By Ty Burr
Updated January 15, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

There are two ways to look at Raising Cain. One: Brian De Palma took such a pasting with The Bonfire of the Vanities that he retreated, licking his wounds, to the el cheapo Hitchcock riffs that made his name in the 1970s. Or two: Brian De Palma took such a pasting with The Bonfire of the Vanities that he said the hell with it and simply took a breather with the type of filmmaking he enjoys most. Which is el cheapo Hitchcock riffs.

I?m inclined to go with the latter, because as goofy as Cain is, it has the liberated energy of a filmmaker cutting loose. True, mainstream filmgoers hated this movie; it seemed to offend those who prefer their thrills tidy. But a hearty cult should form around its video release. The response could ripple into De Palma?s back catalogue, too: While never having been much of a De Palma fan personally, I found Raising Cain to be one of last year?s most enjoyable movies, and it sent me scurrying back to its director?s earlier mystery-thrillers — in particular, Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980), and Body Double (1984) — to see if they?re better than memory served. The answer is complex. If Sisters, Obsession, and Dressed to Kill all owe sizable debts to Psycho, Rear Window and Vertigo, De Palma?s stylish mixmastery — the smart-aleck glee with which he patches things together — at least gives them a certain postmodern pizzazz. And all the movies still deliver the required shocks.

With Margot Kidder as demented Siamese twins and a throbbing Bernard Herrmann score, Sisters, De Palma?s first thriller; comes close enough to his underground films to remain one strange and scruffy piece of work; the final hour set in a rural Bedlam is particularly bent. Obsession is much more ambitious: a glossy puzzler, it stars Cliff Robertson as a mournful widower and Genevieve Bujold as the woman who looks an awful lot like his dead wife. While Bujold is touching, De Palma?s first attempt to mimic grand melodrama ends up smelling like camp.

That?s because honest passion is something this director rarely gets right — he?s too cynical to believe in any of his characters. It?s an attitude that helped make Dressed to Kill the right hit for its time: The callousness with which Angie Dickinson is dispatched and the crass treatment of the other characters fit the sour, me-first early ?80s to a T. Today this is one ugly movie. And the poorly scanned video transfer makes matters worse. The best gag — restaurant eavesdroppers; horror at Nancy Allen?s detailed description of a sex-change operation gets cropped right off the screen.

Blow Out is just as cynical, but for once De Palma uses bad vibes to take a movie deeper. The plot?s an intriguing pastiche of Blow Up, Chappaquiddick, and the Zapruder film: John Travolta is a movie soundman who accidentally records an assassination and finds the killers coming after him. But the movie is really about the pitfalls of paranoia, no matter how justified. There?s real suffering in Blow Out, and if it ends on the bleakest note of any De Palma film, at least you feel the director is fessing up to his own despair. The movie?s a skuzzy little masterpiece.

No one wanted to see it, though, so it was back to chic murder with Body Double, the most unbearably cruel of De Palma?s hitch rips. While the movie made Melanie Griffith a star, the notorious scene of a helpless woman (Deborah Shelton) getting power drilled to death is too viciously gloating to forgive. Call it general misanthropy or specific misogyny, this just ain?t a nice place to visit.

After De Palma?s forays into blockbusterland, Raising Cain feels like a day at the beach — a very tense day at the beach. After all, it?s about a child psychologist who gets pressured by certain family members to kidnap neighborhood kids and, if necessary, kill their mothers, but it?s also finally a movie with characters that De Palma likes. All of them, even the sickos: the many relatives of Dr. Carter nix, each played with hilariously clammy precision by John Lithgow; Nix?s wife (Lolita Davidovich), whose day starts with adultery-minded ex-boyfriends and killer husbands and goes downhill from there; and the tart, terminally ill shrink (Frances Sternhagen), who delivers the movie?s exposition in one long Steadicam blurt (play it twice — there?s a priceless technical joke in there).

Raising Cain is hardly without problems — a lingering pleasure in women being ”put through it” (to paraphrase Hitchcock), a muffled shot of a corpse that makes the viewer think the wrong person is dead. De Palma revels in some of the other ”flaws” though: plot turns that beggar disbelief, a climax that plays like a Rube Goldberg contraption, bizarre casting cameos (what?s Mel ”Hope Steadman” Harris doing here?). No wonder some audiences were infuriated — De Palma always makes us aware we?re watching a movie, but this is the first time he refuses to let us take it seriously. The giddiness feels like a reprieve. Raising Cain works on a very unusual wavelength: It?s a psycho-thriller that?s happy. Sisters: B Obsession: C- Dressed to Kill: C Blow Out: A Body Double: D Raising Cain: B+