Raising Cain (1992) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The WTF Happened to This Horror Movie series takes a look at the 1992 Brian De Palma film Raising Cain, starring John Lithgow

The episode of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? covering Raising Cain was Written and Narrated by Mike Holtz, Edited by Joseph Wilson, Produced by Andrew Hatfield and John Fallon, and Executive Produced by Berge Garabedian.

There’s a lot to miss about the ’90s. Video stores. Arcades. Music Television. On and on. One of the many things I miss is the slew of original thrillers that used to grace the big screen. Each one with varying amounts of horror, cheesiness, and sex. Richard Gere and Michael Douglas were involved in more sex and danger in the ’90s than Maureen Prescott’s ghost. But today isn’t about watching the guy from Falling Down rip his expensive and pleated slacks off in a fever of passion. It’s about directing legend Brian De Palma returning to the genre with his very own fever dream Fight Club. A story of split personalities, kidnapping and maybe the gnarliest case of home wrecking you’ve ever witnessed. Today is the story of just WTF happened to Raising Cain.

Scarface and Carrie director Brian De Palma had been wary of going back into the thriller genre in 1992. After already having films like Body Double and Blow Out under his belt, he feared it would be a step back in his career. It was an important time for him after all. The director was just off the heels of the failure of his last film, The Bonfire of the Vanities, a film that went so badly, that Wall Street Journal writer Julie Salamon released an entire book about it called The Devil’s Candy: ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood’. De Palma had taken a huge swing at adapting a popular book while straying far from the source material. This left The Bonfire of the Vanities as a part of his filmography he’d rather forget. He would himself later admit “Trying to be successful, I made a very unsuccessful movie.” But as he would also say “When you’re burned down to the ground, you just try to get up in the morning and go back to work”. So, the stars would align perfectly for De Palma to step back into the horror-thriller genre with Raising Cain (watch it HERE). A movie that De Palma said “isn’t (Marcel Proust’s) Remembrance of Things Past. It’s just a low-budget mystery-suspense film we hope will go out and make a little money.”

De Palma would write and direct the project which featured a man named Carter who had split personality disorder on the account of his twisted child psychologist father toying with his mind. This results in him having multiple personalities, mainly dominated by a man named Cain who would, in pure Me, Myself and Irene fashion show up whenever Carter felt threatened or unable to handle the consequences of a situation. Carter’s wife, Jenny, becomes suspicious of the obsessive amount of detail he pays to their daughter Amy after he decides to be a stay-at-home dad while Jenny goes to work as a doctor. A place where, previous to their marriage she fell for a man named Jack while she was treating his wife for terminal cancer. His wife would eventually die as the two made out in front of her on New Year’s Eve. I mean, seriously, who makes out with someone’s husband over top of them while they’re on their deathbed? These two deserve the worst.

Raising Cain (1992) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

After running off upset because, you know, his wife died watching him make out with her doctor…. Jack shows up in her life out of the blue after she’s married and has a child with Carter. As previously established Jenny is also the worst person ever so they begin an affair together. Complete with an egregious amount of moaning in public spaces not far from children’s playgrounds. Carter sees this and you feel awful for him. But then again, there’s this whole thing about him kidnapping small children for his nutbar father who may or may not be just another one of his personalities. That definitely tapers your sympathy. Nevertheless, Cain is brought to the surface once again and unfolds a trail of murder and mayhem throughout the film’s running time as we uncover the many layers of diabolical twists and turns De Palma has in store for us. Between misleading fever dreams, John Lithgow hamming it up, and characters coming back from the dead…. De Palma is having the time of his life toying with the audience.

The inspiration for this Wild and Crazy Kids storyline came from several places. Some while he was working on The Bonfire of the Vanities as he imagined the idea of a suspense movie set on a child’s playground. Then there was the time he was having a relationship with a married woman himself and while watching her sleep, imagining what would happen should he decide not to wake her up in time to go back to her husband. Finally, to round off the idea smorgasbord De Palma had a child psychologist friend who took a leave of absence from his practice to study his own child. All of this in De Palma’s imaginative mind ultimately turned into the macabre mashed potatoes plot that was Raising Cain. He put the lime in the f*cked up (bleeped) and mixed them both together. That’s how the song goes, right?

The film was originally titled Father’s Day and I can’t help but think that given what we know about holiday-based horror movies, could have given rise to an entire franchise had they stuck with it. By now we’d probably be on Father’s Day 9: The Revenge of the Boobsie. But we’ll never know, now will we? De Palma would work with his new wife and Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day producer Gale Anne Hurd to produce the film on a modest budget of 12 million dollars. A stark contrast to the 47 million dollar budget of his last film. Which was the idea. Universal Studio Head at the time Tom Pollock told the LA Times “One film like (Bonfire of the Vanities) doesn’t suddenly nullify an entire career. It doesn’t make you untalented. Brian took the bullet and immediately climbed back on the horse. He had to prove, mostly to himself, that he could bring a movie in on budget. Making one quickly and inexpensively was the best way to put Bonfire behind him.” In the end, De Palma would do just that…..finishing Raising Cain on time and a million dollars BELOW its original budget.

Also attracting him to return to the subgenre where he once crafted Dressed to Kill was the opportunity to work close to home as most of the filming was done in the San Francisco Peninsula and Woodside area, where De Palma and Hurd lived. De Palma said of this, “Gale was pregnant and I wanted to do a movie that I could do very simply and that was close to home.” And so, Raising Cain and all of its personalities were born. But they had to find the right actor who could chew the scenery and perform multiple, over-the-top roles. Enter John Lithgow.

Lithgow was at a very interesting time in a very interesting career. The weirdness of Raising Cain would be sandwiched in between (amongst other things) his fatherly role in Harry and the Henderson’s and just beforehand another villainous role in Sylvester Stallone and Renny Harlan’s Cliffhanger. It was also Lithgow’s third team-up with De Palma as the two had previously worked together on both Blow Out and Obsession. Lithgow seemed to have a blast playing the multiple characters, praising De Palma, and saying in an interview, “he had devised the entire story around if not me, an actor like me, a character actor with a real enthusiasm for this kind of role changing conjuring act.” It was true, too. It was the type of role that could either go so poorly that it ended up feeling like one of the movies spoofed in Tropic Thunder or could be one that shows off an actors ability like James McAvoy in M Night Shyamalan’s Split or Edward Norton in Primal Fear. Lithgow did his own thing. In one scene he’s a sweet, naïve father and husband trying to please a father he’s desperate to win over. In another, he’s a literal child singing. In one moment, Carter will have you feeling terrible for him and in another laughing at what an over-the-top mess he is. Specifically, one scene in which he sneezes into a woman’s eye before chloroforming her on the side of the road after being unsuccessful in asking her nicely to take her child to be studied by his father in another country. The scene should be dark and it is but Carter makes such a mess of it you can’t help but laugh at the sheer audacity of it all. It’s hard to imagine anyone pulling that off like Lithgow.

Raising Cain (1992) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Then one of his alter egos, Cain, shows up in the window making his first appearance and is so over the top dropping lines like “The cat is in the bag. And the bag is in the river.” while taking a draw off a cigarette with his oversized sunglasses and leather jacket. It’s something that both works and feels as over the top as emo-Spiderman in Spider-man 3. All this silliness may keep Raising Cain from being taken as seriously as some would have liked but for the rest of us, just adds to the pure entertainment value of a batshit movie. Lithgow’s Cain character may have come off as a corny IT professional trying to pretend he’s a badass but when he’s doing the heinous things we see him doing, it doesn’t really matter. De Palma portrayed the comedic elements purposefully, stating of the audience, “They’re totally vulnerable to you when they are laughing and they think they are completely in control. That’s when you really scare them.” Lithgow also portrayed the kooky evil father character “Boobsie” and just for a moment, the female personality, “Margot” with a physical depth that had me impressed and laughing.

As far as how De Palma shot all this, there was no split screen employed. The visual master he was, Carter and Cain shared many scenes together but were never in the same frame. Lithgow said of this, “You never see the characters together in the frame. The illusion is they are sitting in the same room. But you never see them together.” Lithgow requested an actor of his own caliber to play off him as the other version of himself in the scenes. This led to Greg Henry (who many of you will remember as the world’s worst caretaker in Guardians of the Galaxy and as the awesome villain in Mel Gibson’s Payback) who also played the snarky Lieutenant Terri in the film working with him offscreen during these scenes. Lithgow enjoyed and appreciated this and the process in general saying, “As to the specific challenge of playing scenes with myself? It was glorious. It was like I finally found an actor I could work with.”

The production would cast a very game Lolita Davidovich, previously of Adventures in Babysitting and most recently in the newest season of HBO’s True Detective in the role of Carter’s unfaithful wife, Jenny. De Palma puts the audience in a psychosis-like state as we watch her waking up at different intervals of the film in a different place. In one moment, she’s sleeping with a man in the woods, and in another crashing her car into a very poorly planned statue. The film jerks us around from storyline to storyline and will leave you feeling like one of the stoners in the backseat in the opening to Super Troopers. The role nearly required as much of Davidovich as Lithgow’s and she only played a single personality.

Steven Bauer was cast as her dramatically grieving but extremely horny lover, Jack. This would be Bauer’s third time working with De Palma as well, most notably as the equally horny sidekick to Al Pacino in Scarface. He’s perfect for the role because much in the same way as his Scarface character, he has a naïve cluelessness to him that you believe he’d walk face-first into a situation like this. The main cast would be rounded out by Detectives Barton Heyman (of The Exorcist), Die Hard 2’s Tom Bower, and a memorable performance from Frances Sternhagen as psychologist Dr. Waldheim who is suffering from cancer and pissed about her wig. She’s brought in to explain to the law enforcement officers and the audience the psychological ins and outs of Carter as she unravels even more surprises upon us as the characters take part in a classic De Palma moment: A four-minute and fourteen-second long continuous tracking shot through the police headquarters and into the basement morgue. A shot in which her character several times tries to go the wrong direction and is corrected by the cops, all the while flawlessly delivering her monologue. It’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

After a great one-on-one sequence between Lithgow and Sternhagen in which she hypnotizes and talks to several of his personalities, Cain breaks free, stealing her wig and escaping…..setting up the final scene and another De Palma special.

Raising Cain (1992) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

In an intricate ending scene that almost feels sentient and messing with our minds on purpose, we’re treated to a Final Destination-esque moment where the camera shows a sharp sundial on the back of a truck amongst many things, hinting that all of these puzzle pieces are soon to come into play as yet another twist is revealed and we find out Carter’s father is indeed still alive and in possession of Jenny’s missing daughter. It all comes to a head with Amy accidentally being dropped off a balcony several stories up as De Palma masterfully conducts multiple sequences happening at once. It’s suspenseful and it’s weird as Hell. So, if you like weird, you probably enjoyed it. I know I did. But De Palma’s not done. Carter is missing and in a hilariously fun final shot of the movie appears behind Jenny and their daughter in full drag, dressed head to toe as his Margot personality as the credits roll. It’s Sleepaway Camp levels of bizarre, sure (well, not quite but you get the point) but it’s also interesting because Margot was the “protective” side of his personality. Not the malicious one. Was she there to cause harm? Or just watching over Amy? Sounds like it’d be a rad Netflix documentary.

Raising Cain would be released in August of 1992 and would be more than the moderate success De Palma had hoped for, more than tripling its initial budget. The reaction from critics wasn’t nearly as horrifying as what De Palma had dealt with on Bonfire, either. The film received generally positive reviews appreciating that it wasn’t De Palma’s best work but was still impressive and interesting. Lithgow received the bulk of the praise with even the Rotten Tomatoes consensus saying his “spellbinding split-personality performance makes this thriller hard to dismiss”. Both Lithgow and Sternhagen would go on to be nominated for Saturn awards for their performances and De Palma was nominated for the Golden Lion award for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival.

Thought we were done already? We haven’t yet begun to defile ourselves. Twenty years later a fan named Peet Gelderblom would have the kind of “real men of genius” moment that film fans dream of. You see, De Palma had originally intended to begin Raising Cain from Jenny’s perspective but got cold feet in post-production fearing the audience would become bored. De Palma instead started Carter’s crime spree far earlier in the film, completely changing the entire narrative structure, and regretting it afterward. Gelderblom got word of this, as well as a copy of the original script, and made his very own fan edit. In the edit, the film starts with Jenny’s story before it jarringly changes tones at the very moment Carter shows up and smothers her with a pillow, shifting the entire perspective of the film to his point of view. Depending on which version of the film you like, it truly does make a difference. So much so that De Palma reached out to both Gelderblom and Shout! Factory (who was working on a special release of the film at the time) and requested that Gelderblom’s version be included on the release as the film’s official director’s cut. The rest is history. Good for you, dude!

Many may not consider either version of Raising Cain a movie that doesn’t fit the traditional sense of a classically good, nerve-racking thriller for everyone. But it is entertaining as f*ck. And in a world so far removed from these types of weird little original 90s films, I would call that a worthwhile endeavor.

Well, my friends, the cat is in the bag….and the bag is in the river and that is the story of just WTF happened to Raising Cain. Thanks for watching and please let us know in the comments section how you feel about the film and what your favorite De Palma film is. Hey, what’s that behind you there? OH MY GOD, JOHN LITHGOW IN A WIG!

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of JoBlo.com, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.