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What To Watch: John Lithgow in the 1992 Thriller ‘Raising Cain’

Raising Cain is a 1992 psychological thriller about a man with multiple personalities who goes on a killing spree in the name of science.

Multiple personality disorder, or Dissociative Identity Disorder as it is becoming more commonly referred to, is a mental condition where at least two separate personalities with different behaviors exist within one person. While it is a rare disorder affecting about 1% of the general population, it’s gained prominence in film for its obvious potential in developing interesting characters, made all the more dominant in the 1990s when a number of high profile court cases used DID as a defense. Think of 1996’s Primal Fear and you get the idea.

In 1992, famed visionary director Brian De Palma, who had earn widespread acclaim for a stream of popular films, including Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987), released his latest movie, a separation of sorts from the more biographical-esque stories he’d come to be known for. Raising Cain, a suspense-thriller, marked a return to the genre for De Palma, after his minor, but well-received hit, Body Double (1984) and featured actor John Lithgow in the lead, who had worked with De Palma twice before (Obsession and Blow Out).

The story centers on Dr. Carter Nix (Lithgow), a renowned child psychologist who has become somewhat obsessed with studying his two-year-old daughter, Amy. So much so that he’s taken time away from his practice to do so. His wife Jenny (Lolita Davidovich), an oncologist, becomes concerned with his clinical approach, though she is also growing disinterested in Carter himself, re-igniting an affair with Jack Dante (Steven Bauer), the widower of a former patient.

What we know though, and what no one else does, is that Nix is not well. Suffering from DID, his multiple personalities are Cain, a slimy street hustler, Josh, a timid 10-year-old boy, and Margo, a middle-aged proper nanny. Cain and Carter are working together to murder new mothers and steal their toddlers and infants to be used as control subjects in Nix’s research. But, when Carter accidentally catches Jenny and Jack together, it pushes him into total madness and he sets about to try and kill his wife.

Raising Cain
Raising Cain, 1992 © Universal Pictures

Interrogated by police for this attempt, he is questioned by Dr. Lynn Waldheim (Frances Sternhagen), who uses hypnotherapy, and along the way, reveals to the police that she co-wrote a book with Nix’s father called “Raising Cain” about a boy with DID, but walked away from the unethical research Nix Sr. was conducting. Connecting the dots, she is horrified by what has clearly happened.

De Palma has always been an expert at crafting tension with slow, purposeful one takes and creative imagery. This, along with well-developed characters and explosive performances, have been the hallmark of his films. With Raising Cain, De Palma balances the production entirely on Lithgow, who to this point had a built a strong résumé of memorable characters, from his Oscar-nominated turn as Roberta Muldoon, a transsexual ex-football player, in George Roy Hill‘s The World According To Garp (1982) to his brilliantly over-the-top role as Dr. Emilio Lizardo in W.D. Richter‘s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984).

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With Cain, Lithgow delivers a tour-de-force performance, made all the more impactful by De Palma’s full-on commitment to his unique visual style, avoiding the standard thriller tropes and instead layering the film in copious manipulations that might prove divisive to audiences. The combination of Lithgow’s edgy, darkly drawn characterizations and De Palma’s decidedly slow burn techniques make the experience a challenging and yet undeniably satisfying endeavor.

Raising Cain
Raising Cain, 1992 © Universal Pictures

Lithgow might have taken this role into parody, especially given the eccentricities of his aforementioned part in Buckaroo Banzai, which saw him chew up scenery like a rabid lion as a mad scientist serving as host to an extra-terrestrial madman. Lithgow’s incredibly expressive face and gift for physical acting made that character one of his most celebrated, one that essentially is a man possessed by two people. With Cain however, he never lets that comparison last too long, and gives each of the personalities within Nix stand on their own, even with a hint of lunacy that inspires smiles.

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Raising Cain is recently out on Blue-Ray and well-worth a watch, if anything as a companion with M. Night Shyamalan‘s latest Split. A great double feature of multiple personality disorder horror films.

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