Splatter Time Fun Fest 2012: Dressed To Kill (1980)

I’m never dressed for anything, let alone to kill, I need to work on my wardrobe!

Written By: Brian De Palma
Directed By: Brian De Palma

My wife checked out of Dressed To Kill after the opening shower masturbation scene. I understand her reasons, but at the same time I had an inkling that Dressed To Kill was a film that was in control of its sleaze as opposed to its sleaze being in control of it. I’d go so far as to say that it’s important that Kate, played by Angie Dickinson, be oversexualized. Her rampant sexuality is the only reason she meets her fate, because in a film about struggling with your sexual identity it only makes sense that the most confident sexual character would meet an unseemly end. The same goes for Liz, played by Nancy Allen, she isn’t conflicted about her feelings on sex and that’s why she becomes a target. Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill is ripe with sexual politics and gender identity issues, and those themes only work because of how over the top the sexuality of the film is throughout.

I was caught up in the web that Mr. De Palma was weaving in Dressed To Kill very early on. By the time he focused on a shot of Kate’s crossed feet next to the wide open stance of Warren’s feet I was completely ensnared. That is a small shot but it tells the viewer everything they need to know about the sexual games those two characters are playing. Outside of one exposition scene (which I do believe was heavy on exposition on purpose) involving a doctor near the end Dressed To Kill is a film that allows its visuals to tell its story. It’s as if the characters in this melodramatic thriller exist to serve the visuals. That’s not a bad thing in this case as Mr. De Palma gives the characters life and meaning through the visual artistry he employs.

Of course the visual force that Mr. De Palma uses to tell his story would not have worked without actors so willing to play their parts. Michael Caine is aloof and unhinged in a very believable way. Angie Dickinson is the sexpot stereotype come to life, and during the scene in the elevator it as if sex itself is being attacked. Nancy Allen is the odd combination of assured and wide eyed, that’s why she’s never a traditional damsel in distress but more of a damsel who might be able to take care of herself or who might wind up dead. Dennis Franz comes up against a way of life, and people, that he doesn’t understand and his detective is as vitriolic and bitter as I think the majority of people would be when confronted with something that challenges their way of life. Finally there is Keith Gordon who plays Peter Miller as the type of know it all kid who is in way over his head but finds a way to succeed because he’s just innocent enough to come out on top.

Complimenting the acting and the visual flare is the suspense that peppers the film. Mr. De Palma’s film has a mood and atmosphere where it seems like the next moment might be the last for the character the camera happens to be following at that moment. There’s always the sense that something bad is going to happen. At the same time there is a deep understanding of what makes a good horror film and the beats that us horror fans will eat up with a spoon. The difference between Dressed To Kill and a typically good horror film is that Dressed To Kill isn’t afraid to spice things up visually or to spend the time needed to hit home the films major themes.

Speaking of the themes found in Dressed To Kill, they are handled in quite the deft fashion. I know I touched on them once already, but I was mightily impressed by the way in which Mr. De Palma navigated the issues of gender, sexual politics, and sexual identity. The sexuality of Dressed To Kill is glaringly obvious, but its themes are implemented in a way that they are anything but. As soon as Liz starting hanging around with the young and clearly virginal Peter I expected there to be sexual tension. But, there is none and they never form an obviously sexual relationship. To do so would detract from the abnormal relationships that are at the heart of Dressed To Kill. Mr. De Palma does not detract, throughout Dressed To Kill he adds layer upon layer to the films main themes until the end result is a film that is as rich thematically as it is in all other aspects.

Dressed To Kill is an amazing combination of acting, visual artistry, themes, and an understanding of the tenseness of a good suspense yarn. There is no doubt in my mind that Dressed To Kill is the best picture ever to come from the considerable directorial skills of Brian De Palma. It speaks to his identity as a director and to the fetishes that got him started in the world of film. Dressed To Kill is an achievement of note as a horror film and as a film in general. Don’t let the first couple of minutes steer you wrong, there’s so much more to Dressed To Kill than meets the eye.




5 responses to “Splatter Time Fun Fest 2012: Dressed To Kill (1980)

  1. Mark Middlemas

    I have to admit I checked out after the first scene too. I probably should try to stick to it. I’ve never really dug DePalma. I get him intellectually, but emotionally I found his work off putting. Maybe I need to give it another shot.

  2. I’d definitely give Dressed To Kill another shot. I’m not a big De Palma fan by any measure, and I, obviously, dug the hell out of it.

  3. I love this movie, but I haven’t seen it since the 90s. Need to re-watch with a closer eye, since I never noticed some of the things you pointed out.

  4. I will admit that I was ready and willing to dig deeper thanks to a review from the guys at The Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema. That got me going, and I think knowing what I did about De Palma and what caused him to become a director pointed me a little deeper as well.

  5. Pingback: Splatter Time Fun Fest 2012: The 3rd Annual Bloody Machete Awards | Bill's Movie Emporium

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