Classic Movies: Dressed to Kill (1980)

Directed by – Brian De Palma
Written by – Brian De Palma
Starring – Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen, Keith Gordon, Ken Baker, David Margulies, Dennis Franz & Susanna Clemm, with the voice of William Finley

Brian de Palma is one of the most hit-or-miss directors is the business. For every gem (Carrie, Carlito’s Way) we get a clunker or two (The Black Dahlia, Passion, Scarface – which is hugely overrated… the list goes on) and no matter what the man says or does one can never shake the fact that he’s little more than a Hitchcock fanboy who has been let loose with a camera and too much money. In fact, de Palma’s appreciation of Hitchcock is so intense that he’s even taken to indulging in the man’s pathological fear and hatred of women. All things considered, it’s hardly a winning formula.

Enter Dressed to Kill, de Palma’s homage to / rip-off of Psycho (depending on your point of view…), an “erotic thriller” that makes explicit the natural relationship between the slasher genre and sex. In a sense, it’s a fascinating film. It’s slick, stylish and engaging, and it somehow manages to establish a decent level of tension despite the fact that it is so utterly stupid. The performances are camp but endearing and the story is maddening, though there’s nothing wrong with a bit of kitsch now and then. The visuals borrow heavily from the works of Dario Argento, the themes are plucked straight from Psycho and the score feels like it’s been composed for a different film entirely, yet still people seem to love Dressed to Kill. Heck, I used to be one of those people! Alas, not anymore…

Dressed to Kill - 1980
The problem for me isn’t that the film takes its inspiration from Psycho but that it’s just a blatant rip-off of Hitchcock’s far superior film. If I told you that this was a film in which the leading lady is murdered early on, in which promiscuity leads to death, in which the male killer is dressed as a woman and in which a psychiatrist gives us an awkward explanation for the film’s events you’d think I was mistaken and that I’d actually watched Psycho but no, that’s exactly how de Palma’s film plays out. Heck, Angie Dickinson (Rio Bravo, Point Blank) even looks like Janet Leigh! The film doesn’t lack substance rather it’s just utterly devoid of originality, and no amount of stylistic direction from de Palma can alter that fact.

Furthermore, while Hitchcock’s film is brimming with subtle sexual imagery, de Palma’s effort is much too heavy-handed for its own good. The explicit nature of the murder sequence and the sex scenes do a disservice to the ideas that the film attempts to explore. The audience is beaten over the head by a film whose director doesn’t know when to rein it in. Someone ought to tell de Palma that – sometimes – less is more… not that he’d listen. His sexist direction is problematic enough but when he glorifies murder scenes, objectifies his female characters and fails, totally and utterly, to explore the issues in any real depth, he turns an exploitation film into an exploitative one. It’s actually tough to believe that the man responsible for one of the most feminist films of all time is also responsible for this, but responsible he is; though that’s at least more than can be said for his film’s portrayal of transsexuality…

Ah yes; the elephant in the room. The portrayal of transsexuality in this film isn’t just stupid, it’s also insulting. It’s a shame that de Palma is such a reprehensible figure because the themes that his film explores – lack of fulfilment, the power of female sexuality and the consequences of victim-blaming – are all perfectly solid, yet the film either makes light of them or it does them a total disservice by dismissing them once the first act is finished. Forget camp charm; this is a film that wants you to think that it’s playful and lovingly mocking something when in actual fact it’s just offensive and trashy, and not in a good way.

And that, above all else, is what annoys me most about Dressed to Kill. There’s a decent film hidden in there somewhere but de Palma just isn’t the right man to prize it out effectively. Don’t get me wrong, the man is a master of audience manipulation and his techniques are very solid, but his skills are wasted on this film because it’s just such a poor imitation of a much better film. It’s an exercise in flair over substance – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but because it’s little more than a work of plagiarism that treats its themes as things to be mocked it does leave a rotten taste in the mouth. There’s nothing wrong with paying homage to a classic film but outside of its style, Dressed to Kill has no personality of its own.

I used to love this film. It was one of my favourite slashers when I was a teenager, even though only one person actually gets “slashed”. Now, though I don’t hate it, I recognise it for what it is. It’s not so much a volte-face as it is a shift in focus on my part; what I thought was a decent exploration of the link between sex and horror is, in fact, a lazy and ever-so-slightly nasty exercise in exploitation.

I hope Body Double – which I’ll be rewatching on Friday – doesn’t go the same way, but I now really do fear that it might…

★★

Review also posted on Letterboxd

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