[Trigger warning: discussion of suicide and abuse]
The beauty of sisterhood has been extolled in cinema for generations, where undeniable bonds and deep love carry women through a multitude of obstacles and life-altering events. In A League of Their Own (1992), the rivalry between Dottie (Geena Davis) and Kit (Lori Petty) drives them to achieve greatness when the country needed it most and their undeniable love for one another helps them mend their relationship in the long run. In Eve’s Bayou (1997), two sisters, Eve (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Cisely (Meagan Good), take turns sheltering each other from the truth behind a dark childhood trauma and help each other heal after death of their father. Despite the variety of stories, the message is clear: the love between sisters can overcome anything. It is a powerful, transcendent bond that can even be inexplicitly supernatural at times.
But there’s also a darker side to sisterhood, where rivalries take violent turns and where bonds are almost too strong, superseding everything else including reality. When sisters are pushed to the extremes, when women don’t meet society’s expectations, what does this tell us about the constraints on women to conform to idealized versions of femininity and sisterhood? Are bad sisters just failures or are they simply women with complicated narratives that a patriarchal society doesn’t allow room for? If Adam raised a Cain, could he have also raised a Baby Jane?
There’s possibly no greater example of female sibling rivalry gone wrong than Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), a Robert Aldrich film about two feuding sisters living in a crumbling mansion, which was fueled in part by the notorious rivalry between stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In the film’s opening sequence, the stage is set for conflict. Baby Jane (Davis) is a child star and adored by the girls’ father, but later in life, it is Blanche (Crawford) who finds success in Hollywood as Jane’s star wanes. One evening, the Hudson sisters return to their mansion and when one sister gets out to open the gate, the other tries to run her over. Although we cannot see who is behind the wheel, the accident leaves Blanche permanently paralyzed.
Blanche now uses a wheelchair and Jane’s mental health declines, her behavior having grown more erratic over the years. Jane’s desperate attempts to regain her childhood stardom are in many ways directly tied to the death of her father, but her adoration (which isn’t matched by Blanche) also hints at sexual abuse. It is this correlation between success and warped love that causes her to lash out at her sister, whose success she sees as the reason her own stardom ended, which in turn brought an end to the abuse that she had categorized as love. The seeds of bitterness and dysfunction run deep for both sisters.
In the end, we discover that Blanche endures Jane’s senselessly cruel behavior because she was the one driving the car that fateful evening and it was Jane, not Blanche, who was pinned against the gate and nearly killed. Blanche has endured decades of abuse as penance for her anger, choosing to keep the truth of the accident a secret not just to punish herself but to punish her sister as well by never revealing the truth behind the story and allowing Jane to believe she was capable of such a heinous act against her own sister. As a result, Jane unleashed a torrent of abuse on to Blanche. The downfall of the Hudson sisters did not come from faded stardom but from a sibling rivalry that warped itself into a vicious cycle of abuse in place of affection.
But just as bitterness can tear two sisters apart, love can also distort into an obsession so strong that it clouds reality and puts everyone else at risk. In Sisters (1973), director Brian De Palma continues his early career homage to Hitchcock with a twist on Rear Window (1954), as well as a small nod to Vertigo (1958), with the story of Danielle (Margot Kidder), a beautiful model sheltering her dangerous sister, Dominique (also played by Kidder). The film opens with a hidden camera game show, where an unwitting salesman, Phillip (Lisle Wilson), is pranked by Danielle. He wins dinner for two and decides to take her out that evening. The two make it back to Danielle’s Staten Island apartment. Although they are menaced by Danielle’s ex-husband, Emil (William Finley), they spend the night together. In the morning, Phillip overhears Danielle arguing with her sister, Dominique, in the bedroom. Danielle is unwell and asks Phillip to pick up a prescription for her as well as a birthday cake, so she can celebrate her sister’s birthday. Upon his return, Phillip is attacked by a frenzied Dominique, who stabs him to death in the living room while Danielle is sick in the bathroom.
The murder is witnessed by one of Danielle’s neighbors, Grace (Jennifer Salt), a journalist known (and disliked) for exposing police corruption. In the film’s more overt Hitchcock homage, Grace struggles to get the police to take her claims seriously, and when they finally do search Danielle’s apartment – which Emil hastily cleaned up – they find no trace of Phillip’s body or Dominique. Although the audience knows the truth, Grace’s sanity is continuously called into question as she tries to uncover the truth about what happened. Finally, Grace discovers the truth about Danielle and Dominique: the two were Canada’s first conjoined twins, however Dominique died shortly after an operation to separate the two women. Armed with this revelation, Grace tracks down Danielle, who is once again under the control of her ex-husband, and realizes that Danielle has split her own personality, assuming the identity of her long-dead twin as a means of keeping her memory alive.
Although Sisters subtly highlights Danielle’s condition, by showing her reliance on pills and her violent withdrawal shortly before Phillip’s death, in many ways, the film is less about a diagnosed mental illness and more about Danielle’s inability to cope after the loss of her twin. For Danielle, and in turn “Dominique,” there is no greater intimacy than the one shared between twin sisters. Although a part of Danielle yearns to break free and live her life as she wishes, as evidenced by her date with Phillip, ultimately she is powerless to the bond she shares with her twin, which will take over to eradicate any threat. By quantifying Danielle and Dominique as conjoined twins, there’s an added sense of symbolism – the two are quite literally part of each other; even after the death of Dominique, part of her would inevitably live on in Danielle.
The powerful, protective bond between sisters is a theme that is also explored in A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), a South Korean horror film written and directed by Jee-woon Kim. Based on a Korean folk tale, the film introduces Soo-mi (Su-jeong Lim), a young girl questioned by doctors about an unnamed event which caused her significant trauma. Although she refuses to answer any of their questions, she is allowed to return home to her family’s large estate where she lives with her father (Kap-su Kim), her younger sister Soo-yeon (Geun-young Moon) and her stepmother (Jung-ah Yum). Although the film initially brings in a supernatural element — bloody ghosts and strange noises set us up for a ghost story — there is also a very real conflict between the sisters and their stepmother. Family photos reveal that the girls’ hatred of their stepmother is rooted in the death of their own mother. Their stepmother was a nurse who worked with their father and worked as an in-home nurse while their mother was sick. In turn, Soo-mi finds vicious bruises on her sister’s arms, indicating that the hatred is quite mutual.
Soo-mi becomes increasingly protective of her younger sister, who seems to be the target of their stepmother’s aggression. When Soo-yeon finds their pet bird has been killed, she goes into her stepmother’s room where she finds photos of herself that have been defaced. Her stepmother then grabs her and locks her in a giant armoire, ignoring the girl’s terrified pleas to be released. Finally, Soo-mi releases her sister, begging her forgiveness for not hearing her cries for help. When Soo-mi confronts her father about Soo-yeon’s ordeal, he blames her for the problems and drops a bombshell: Soo-yeon is dead. Soo-mi refuses to accept this and her father decides to send her back to the institution which she was released from earlier in the film.
But instead of just mirroring one sister’s inability to process her grief, which is at the center of Sisters, A Tale of Two Sisters offers us one more twist. It is also revealed that Soo-mi is not only seeing her dead sister, but she has split her personality and is also acting as her abusive stepmother. The film’s final sequence offers insight into Soo-mi’s fractured psyche. After the abrupt marriage between her father and stepmother, Soo-yeon discovers the body of her biological mother, who was terminally ill, hanging in the armoire. While attempting to save her mother, the armoire collapses onto Soo-yeon, who is slowly suffocating and being crushed to death. Her stepmother comes to investigate the source of the crash and notices Soo-yeon’s hand reaching out of the tipped armoire but before she can intervene, she is dragged into an argument with Soo-mi, who inadvertently facilitates her sister’s death by arguing with her stepmother. Soo-mi’s grief makes it impossible to accept her sister’s death, because by doing so she must accept her own role in it. To avert this and to demonstrate her love for Soo-yeon, she not only mentally resurrects her sister but she also assumes the identity of her stepmother, acting as both savior and torturer. Soo-mi’s ritual is almost akin to self-flagellation, where she instigates a cycle of imagined abuse and rescue to try and blur a reality in which she was too late.
While the inability to process the death of a loved one is very real, distorting both love and grief allow horror films to explore and subvert traditional gender roles, particularly where women are concerned. Both Danielle and Soo-mi could be considered good sisters because they are devoted to the memory of their dead sisters. They demonstrate the unbreakable bond that sisters can have, but in doing so, they destroy their own view of reality, unleashing violence on both themselves and those around them. Furthermore, by role-playing her dead sister’s savior, Soo-mi is adopting the maternal, nurturing instincts expected of her as a woman, but in the context of A Tale of Two Sisters, this becomes a symptom of her mental illness and eventually leads to her institutionalization. Likewise, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? not only warps sibling rivalry into something unhealthy, but it also allows the Hudson sisters to break free of the stereotypical constraints of both sisterhood and womanhood by allowing them to be abusive and even murderous towards one another. In doing so, the women are able to step away from acceptable gender roles (particularly for the film’s time period), which is something normally confined to masculine depictions of a Cain and Abel-esque brotherhood.
While sisterhood is something to be celebrated and has given us memorable depictions of love and life-long devotions, we can still glean important lessons and commentary from its darker side about our own limits as women who must juggle and adapt to multiple roles within an ever-changing society.
Jamie Righetti is an author and freelance film critic from New York City. Her work has been featured on Film School Rejects and Daily Grindhouse, as well as in Belladonna magazine. Jamie is the host of the horror podcast, ScreamBros, and she has just released her debut novel, Beechwood Park, which is currently available on Amazon. You can follow her on Twitter @JamieRighetti.