this film came out and her day gets worse from there. SPOILERS for the rest of this paragraph. While leaving the guy’s apartment, Kate winds up on the wrong end of a sharp object wielded by a mysterious figure. As she lie dying in an elevator (in a perfectly tense scene), escort Liz (Nancy Allen) sees her and the attacker, but can’t do anything before the doors close.
At that point, Kate’s psychologist Dr. Elliott gets a threatening phone call from Bobbi (voiced by William Finley) saying that the murder can be pinned on him. Meanwhile, Liz has to deal with Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) who has Liz’s prints on the murder weapon (because she stupidly picked it up after it fell on her side of the elevator door). She teams up with Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) who uses his tech knowledge to track down his mother’s killer. After a series of near misses, everything comes to a huge conclusion that’s supposed to be shocking, but doesn’t really play that well these days.
Everything from here on until the last paragraph is SPOILER TERRITORY. I give De Palma a lot of credit for taking the bones of Psycho and upping the ante. From the far more graphic shower scenes (one to start and one to nearly end the film) to the huge set-up that goes into Kate’s life, he builds a world of suspense. I was feeling for Kate HARD and then she gets taken off the board. But before that she’s dealing with a broken marriage, the realization that she might have a sexually transmitted disease and the fact that she left her ring behind in his place! So, if like me you’re unfamiliar with this movie, it’s a gigantic surprise when she gets offed, much like Vera Miles in Psycho. I took over a page of notes just on her struggles before they came to a bloody end!
De Palma also explored the thread of the killer’s gender identity. I’m no psychologist (almost minored in it, but didn’t want to mess around with stats class), but to me Norman Bates dresses as his mother because he takes on her dominating and suffocating persona (or at least his perception of it), while Elliott is described as — if I’m remembering correctly — having a murderous alternate personality stemming from gender confusion. In both films you get the doctor explaining the minds of the killers at the end. It might be too little, too late, but you also get Liz explaining to Peter what being transgender means — albeit in language that doesn’t feel right by today’s standards — while also singling Elliott out as being unhinged for other reasons.
All that being said, it still didn’t sit right as someone who’s trying to be as open and understanding as possible (and probably screwing up terms left and right in this post). Then again, it is 40 years old. Either way, I’m no expert on the subject and can easily see why some folks want nothing to do with with this movie. I can say with certainty that Dressed To Kill is horrible to those with mental disorder, not just in what Elliott does, but also the horrendous depiction of Belvue. It looked like something out of a latter day Freddy sequel and was a total embarrassment.
And here’s the other thing, the reveal is super duper obvious, right? As soon as I saw how much De Palma was bending over backwards to not fully show the killer in the elevator, I guessed that the assumption of the killer’s identity would be suspect. My assumption was that it was simply a man dressing up as a woman to hide his identity, but it obviously went deeper than that.
It’s funny how your opinion of a movie can change after you write about it. Initially I would have said, “Dressed To Kill is very well-made, hornier and bloodier version of Psycho.” Now, though, after processing it all, I think there are plenty of other fantastic thrillers to watch that won’t leave this bad taste in your mouth, even ones by De Palma. And it’s a damn shame because the Dickinson stuff is so great, this might be my favorite Nancy Allen performance and I love the idea of Liz and Peter using their unique skills to solve crimes, but I just don’t think that balances out with the abysmal on-screen treatment of these groups that already have a hard time as it is.
All that being said, I’m still sticking with him for one more entry before jumping into a film that helped launch one career, destroyed another and gave viewers their first look at a horror icon.