HCF REWIND N0. 202: BODY DOUBLE [US 1984]
RUNNING TIME: 110 min
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Struggling actor Jake Scully loses his role as a vampire in a low-budget horror movie after his claustrophobia thwarts shooting. He returns home to discover his girlfriend cheating on him, so Scully is left without a place to stay. At a method acting class, he meets Sam, who says Jake can house-sit in his mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Sam is especially ecstatic about one feature: a female neighbour, Gloria Revelle, who erotically dances at a specific time each night. Sam has even set up a telescope, which Scully can’t resist using voyeuristically to watch her. One night, he sees Gloria being abused by a boyfriend and, when she goes shopping the next day, Scully decides to follow her, but someone else also seems to be watching and pursuing her….
Though it’s a film that many fans of director Brian De Palma rate amongst their favourites, I’m not going to make any claims for Body Double to be amongst his best work such as Carrie, Dressed To Kill or Scarface. In many ways though, it’s almost the ultimate De Palma film, the film where all his obsessions, skill and faults [and yes, even I’ll admit he has them] are most easily on display. If you want to get an overview of the man’s work and neither want to see more than one film nor are bothered about seeing something that doesn’t have a few serious issues, Body Double is perhaps the one to see. Though he made the comedy Home Movies, Body Double is perhaps the first major De Palma film that he seems to have made primarily for himself and his fans, rather than for a mass audience. He would do this later on with Raising Cain, Femme Fatale and his latest work, Passion. Reduced to its basic level, it’s basically a combination of Rear Window and Vertigo, but with an ‘18’ certificate. The former had already influenced Sisters, and Obsession borrowed a bit from the latter. The difference here is that De Palma seems to be imitating himself imitating Hitchcock. What we see is a great filmmaker having a huge amount of fun, cheekily winking at the audience while getting away with stuff many others wouldn’t. It’s not as good as the two films it mostly borrows from, but it is a hugely entertaining, if extremely silly, suspense thriller rife with De Palma’s bravura style and filled with his sheer love of film-making.
De Palma didn’t originally intend to direct the film. It was written by Robert Averich and the idea was for him to direct it with De Palma acting as producer. De Palma was more interested in directing a biopic of a rock star to be played by John Travolta and a film about the murder of American labour leader Joseph Yablonski whose death led to significant reforms in the union. These projects fell through so De Palma decided to make Body Double himself. He re-wrote much of the script and intended to include hardcore porn scenes and cast porn star Annette Haven as ‘Holly Body’, but Columbia nipped this in the bud. Tatum O’Neal, Jamie Lee Curtis, Carrie Fisher, Brooke Shields and Linda Hamilton all turned down the same role until Melanie Griffith came on board. Meanwhile Dennis Franz based his portrayal of ‘Rubin the Director’ on De Palma himself. Despite attracting some of the usual crap about De Palma degrading women, Body Double was a failure at the box office. In the UK, five seconds were cut from a scene where Holly tells Jake what she can’t ‘do’, and the end credits darkened slightly earlier to remove the sight of blood on a woman’s breasts [the BBFC always used to cut this because it supposedly encouraged rapists]. Bizarrely, Sky TV used to include the cut material but removed shots from the central murder scene. Of course it’s uncut now, though rumours still surface of uncut sex footage which I personally doubt are true.
Body Double begins with a scene from a ‘film’ called Vampire’s Kiss [no relation to the Nicolas Cage film of the same title that came out a few years later], with actor Jake done up in glam rock garb. Jake’s claustrophobia [not vertigo, though the fear of heights is actually acrophobia, which then leads to vertigo, which is dizziness] prevents him from getting out of his coffin. He loses his job, girlfriend and home in quick succession, and, though he’s a little bland, star Craig Wasson actually does quite a good job of portraying an ordinary Hitchcock-style ‘everyman’ whom the audience can relate to. He soon becomes fascinated by the sexy neighbour who does a highly erotic dance routine every night, and though not really explicit, it’s rather erotic nonetheless and expertly backed up by a synthesiser and wordless female vocal music track from composer Pino Donaggio which screams Cheesy 80’s Erotic Thriller but which you probably won’t get out of your mind for weeks. The next half an hour is probably the best in the film, as Jake decides to follow this mysterious woman who seems to have an abusive husband, a lover and a creepy Indian [in the days before they were rightfully called Native Americans] following her around, in the process clearly becoming infatuated. De Palma turns a few minutes of a man following and spying on a woman into a dreamy ballet of movement and sensation, Donaggio’s music, rich with longing and every now and again becoming dark, being allowed to dominate the sound mix.
Body Double does not actually have much violence in it. With the exception of a gory biting from Vampire’s Kiss, the only scene of brutality is a murder with a drill, but what a murder it is! De Palma racks up the tension to an almost unbearable degree as the killer tries to strangle his victim with a wire from a drill [why doesn’t he just use his murder weapon properly from the offset?], then attempts to properly ‘drill’ her as Jake tries to get to her and is thwarted by her dog. The sequence is expertly put together and even manages some black humour [the killer holds the drill between his legs, De Palma’s way of saying “**** you” to feminists, and the drill’s plug being pulled out of the socket, something that would probably actually happen] and irony, while leaving the viewer with the feeling that he or she has witnessed more graphic gore than they actually have [something this director is often very good at, much like Hitchcock]. After this breathtaking set-piece, the film never quite reaches the same level, and the warmed-over Vertigo plot doesn’t end up as very convincing, but the wry depiction of the world of pornographic movie-making, which at one weird point turns into a Frankie Goes To Hollywood video [it’s often said that there is a mistake in this scene, but seeing the reflection of a camera crew is clearly intentional to me and makes sense in context], feels spot-on.
Body Double is sometimes ludicrous. Jake pretends to be a porn director by slicking back his hair and wearing leather trousers in seeming imitation of the main character [also called Jake] in Hardcore. The monstrous-looking Indian that lurks around for some of the movie looks laughably conspicuous. Jake and Gloria kiss and ‘make out’ with Vertigo’s revolving camera and very obvious back projection, on a beach in full view of anyone who would pass by. The ending seems to jump ahead too rapidly in time though there is a school of thought that what we think we have seen is not actually what has happened. Certainly the final set-piece, where things seem to occur non-linearly, would add weight to that. Throughout de Palma dips in different genres [such as porno, film noir, slasher], constantly cheats the audience, and is hoping said audience is in on what is partly a bit of a joke. There are of course two main downsides to this. Firstly, if you’re not on De Palma’s wavelength, his film may just come across as absurd and even fake-seeming. Secondly, Body Double is a little cold, us not being allowed to care for the characters as much as we might. The latter can be contrasted with Obsession, which went down similar pathways for some of the time. That film was almost as silly and even more overwrought, but was far more touching and We Care.
The stand-out performance in the film is really by Melanie Griffith, even if, after we’ve seen her wearing very little throughout, she seems a bit awkward when eventually walking around fully clothed. She gives her character, porn star Holly Body, a wonderful mixture of child-like innocence and jaded experience. She’s kind of a male fantasy figure – someone you could take her round to meet your parents as well as have the best time ever with, but Griffith makes her quite believable. Stephen H. Burum’s cinematography is as graceful as usual and makes some striking use of colour towards the end, while I’ve already mentioned Donaggio’s fantastic score, a delirious melding of Bernard Herrmann with 80’s-style synth work. Body Double really is a weird one to totally nail. It occasionally flirts with sophistication like a bit of satire on show business, yet probably explores its director’s favourite theme of voyeurism more than any of his others. It’s self-consciously trashy and in a way feels stuck in the time it was made in, but is so ripe with Pure Cinema that certain bits could be shown to film students in how to construct a certain kind of scene. It’s Pure De Palma.