RUNNING TIME: 110 min
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY, DVD AND DOWNLOAD
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
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 and 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 her husband and, when she goes shopping the next day, decides to follow her. However, someone else also seems to be watching and pursuing her….
The reputation of Body Double, which is probably the first of director Brian De Palma’s films [which went on to include Raising Cain, Femme Fatale and Passion] that he seems to have made primarily for himself and his fans rather than a mass audience, seems to have increased over the years since 1984 when it was critically savaged like no other De Palma film before and after – and this is talking about a filmmaker who was frequently hated on for things like his treatment of women [something which I think is nonsense though something tells me he would find it hard to make some of his movies in today’s Woke-obsessed Hollywood], his copying of Alfred Hitchcock, and his foregrounding of style over substance. Even though I’ve watched it more often than some of his better works, I’m not going to make any claims for it to be up there with the likes of Carrie, Dressed To Kill or Scarface. In many ways though, it’s the Ultimate De Palma film, the film where all his obsessions, skill and faults [I’m a fan but will still admit that he has them] are most easily on display. If you want to get an overview of the man’s work from just one film, Body Double is perhaps the one to see. In terms of plot it can be summed up as melding 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 more than he’s imitating Hitchcock – Dressed To Kill seems to be recalled too. What we have is a filmmaker having a huge amount of fun, cheekily winking at the audience while getting away with stuff many others wouldn’t even attempt. It’s not as good as most of its inspirations, but it is certainly a hugely entertaining, if extremely silly, suspense thriller rife with De Palma’s bravura style and filled with his sheer love of film-making.
The original script was written by Robert Averich, who was to direct with De Palma producing. 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 direct Body Double himself. He re-wrote the script and intended to include hardcore porn footage and have porn star Annette Haven as ‘Holly Body’, but Columbia nipped this in the bud; real porn stars did still appear in some brief faked porn movie clips. Tatum O’Neal, Jamie Lee Curtis, Carrie Fisher, Brooke Shields and Linda Hamilton all turned down the same role until Melanie Griffith actually offered to do a screen test. Also auditioning were no less than three cinematographers who all had to show how beautiful they could light a set; Stephen H. Burum did best and became De Palma’s director of photography of choice. He had his work cut out for him because the Rodeo Collection shopping mall where some key scenes took place was very hard to light consistently. Burum ended up covering the mall with silk. Filming at an aquaduct proved similarly difficult, so it was recreated on a soundstage where a hole was actually dug in the floor. Dennis Franz based his portrayal of ‘Rubin the Director’ on De Palma himself and even wore the same clothes. Despite some controversy, Body Double was a box office failure. 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 used to think it encouraged rapists]. Bizarrely, Sky TV used to include the cut material but removed shots from the central murder scene. Rumours still surface of uncut sex footage.
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. The set is absurdly artificial even for a cheapie horror movie, the first sign that this film takes place in a somewhat skewed reality as well being one that gently mocks, as the camera pans down to a buried coffin. A few minutes later, a view of what turns out to be a backdrop being moved tells us that fakery will be a major subject. Jake snarls at the camera and is then struck with claustrophobia [not vertigo, though fear of heights is actually acrophobia] which prevents him from getting out of his coffin. He then loses his job, girlfriend and home in quick succession, and, though he’s a little bland, star Craig Wasson does a decent job of portraying an ordinary Hitchcock-style ‘everyman’ whom the audience can relate to. He soon becomes fascinated by the neighbour who does a sexy 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 ’80s 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] around, in the process becoming infatuated. De Palma turns a few minutes of a man following and spying on a woman in a shopping mall into a dreamy ballet of movement and sensation, of glass and looking, while Donaggio’s music is rich with longing yet every now and again becomes dark.
With the exception of a gory biting from Vampire’s Kiss, the only scene of brutality is a murder with a drill which occurs around half way through, 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 telephone wire despite having brought and plugged in this heavy murder weapon, then attempts to ‘drill’ her as Jake tries to get to her and is held up by her dog. It’s all expertly put together and even manages some black humour, such as the drill’s plug being pulled out of the socket which could easily happen, and the killer holding the drill between his legs, the latter probably being De Palma winding up the feminists, while also leaving the viewer with the feeling that he or she has witnessed more graphic gore than they actually have. Much like those many people who claim they saw Rosemary’s Baby at the end of that particular film, some say that we see the drill entering the body, but we don’t, we just see it bloodily bursting through the ceiling of the room beneath After this breathtaking set-piece, the film never quite reaches the same level again, and the warmed-over Vertigo plot doesn’t end up as very convincing, nor particularly emotionally engaging; there’s no feeling of romantic tragedy and even Jake’s infatuation with Gloria seems mainly carnal. And then we get to a final act where Jake has to resort to his profession in two different ways to get out of the fix that he’s in, and we appear to jump ahead too rapidly in time before back tracking.
There’s just so much oddness, stuff which is ludicrous and which take many out of the film yet which us De Palma fanatics just love for those very reasons and probably a few more. Jake undergoes some exercise in acting class where the teacher exploits his painful memories and terrifies the hell out of him. The monstrous-looking Indian that lurks around looks laughably conspicuous and is so obviously a person wearing a mask even before we see him in close-up where it’s possible to recognise the distinctive eyes. After Jake has been following Gloria and then retrieved her bag from the Indian who grabbed it, the two suddenly not just kiss but ‘make out’ even though she knows he’s been stalking her, with Vertigo’s revolving camera and very obvious back projection, on a beach in full view of anyone who would pass by. Jake auditions for a part in a porn movie, and suddenly finds himself in a ‘Frankie Goes To Hollywood’ video, a scene in which it’s often said contains a mistake, though the reflection of a camera crew seems to be clearly intentional to me and makes sense in context. Is Jake’s then pretending to be a porn director by slicking back his hair and wearing leather trousers an imitation of the similarly named main character in Hardcore? There’s a wry feel to the look at pornography, as there is to the look at movie making and the acting profession, without there being any real commentary on any of these. Throughout De Palma dips in different genres, 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 artificial. Secondly, Body Double is a little cold, us not being allowed to care for the characters as much as we might wish to. 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 We Cared.
The stand-out performance is 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 obviously s kind of male fantasy figure – someone you could take her round to meet your parents as well as have the best time ever with – which may well have been inspired by Hitchcock telling Francois Truffaut in his extensive interview that “We’re after the drawing-room type, the real ladies, who become whores once they’re in the bedroom.” However, Griffith makes her quite believable and also shows the comic timing she’d soon put to good use elsewhere. Burum’s cinematography doesn’t include any of those bravura De Palma movie tracking shots but is still highly graceful, gives us shot after shot with impeccable framing, and makes some striking use of colour towards the end, while I’ve already mentioned Donaggio’s fantastic score which is probably too full-on for some modern viewers, but this was one of De Palma’s things; he’d make the music also tell the story and be very prominent in the sound mix. Here he incorporates synthesiser into his baroque scoring style. Body Double really is a weird one to totally nail. It occasionally flirts with satire, yet seems to prefer being self-consciously trashy. It probably explores its director’s favourite theme of voyeurism more than any of his others, though never truly delves into it. In a way it feels stuck in the time it was made in more than any other De Palma, but is so ripe with Pure Cinema that certain bits could be shown to film students in how to construct a scene. It’s the Ultimate De Palma Film.