Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) finds the director recovering from the lackluster box office of The Fury with a sleazy concoction of sex and violence and more sex. It is hardly a subtle work, as it lurches from erotic fantasy to razor-wielding maniac horror to detective yarn to psychological twaddle. It purports to be a mystery, but it has too few characters to make it much of a mystery. Mostly, it succeeds by sheer force of De Palma’s stylishness, which is just as over the top as the film’s sex and violence. Though popular and reasonably well received by the critics of the time, it’s also the film in which the director went from being regarded as influenced by Hitchcock to derivative of him.
That’s not entirely unfair. The brilliantly staged — and completely silent — museum sequence, in which sexually unsatisfied housewife Angie Dickinson pursues a strange man (Ken Baker), looks like something out of Vertigo (1958). The premise and the film’s most surprising twist have more than a passing familiarity with Psycho (1960) — as does the psychiatric babble. But there’s more at work here than a Hitchcock rip-off. A lot of the material is simply of its time — the nerdy heroic kid (Keith Gordon), the good-hearted, stock-playing hooker heroine (Nancy Allen), the obnoxious detective (Dennis Franz) with his fake leather jacket and gold chains. These are not Hitckcock details. Also, the film clearly borrows from De Palma’s own Carrie at both the beginning and the end. (At the end it almost feels like parody.) But the main outside influence would seem to be Dario Argento’s giallo thrillers. The wayward plot, the razor-brandishing killer in the black trench coat, the unpredictable nature of the shocks — these all have more direct connection to Argento than to Hitchcock. In the end, the mix is so great that — for better or worse — what emerges is uniquely De Palma.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Dressed to Kill Thursday, June 20, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.