From the 1980s into the 1990s, Hollywood was full of sleazy, lurid, violent erotic thrillers with atmospheric lighting, Freudian pop psychology, and the captivating blending of sex and death. Much has been written about how these movies play right into the male fear of female sexual autonomy and agency.

The erotic thriller, from a different vantage point, is about the dangers of toxic masculinity and invites the audience to identify with its women characters. The men are stiff, repressed, and boring. The women are interesting, mysterious, and frankly, having all the fun. This tricky balancing act of fearing but identifying with women is what gives the genre its seductive power.

Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, celebrating its 40th anniversary, is infamous for being problematic. Feminist groups protested the film upon release and modern interrogations of the film’s plot will find it failing. But to write off this trash-art erotic thriller is to dismiss how deliriously tongue-in-cheek the film can be. De Palma is commenting on the moralism of slasher movies. De Palma invites us to both take pleasure from and identify with the erotic thrills but then punishes us right alongside his heroines for our collective transgressions. Once the nominal star of the film Kate (Angie Dickinson) is killed, the narrative shifts to Liz (Nancy Allen), a sex worker who is stock market savvy and an art investor. Both these characters subvert and play with slasher movie archetypes; they are neither good girls nor bad but rather fluctuate between the two.

De Palma took inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock. His films like Sisters, Obsession, and Body Double, contain both direct references and carefully designed homages to the Master of Suspense. Dressed to Kill is in conversation with Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, particularly through both visual and aural references and plot elements. De Palma’s references to Psycho are not just a fan imitating his God, he purposely deconstructs and parodies Hitchcock’s masterpiece; even expanding upon its themes. For example, duality looms large over everyone in Dressed to Kill: the housewife/adulteress, the hooker/stockbroker, the teen son/inventor, the dream/nightmare, the psychiatrist/killer, the man/woman. 

Certain events happen twice in the film as well, the most favourable of which occurs when Kate twice misplaces articles of clothing, only to remember where she dropped them through a split-screen (duality again) where one-half is her remembering, the other a flashback. The first is her misplaced glove, which leads her to her brief affair with a stranger. Kate is slightly distressed at losing the glove, but it leads to her fulfilling tryst. At that man’s apartment, she realises she lost her underwear. She searches for it, getting another memory split-screen to her lover pulling them off in a cab and dropping them there. This time, Kate is a little bemused, perhaps pleased with how caught up in the moment she was. 

De Palma also includes two shower scenes. The film opens with a sensual and erotic shower scene, with just a hint of tantalizing menace. The film ends with a much creepier one that is quite frightening. Both are dream sequences, and the latter is an echo to De Palma’s ending in Carrie. And both work to identify the audience with the women characters so that their fears, pleasures, and psyches reflect our own.  

The opening first act with Kate is lush and erotic, the scene at the art museum being a seductive cat and mouse game between Kate and the stranger. This man’s face is hardly seen yet his sexual dominance is alluring. When Kate finally catches up to him outside, the camera pans from her to him waving her glove out the car of the cab and he effortlessly pulls her in and begins making love to her. It’s a little creepy, weirdly funny, but you can see why Kate is so turned on by him. And De Palma references Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, with Kate’s orgasmic screams fading into a car horn. 

Later, Liz is stalked by who she thinks is the killer and Kate’s psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) receives threatening voicemails from the killer. Liz works with Kate’s son Peter (Keith Gordon) to track the killer “Bobbi” using several of his inventions to see who is coming and going from Dr. Elliott’s office. They capture Bobbi on camera, which puts a target on Liz’s back. Liz then uses herself as bait, seducing the doctor so she can look at his appointment book. The sexual mind games between Liz and the doctor mirror Kate asking him if he wants to sleep with her. Liz is closer to the killer than she realizes—Bobbi is Dr. Elliott. Elliott is transgender but his male side wouldn’t allow for him to become a woman so the repressed female “Bobbi” became murderous whenever the male “Robert” became aroused by a woman. 

This portrayal of a trans person has not aged well at all and is highly offensive. Dressed to Kill helped codify the “psycho queer” trope, which has harmed the queer community. The twist stigmatizes trans people, misunderstands the trans experience, and ultimately reaffirms transphobia. It’s certainly my privilege as a cis person that I can see how De Palma leans into the cartoonish violence and sex to mock America as it began its journey to Reagan-era puritanism. But that take does not excuse the film’s transphobia, nor does it erase the harm this film caused the community. 

De Palma raises Dressed to Kill from a trashy, erotic thriller into a higher level of artistry. The score by Pino Donaggio guides the viewer into the film like a dangerous lover beckoning their prey into bed. The camerawork by Ralf D. Bode and the editing by Gerald B. Greenberg transform this weird B movie into pure cinema, relying more on visual cues than narrative beats. Dressed to Kill is a horny, creepy thriller, but still remains effective 40 years later.

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