Brian DePalma’s Dressed To Kill (1980) is a complicated whirlwind of a slasher film released during the first real wave of slasher films. There are some real legends in this film, including Michael Caine (The Dark Knight 2008, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels 1988), Angie Dickinson (Oceans Eleven 2001, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues 1993), and Nancy Allen (Poltergeist 3 1988, Carrie 1976). The story tells of psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Caine) and his patients—suburban housewife Kate Miller (Dickinson) and street-smart prostitute Liz Blake (Allen)—as they are stalked by a transsexual serial killer. When a murder occurs in an elevator and the murderer seen in by Liz, she is passed the murder weapon and considered a suspect in the gruesome crime.
The film was directed by Brian De Palma (Carrie 1976, Scarface 1983) and was released July 25, 1980. The budget was a mere $6.1 million and earned a respectful $31.9 million, adding to a string of hits for the legendary director. However, Dressed to Kill is probably more predominantly known within the horror community, rather than on a mainstream level. The film earned rave reviews with New York Magazine, who declared Dressed to Kill, the “first great American movie of the ’80s!”A tall order indeed, as the ’80s gave birth to some of the most classic of all horror flicks, especially in the slasher field.
One thing is for certain, this movie was quite innovative and unique at the time given its subject matter. Recently clips were featured in the Netflix documentary, Disclosure, due to its theme of gender identity.
The film also provided Nancy Allen with her first Golden Globe nomination for New Star Of The Year. Ironically, both Allen and Caine received Golden Rasberry nominations as Worst Actors for their efforts. Perhaps that makes sense as the movie is a bit dichotomous … thrilling and entertaining on one hand, but somewhat hard to follow as slasher flicks go. Nevertheless, Dressed To Kill is definitely a worthwhile watch if you are looking for something other than the typical slasher film.
Dressed To Kill can be seen as somewhat of an erotic thriller. Intense sexual imagery combined with graphic violence made the film hard to swallow for some viewers. The film also blends both European and American archetypes of a classic horror smash. De Palma is clearly inspired by Italian film genre, Giallo, which translates literally to the Italian word for “yellow.” The term was used to describe what North Americans may refer to as Italian mystery fiction or even simply crime novels, which usually had yellow covers. Such films as Death Walks on High Heels (1971) and The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) are examples of Giallo.
The Giallo influence can be seen in Dressed To Kill alongside the influence of American director Alfred Hitchcock, known for classics such as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963). These films are terrifying—not for their graphic imagery or necessarily taboo subject matter—but because of their intense psychological suspense and slow buildups to situations viewers could see themselves witnessing or falling victim to.
Dressed To Kill left me with somewhat of an uneasy feeling. I’m not quite sure what to say about this film. I know it is well done; I know the actors and director are legendary. Perhaps the movie requires more focus and attention to detail than I am used to having to give to slashers. That can be a good thing!
Dressed To Kill is a twisty-turny joyride, not only visually intriguing but also one that may leave you pondering what you have just witnessed. For horror fans, it’s a must-see. Like a pair of new shoes or that new hat you aren’t quite sure about, viewers may need a few struts around the sun to develop a taste for it. The process of developing that taste however, is an intriguing and entertaining one, possibly requiring a dark and stormy night to truly devour and enjoy the details of the director’s vision. All in all, if you are looking for something new to try, maybe with a little more substance than a typical 1980s slasher, Dressed To Kill may just fit your personal style.