Perhaps the ultimate Brian De Palma film: gory, pervy and visually stunning, with a distinctly comedic, self-mocking angle. It’s a veritable valentine to De Palma fans, but also a subtle rejoinder to those who might take his work too seriously.
BODY DOUBLE was released in 1984, following DRESSED TO KILL, BLOW OUT and SCARFACE, three of Brian De Palma’s most controversial efforts. BODY DOUBLE, despite having a far looser, less reality-based vibe than the earlier films, did nothing to staunch the cries of misogyny, plagiarism and gratuitous violence that have dogged De Palma since the 1970s. So reviled was BODY DOUBLE that even the making-of book DOUBLE De PALMA by Susan Dworkin, published to help promote the film, took De Palma to task in its pages. Nowadays De Palma claims BODY DOUBLE, along with SCARFACE, is the most enduring of all his films, and I’ll have to agree.
Following a contentious breakup, struggling actor Jake Scully is offered a proposition he can’t refuse by a fellow actor he barely knows: housesit an upscale art deco structure in the Hollywood Hills. Jake agrees to the offer after being shown around the UFO-like house and checking out the view, which includes a way-hot woman neighbor named Gloria who undresses before an open window each night and masturbates.
But there’s trouble in paradise: Jake spots a suspicious looking Indian dude outside Gloria’s house staring in at her. The next day Jake follows Gloria, who’s being stalked by the Indian. The three make their way through a swank Beverly Hills mall and a set of terraced beachfront apartments. There Jake works up the nerve to finally confront Gloria in a torrid romantic interlude, but is interrupted by the Indian, who steals her purse and effectively “cock-blocks” Jake.
That night Jake again spies on Gloria…and witnesses the Indian menace her with a long drill. He runs to her house but is too late to stop her from being murdered by the Indian, who runs off immediately after. In his absence, suspicion for the murder naturally centers on Jake.
A new wrinkle in the case occurs when Jake catches a glimpse of a porn starlet named Holly Body doing a masturbation routine similar to the one he viewed through Gloria’s window. He meets and establishes a relationship with the sassy and eccentric Holly Body, who eventually reveals that she was hired as a real life body double for Gloria. But why? And is the killer still afoot? And what exactly does Jake have to do with it all?
The fact that Brian De Palma had just directed SCARFACE, with its jazzy visuals, is evident in the glitzy look of BODY DOUBLE, which is quite different from the dark-hued imagery of many of De Palma’s earlier thrillers. It’s bright and gaudy, as befits the Hollywood locale, and has a light, almost cartoony aura, not to mention some truly eye-popping architecture. Whereas DRESSED TO KILL and BLOW OUT, brilliant though they both were, felt labored and brooding overall, BODY DOUBLE is lively and energetic—its is, in short, a FUN film.
For the first time De Palma seems fully aware of the ridiculousness of his material (whose absurdities include an out-of-nowhere romantic interlude between Gloria and her stalker and an attempted murder carried out in full view of a police roadblock). A director character (played by DePalma regular Denis Franz) is closely patterned after BODY DOUBLE’S actual director, and the outrageously cheesy films within the film—a sleazy vampire pic and a porn video—comment on the proceedings in sly fashion: the vampire flick contains a body double of its own, while Jake’s role in the porno (a nerd caught up in an orgy) isn’t far removed from his part in the film overall.
Yet this being a De Palma flick, it’s also quite troubling in parts. The sequence where Jake shadows Gloria through Beverly Hills is pure De Palma, being technically impeccable but also genuinely perverse, seeing as how Jake is an unabashed voyeur who may be concerned about Gloria’s safety but is not above watching her try on underwear through a store window. The infamous drill murder sequence, with the long drill presented as an unmistakable phallic symbol, is even more disquieting, even if it isn’t as graphic as you might expect (there’s a reason the title character of Brett Easton Ellis’ AMERICAN PSYCHO watches the sequence over and over).
And let’s not forget the performances. During the seventies and eighties De Palma could always be counted on to bring the absolute best out of his performers, and this was definitely the case with BODY DOUBLE. In the lead role Craig Wasson is the quintessential nerdy eighties actor, while Deborah Shelton is unforgettable as the object of his desire (although her voice for some reason was dubbed by Helen Shaver) and Melanie Griffith delivers the performance of her career as the cute and sassy Holly Body, who despite only a half hour or so of screen time all-but walks away with the picture. Also appearing briefly is a fully nude Barbara Crampton, a year before RE-ANIMATOR, and if you look closely you’ll spot future scream queen Brinke Stevens as one of Holly’s porn mates.
Director/Producer: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Robert J. Avrech, Brian De Palma
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Editing: Jerry Greenberg, Bill Pankow
Cast: Craig Wasson, Gregg Henry, Melanie Griffith, Deborah Shelton, Dennis Franz, Guy Boyd, David Haskell, Rebecca Stanley, Al Isreal, Douglas Warhit, B.J. Jones, Russ Marin