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Gordon, N.G. (1983). Family Structure and Dynamics in Depalma's Horror Films. Psychoanal. Rev., 70:435-442.

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(1983). Psychoanalytic Review, 70(3):435-442


Family Structure and Dynamics in Depalma's Horror Films

Review by:
Norman G. Gordon

Since 1973 most of Brian DePalma's films have fallen within the horror-suspense genre. This is in part responsible for the criticism that his filmmaking is shallow and, perhaps most devastating, that the films are displays of virtuoso performances of insignificant material. The sensational aspects of his work in the horror genre have also distracted from a serious synoptic view of the human relationships in his five major horror films: Sisters, Obsession, Carrie, The Fury, and Dressed to Kill. Yet when these are considered together, significant recurring themes appear that are hidden in the subtle and often elliptical manner in which the viewer comes to comprehend the nature of the family situation. Furthermore, DePalma's style and cinematic techniques converge toward a similar communication about the nuclear families and impart a particular experience of their disintegration. The “hot” manifest text of sexuality, graphic violence, treachery, and madness makes it difficult to appreciate the consistent subtext of loss, incomplete mourning, symbiosis, revenge, and the destruction of the family unit by the consequences of its members' sexual desires.

Family Organization

Structural analysis reveals a consistent pattern in DePalma's families: single child homes in which one of the parents has died, usually early in the child's development. The three films based on DePalma's own stories (Sisters, Obsession, Dressed to Kill) present classical oedipal or Electra situations. The other two (Carrie and The Fury) explore the child's relationship with the remaining parent of the same sex. The five films examine different circumstances of loss in terms of the combinations of sex of parent and child. This is shown by a summary of the nature of the trauma and the child's age when the loss occurred: both of one-year-old Danielle's parents die in a car accident (Sisters),

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