Synopsis: Another Brian De Palma gloss on Alfred Hitchcock, Body Double (1984) is a dark thriller set against the sleazy backdrop of bad filmmaking—from horror to porn. The focus is on a struggling actor (Craig Wasson) who becomes obsessed with a beautiful exhibitionist (Deborah Shelton) he can’t resist peeping at; his voyeurism begins to serve a purpose when he discovers that his object of desire is in mortal danger. Also starring a very amusing Melanie Griffith as a punk-style porn star, the film features a spectacular score by Pino Donaggio and a heralded appearance by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
Body Double 8.0
eyelights: its solid cast. its twisty plot. its gimmicks. its campy quality. its spoof of the film industry.
eyesores: its convenient coincidences.
“I like to watch.”
‘Body Double’ was omnipresent in videos stores when I was a kid. Perhaps it’s because it was one of the first releases in a burgeoning video market, or perhaps it was its sexy cover that got it so much attention. Either way, the 1984 Brian De Palma picture was far more popular on video than it was in cinemas.
Since its release, it’s garnered a bit of a cult classic status, but it was then subject to some very critical attention for its violence, which some people felt confirmed De Palma’s misogyny. That it followed in the wake of ‘Scarface’, another picture that critics found excessively violent, certainly didn’t help.
I revisited the picture a few years ago when I finally picked up a DVD copy for dirt cheap. Not only was it amongst the first mass-marketed VHS tapes, it was amongst the first DVD releases on North American shores. Still, it took me years to pick it up because it was so widely available that I took it for granted.
I shouldn’t have.
‘Body Double’ is a picture that deserves its cult status: it’s mysterious, thrilling and sexy. It’s incredibly entertaining. And yet, it’s sensationalistic in a way that you’d typically only expect from a low budget b-movie. Coming from a pro like De Palma, I can only suppose that it was intended to be ironic.
Otherwise, it’s unintentionally funny.
The picture follows Jake Scully, a struggling actor who, after getting fired from a low-budget horror film and finding his girlfriend in bed with someone else, finally has a stroke of luck: an acquaintance offers to let Jake housesit for him at a friend’s expensive pad for a few weeks while he’s away on a job.
And you should see the view: from the towering apartment (an actual UFO-like house known as the Chemosphere), he can see the neighbour across the way doing a sexy strip every evening. Naturally, he makes a point of watching each time. But he soon discovers that she’s being watched by a stranger.
And, by day, that same stranger is following her.
Scully is soon propelled into an alternate reality of stalking, ghastly murder and pornography, as he tries to protect the woman and takes it upon himself to reveal the identity of this creep. Hobbled by a debilitating case of claustrophobia, Jake will have to defeat his demons or quite literally die trying.
By the late ’70s, De Palma had a pretty entrenched reputation as an Alfred Hitchcock copycat (of course, John Carpenter was dubbed the “new Hitchcock”, so what did critics know?). While his penchant for lifting Hitchcockian themes were on display before it couldn’t be more apparent in ‘Body Double’.
For instance, Scully’s claustrophobia is treated in a similar way that Hitchcock treated Scottie’s vertigo in his 1958 picture; Scully’s world collapses around him and he becomes utterly incapacitated. And then there’s his voyeurism, which is very much reminiscent of Jeff’s in his 1954 picture ‘Rear Window’.
Hitchcock often made his leads “everymen” who were caught up in events that involved mysterious, unapproachable women. Scully, though an actor, is down-to-earth enough that he’s relatable, and Gloria Revelle is the embodiment of fantasy: artificial, all made up, inexpressive behind her sunglasses.
Yet incredibly sexy.
Then there’s Hitchcock’s knack for mixing suspense and humour, which De Palma does here as well. While his main focus was poking fun at the film industry which had given him quite a hard time, the picture is peppered with a few scenes that suggest a very tongue-in-cheek approach to the material.
For starters, there’s the opening sequence which opens after the blood red horror credits: hilariously made up as a Punk/New Wave vampire, Scully is in a coffin, preparing to escape. It’s only when he freezes and the film-within-a-film’s director yells “cut!” that we realize this is not ‘Body Double’.
Until then, we can’t help but wonder if we’re watching the wrong film.
Even the scene in which Scully finds his girlfriend in bed with another man is set-up as a lark. I mean, it’s very clear to us from the moaning that she’s having sex, but Scully remains clueless as he goes through each disappointingly empty room looking for her. And then we see the look on her face.
Caught in the act.
With a hand firmly pressed against her breast.
There’s another funny scene in which a porn starlet that Scully is trying to mine for information gives his actress friend some tips – after a there’s a little mix-up about both of them being in the industry. Wait until his friend makes that phone call and finds a porn producer on the other end of the line!
Another terrific sequence that injects humour is a cameo that Scully makes in a porn movie, so that he can meet and interview the starlet. It’s a music-video-within-a-movie sequence in that it’s choreographed to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” and it looks like any number of amusingly cheesy ’80s videos.
At first you don’t know when the video starts and ends; De Palma once again plays with the audience’s perception of reality. And he’ll do it again one last time with the end credits, which finds Scully back on the set of ‘Vampire’s Kiss’, doing a “sexy” but technical shower scene with a body double.
Well played, sir.
On a more serious note, however, there’s a great cat-and-mouse sequence when Scully follows Gloria and the stranger all the way to a chic indoor mall. The long shots and close-ups are spectacular; the mall is almost Escher-like, with its many staircases, elevators and doors. You have to scour the screen.
That whole “chase”, from start to finish, must be 20 minutes long.
It’s an amazing construction.
Plus it culminates in the most hilarious moment of the whole picture, with Scully and Gloria embracing outside a tunnel on a beach: the camera swirls around them as they make out in an exaggerated fashion to overly romantic music. It’s so over-the-top that it’s nothing short of high camp – intentional or not.
But, since everything about this picture seems deliberate, I can’t help but think that De Palma knew exactly how crazy that scene was. I suspect that he intended it to look and feel fake, enhanced as it was by Scully’s imagination, which, being an actor, is deeply rooted in such cinematic cheesiness.
It wasn’t because De Palma lacked skill, clearly. I mean, he even considered such details as having the telescope that Scully watched Gloria with shake and go out of focus, to give it a realistic effect. So I’m convinced that what we see in the movie was planned – it wasn’t accidental or a mistake.
Still, De Palma left me with a few questions along the way:
- How could Scully follow Gloria all day and not be noticed by her – especially given how close he stayed?
- Why would the stranger try to steal Gloria’s purse in broad daylight, of all times?
- Why would Scully not call Gloria the moment that he saw the stranger in her house?
- Why would the stranger use such an unwieldy tool to do open the safe?
- What are the odds that Scully could catch up to the stranger at the end, given his head start?
And, finally, what about that final scene, where he finds himself on the set again? Is it because the whole movie was a fantasy of his? Or was he imagining himself on the set to build up the courage to overcome his claustrophobia? It’s not clear which, but I would love to imagine that all of it was a fantasy.
After all, it’s called ‘Body Double’; it’s the substitution of one person for another to give audiences a seamless illusion of reality. And it’s quite possible that Scully’s imagination served that very same function for this audience; perhaps we were never meant to see what was really happening.
Maybe Scully was on the set all along.
Frankly, I don’t want to know De Palma’s true intention; I’d much rather ruminate over it some more and try to pick the picture apart until I’ve figured it out myself. Heck, I can create my own reality too. And maybe, in my version of the making of ‘Body Double’, Scully never met Gloria or the stranger.
They might never have existed at all.
Date of viewing: February 2, 2017