Although I often watch horror films, I am not often scared by them. But I can say this, watching Raising Cain even for the second time scared the hell out of me. De Palma uses all of the cliched tricks of the genre—you think the villain is dead, but he comes back, again and again, characters have terrifying experiences only to wake up and find themselves in an even more terrifying reality, only to wake up yet again. There are also countless “boo!” moments. He also borrows some tricks from his idol Hitchcock—such as the camera moving in, not in a smooth zoom, but in three fast cuts each closer and closer, to move in on the blank glare of a dead face. But De Palma puts these all together is such a masterful way, they come across as original—and quite frightening.
One of the things that De Palma inherited from his idol Hitchcock is his love of working out long, complicated tracking shots. He manages to include one in nearly all his films. In this one, it comes two thirds into the film and follows a group of three people go up and down stairs and in and out of elevators, working to make long expository dialogue more interesting visually as a psychiatrist (Frances Sternhagen) explain a case of a former colleague who intentionally subjected a patient trauma in order to foster a case of multiple personality disorder.
That patient is revealed to be a child psychologist played by John Lithgow. De Palma obviously loves working with the actor, and their close collaboration resulted in an amazing performance. Lithgow, who usually plays small comedy roles or the occasional villain, here not only plays the lead, but plays two central character, one of which has at least four personalities. I know a lot of critics have criticized the film for being too confusing, or taken aim at Lithgow’s performance for being “campy,” but I think he should have been nominated for an Oscar.