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Featured Blu-ray review: Dressed to Kill

September 5th, 2011

Dressed to Kill - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

Over his career, Brian De Palma has made a number of films that were critical and box office successes. It has been a while since he released a film that earned overwhelmingly positive reviews, but looking back, it seemed like he could do no wrong in the 1970s and 1980s. Dressed to Kill came out in 1980 and earned a lot of critical praise, as well as a bit of controversy, but now it is coming out on Blu-ray. Has the film aged well in the 30 years since its release? And is its Blu-ray debut worth the price?

The Movie

The film starts in the home of Kate and Mike Miller. They are both middle-aged and whatever spark might have existed in their marriage has long since gone out. She has a closer relationship with her son, Peter, then she does with her distant husband. Kate has been going to see Dr. Robert Elliott, but it isn't helping her marriage. In fact, she seems more interested in sleeping with Dr. Elliot than getting his help in saving her marriage. This is partially because he's played by Michael Caine, and partially because she thinks her marriage might not be worth saving.

While at the museum looking at the art and writing a grocery list, Kate begins a flirtatious, but wordless dance with another patron with one following the other in turn. When she leaves the museum and sees the man enter a taxi, she follows once more. They make love in the taxi, and again once they get to his apartment. After he leaves and she's preparing to go home, she writes him a note, and sees a notice from his doctor telling him that he has a venereal disease. Horrified, she's leaves immediately, but before she gets to the lobby, she realizes she's left her wedding ring on his nightstand. She pushes the button to return to his floor, but when the elevator door opens, she's attacked by a tall woman in a blond wig and sunglasses wielding a straight razor. It's a brutal attack (at least by the standards of the day) and when the doors open again, Liz Blake sees the aftermath. At first she freezes, but when she reaches out for Kate's hand, she sees in the security mirror the attacker just waiting for her to reach in before she attacks. Liz is lucky to avoid being hit, and when the attacker drops the razor, she acts quickly and recovers the weapon. Unfortunately, when the maid walks by, Liz is holding a bloody razor and the maid makes the obvious conclusion. Now she's the most obvious suspect, especially given her occupation, and the only one who knows for sure she isn't the killer, is the actual killer.

Later that evening, Dr. Elliott gets two calls. The first is from Bobbi, one of his ex-patients. Bobbi is a transgendered man looking to get gender reassignment surgery, but when Dr. Elliott refused to okay the surgery, Bobbi didn't take it very well. In the message, Bobbi claims he has a new doctor that's going to help him become a her, and if Dr. Elliott gets in the way, Bobbi will make him pay. And to prove he's serious, he stole Dr. Elliott's straight razor and killed someone with it. The second call is from Dectective Marino, who is calling to tell him Kate Miller was murdered. When he goes down to the precinct, he sees Peter there. Peter, being a smart kid, listens into Detective Marino's questioning of Dr. Elliott and gets enough information to start his own investigation. It isn't long before the two join forces and they are both very motivated: he wants to find out who killed his mother, she doesn't want the cops pinning the murder on her.

Some people complain that Brian De Palma is too stylistic when it comes to his filmmaking techniques. Or that he's too heavy-handed in applying these stylistic techniques. While these complaints are not entirely without merit, when done correctly, these techniques can help lift a pretty good thriller into a classic. There are many scenes in this movie that, on their own, make the movie worth watching. For instance, the scenes in the museum are so well done that they should be taught in film school. It helps draw the viewer in and makes it impossible to turn away, even though there is almost no dialogue. The use of split-screen shots are likewise showy, but they work. Some of the twists and turns are, well, improbable would be polite, but the visuals elevate the level of tension enough to more than compensate. That's not to say the story is bad and there's enough of a mystery to help it rise above the average thriller, while Nancy Allen is a compelling leading lady.

The other main complaint about Brian De Palma is that he tends to imitate Alfred Hitchcock. There's really no way to completely dismiss that accusation, especially with this film. There are a number of similarities from a transgendered bad guy, the main heroine who isn't introduced until later in the movie, there's even a famous shower scene in both films. However, as it has been said many, many times, 'Good artists borrow, great artists steal.' And if you are going to steal a bit from someone to make a thriller, steal from the best, and Alfred Hitchcock is the best. Brian De Palma does also manage to add his own flare to the film, so the movie can stand on its own, and does so very well.

It is important to note that the Blu-ray has the extended and uncut edition of Dressed to Kill, which has rarely been released. Without giving a rundown of all of the changes, it's pretty obvious the infamous opening shower scene has some shots that would have earned the film an X-rating back in 1980. Hell, that scene would likely earn the film an NC-17 rating today. Meanwhile the brutal attack was also trimmed down with fewer closeups.

The Extras

There's good news and bad news with regards to the extras. It is shovelware, but the previous DVD release had a good amount of extras, starting with a 44-minute making of documentary. There is a 5-minute comparison between the Unrated, R-rated, and Network versions of the film, specifically the show, slasher, and seduction scenes. Slashing Dressed to Kill is a ten-minute interview featurette on the same subject. Keith Gordon, who played Peter Miller and who is now a director himself, sits down for a six-minute interview on the film. Finally, there's an image gallery and the trailer. That's a good collection of extras, although not great (I would have liked an audio commentary track). And the lack of exclusives is disappointing, but not surprising.

It's hard to talk about the film's technically presentation without using some caveats. The film was made more than 30 years ago and it only costs $6.5 million to make and was originally released in mono. Because of this, going in, my expectations were rather low. I am very happy to report this was not necessary. Granted, the film obviously doesn't look as good as a big-budget film made today, but it looks damn good all things considered. There are the occasional minor flecks here or there and there are some scenes where the grain is a little too much. Also, the film doesn't have a great level of detail and this gets worse in some of the darker scenes. But those are minor complaints compared to the overall quality and even at its worst, it's still better than I was expecting. The audio was upgraded from mono to a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The dialogue is always clear and the surround sound speakers get a workout with plenty of ambient sounds and even a few directional effect.

The Blu-ray costs $15.99 on, which is a good deal, but not a great one. The lack of Blu-ray exclusives hurts its overall value, but the improved audio and visual quality is worth it, in my opinion.

The Verdict

Many of Brian De Palma's films earned less than stellar reviews when they first came out only to grow in popularity over the years. Dressed to Kill has certainly aged very well and it is absolutely worth checking out. If you don't have the DVD, then the Blu-ray is an easy recommendation. If you do have the latest DVD release, I think it is worth the upgrade, but it is a close call. For this kind of release, I would like to pay less than $15, but $16 is not a deal-breaker.

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Filed under: Video Review, Dressed to Kill