Raising Cain a Campy 90s Psychological Thriller That Rarely Bores

By and large, director Brian De Palma is largely known for his crime and psychological thrillers. To date, The Untouchables, Scarface, and Dressed to Kill remain genre classics. On a handful of occasions, however, De Palma has ventured into ‘near horror’ territory (Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise) and outright horror (Carrie). In addition to his bombastic visual style, De Palma has always been a big Alfred Hitchcock fans, which often shows in his work. Following the catastrophic The Bonfire of the Vanities, De Palma somewhat course-corrected with the bizarre thriller Raising Cain.


Dr. Carter Nix may be the perfect father and husband. He’s a leave from his child psychology practice to raise his daughter Amy, and spend more time with his wife, Jenny. But Jenny worries that Carter obsesses over their daughter, studying her like a research subject. As Carter’s behaviour becomes increasingly odd, Jenny fear that her husband may be hiding a secret darker than his past relationship with his mysterious father.

Raising Cain an Often Illogical But Always Visually Stunning Thriller

Nothing about the above synopsis can prepare you for the sheer insanity of Raising Cain. Serving as both writer and director, Brian De Palma serves up a thriller that rarely makes sense. Yet it’s often entertaining and never boring. Like Alfred Hitchcock, De Palma dives into Freudian-flavored pop psychology. Just how much stock you can put in the depiction of multiple personality disorder (or, as it’s now referred to, Dissociative Identity) is questionable. And there’s huge lapses in logic littered throughout the screenplay. Oftentimes the story feels less like a labyrinth and just plain confused. Apparently, a diehard fan re-edited the thriller and De Palma liked it so much that it became the Scream Factory director’s cut. At the very least, Raising Cain boasts wild shifts in its narrative that approach midnight movie madness.

…Brian De Palma serves up a thriller that rarely makes sense. Yet it’s often entertaining and never boring.

Regardless of its occasionally illogical story, Raising Cain assaults the audience with De Palma’s signature bombastic style. One of the thriller’s biggest problems also happens to be its greatest strength. Specifically, De Palma struggles to keep his over-the-top style from slipping into self-parody. Sometimes it’s hard to tell you’re supposed to be laughing or its just an unintentional side effect of the melodrama. But there’s no denying the sheer craftsmanship of several scenes. A midpoint scene playfully riffs on Psycho, while the finale nearly approaches the grandeur of The Untouchables’ climax. Even the closing scene is something of a masterstroke of suspense. What’s missing from Raising Cain are stakes to go along with the visual pageantry. It’s hard to tell if De Palma wants

Raising Cain Miscasts Talented Performers to Mixed Effect

Maybe audiences weren’t the only ones confused with De Palma’s intentions. While it’s not accurate to say the performances here are poor – they most certainly are not – there’s either a miscasting problem or the actors weren’t certain what to do with the screenplay. For John Lithgow, Raising Cain marked the first, but not the last, time he felt oddly miscast. Of course, Lithgow is more than capable of playing a chilling villain. Look no further than Season Four of Dexter for proof. But whether he’s playing ‘Carter’, ‘Cain’, ‘Margo’, or ‘Josh’, Lithgow’s performance feels intentionally over-the-top. This isn’t necessarily a problem unless De Palma intended Raising Cain to a be serious psychological thriller.

But whether he’s playing ‘Carter’, ‘Cain’, ‘Margo’, or ‘Josh’, Lithgow’s performance feels intentionally over-the-top.

Other familiar faces turn up in Raising Cain to mixed results. Both Lolita Davidovich and Steven Bauer come off about as well as one could expect. To some extent, Davidovich and Bauer are caught in the middle. De Palma’s screenplay requires them to play things as straight-faced as possible amidst a style and story that veers towards camp. As Dr. Lyn Waldheim, Frances Sternhagen (Misery) makes the most of a role that’s more or less in the movie to deliver the same kind of expository dialogue that annoyed fans of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Fortunately, Sternhagen brings a quirky energy to the role that’s consistent with the thriller’s tone. Not helping debates about the movie’s intended tone are Gregg Henry and Tom Bower’s (The Hills Have Eyes) police officers who feel like Keystone Cops thrown into the mix.

Campy, Bombastic, Occasionally Nonsensical – Raising Cain is Vintage 90s De Palma

Like most of Brian De Palma’s work, Raising Cain is a big slice of stylish melodrama. Unlike his best movies, however, De Palma doesn’t seem to have a good grasp over the thriller’s tone. It may not even be true to say Raising Cain detours into camp territory. Almost from the beginning this thriller has campy undertones. Yet this may be precisely why it works. Still. Either in spite of or because of its wild tone and illogical plotting, Raising Cain is a zany thriller that’s never boring and often quite entertaining. It may not be the best representation of Brian De Palma’s work, but it’s still a fun thriller worth re-visiting.


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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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