Carter Nix (John Lithgow) has been in the park with his daughter Amy (Amanda Pombo), and is now getting a lift home from his wife's friend Karen (Teri Austin) who has also been there with her own child. On the drive back they get to chatting about child psychology, seeing as how Carter's father was a specialist in that area, and he tells her that he is planning to take Amy abroad to Norway, where his father runs most of his research. Karen scoffs at the idea, believing that too much orchestration of your child's development can be damaging, but Carter disagrees - violently.
Raising Cain was writer and director Brian De Palma's return to the psychological thrillers and horrors that he had made his name with, but had not dabbled in the genre since Body Double nearly ten years before. It was not welcomed with open arms as a creative talent getting back to what he knew with great skill, as most viewers were left baffled by the shenanigans that he played out, particularly as the plot demanded that the audience be deliberately confused as to what was actually going on. Indeed, the film appeared to be going out of its way to make them mistrustful of not only the characters, but the filmmakers as well.
Not surprising then, that few responded to this as an audacious twist-packed thriller, and instead regarded it as something that gave them a headache if they thought about it too long. But technically, it was superb, a compliment that by this time in his career tended to feel as if you were damning De Palma with faint praise when it was difficult to get too enthusiastic about the effect that the movie otherwise had on the audience. In the days before computer graphics dominated tricksy efforts such as this, just before in fact, it was hard not to admire, say, the manner in which he dressed up some much needed plot exposition with a steadicam shot that lasted over four minutes and through a whole building.
Yet after a while, although the naysayers never really went away in respect to Raising Cain, a cult formed around this of those who appreciated having their heads messed with much as the psychiatrist character messes with everyone else's heads during the story. It was as if De Palma was carrying out an experiment of his own on those watching, seeing how confounded they could be and still be engaged with the work, though the best way to get on with this turned out to be to retain your sense of humour. There were many points in this that were highly amusing, even laughter-inducing, as Lithgow got to act out various personalities who may or may not be the same man (or woman).
As usual the debts to other films were there, with Hitchcock inevitably featuring heavily (Psycho, anyone?), but also reruns of De Palma's own previous devices, and the whole premise behind Peeping Tom that somehow managed to miss out the voyeur aspect to that narrative. Carter suffers from the influence of his father (also Lithgow, in old age makeup) whose bidding he is doing to gather as many children for experimentation as he can, but things are complicated (oh, how they are complicated) by his twin brother Cain who is of a more can do attitude, and frankly more criminal bent, than Carter. Throw in Lolita Davidovich as his wife who is beginning to think her husband is too good to be true - actually he's too bad to be true - and you have a subplot with adultery and a fall guy for Carter to blame his misdeeds upon. Getting through Raising Cain without rolling your eyes and giving up was too much for many, and it was preposterous, but climb the mountain of the middle section and you'd be rewarded with a great view of entertaining absurdity. Music by Pino Donaggio.
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.
As with the equally underrated Femme Fatale, the rewards are there if viewers are willing to suspend their disbelief and make that leap of faith with De Palma. I read a few reviews around the time this first came out and the British response was more favourable, partly out of relief since this followed the disastrous Bonfire of the Vanities of course. I believe it was Kim Newman who observed De Palma exhibits more sympathy for his psycho-killers than his "whorish" victims, the exception being Nancy Allen in Blow Out. Few other filmmakers would paint the Lolita Davidovitch character in such an unflattering light.