Body Double (1984)

Director: Brian De Palma

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Brian De Palma has made a successful career as a director of thrillers. His first big splash (of blood) was his smart adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. He went on to make an uberviolent Scarface that shocked and delighted film buffs and regular moviegoers alike. He graduated to more stylish action/thrillers with his remarkable The Untouchables. And then there’s Body Double.

Body Double is a film that almost defies category. It is a Hitchcockian thriller. It is a comedy. It is a horror movie. It is a music video. It is not as graphically violent as some of De Palma’s other films, but it has one of the most famously bizarre murders the silver screen has ever known. It is riddled with continuity errors and obviousness in its scripting. Its cast of C+ list actors (excepting maybe Melanie Griffith, whose career was still revving up) screams direct-to-video. Yet, this film is so stylish and does all of its cobbled-together bits with such professional ease and verve that I have to call Body Double a major motion picture in the manner of The Big Sleep. It stands the test of time almost despite itself.

The film’s opening is reminiscent of the beginning credits of Ed Wood, panning through a fake graveyard on a movie set. We land on a man lying in a coffin. He opens his eyes, bears his vampire’s fangs, and freezes. The man is Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), an actor who suffers from claustrophobia. After his director (Dennis Franz) tries fruitlessly to get him to snap out of it, Jake is dragged from the coffin and sent home to recuperate. When he arrives there, he surprises his live-in girlfriend (Barbara Crampton, star of the cheesy horror comedy Re-Animator, reviewed elsewhere on this site) having sex with another man. One defiant look from her sends him scurrying from his home and off in search of temporary quarters

Jake learns that the director who promised he’d be able to come back to shooting in the morning has lied. The newly unemployed Jake starts making the rounds of acting auditions, interviews, and classes, where he keeps running into another actor named Sam (Gregg Henry). Sam overhears him tell a friend he needs a place to stay, and Sam asks Jake to fill in temporarily as housesitter while Sam leaves town for an audition. Jake is overjoyed and especially when he arrives at a luxurious space-needle bachelor pad. Sam brings Jake over to a telescope and lets him get acquainted with the next-door neighbor, a beautiful, rich woman who Sam says does a masturbation show in the window every night like clockwork.

Of course, the lovelorn Jake is a return peeper, but he starts seeing some things he doesn’t like. A man comes into the bedroom one night, awakens the woman (Deborah Shelton), argues with her, slaps her, and leaves after taking money from the wall safe. The next day, Jake is driving past the gate of the woman’s home and sees a man waiting at the end of the street in a car to follow her. Jake follows them both, and a long sequence weaves the three characters through a mall, to the beach, and into a tunnel where the woman, Gloria, pulls Jake out of a claustrophobic terror and comes close to having sex with him.

Now that he’s made a connection, Jake has to follow through. He practices what he will say to her on the phone until he sees the man who followed her in his car, a Native American, up in her bedroom robbing her safe. He phones, not to make a date, but to warn her of the danger she’s in. What happens next has to be seen to be believed.

It’s obvious from fairly early on that Jake is being set up. We can even guess by whom. The set pieces are so familiar and played for all their cliche value. Nonetheless, at some point, De Palma actually has us wondering what is up. I think that point is the near sex on the beach scene. It has to be a fantasy, we think, but De Palma plays it as a reality. I’m still not convinced it really happened. This twist on our own voyeurism puts us in Jake’s place. What are we seeing? Have we been set up to expect the obvious? It’s ingenious and one of the things that sets the film a cut above many others of its type.

I especially enjoyed Jake’s foray into the porn movie industry to track down who he thinks is Gloria’s body double (Melanie Griffith). Posing as a porn actor, he is cast as a geek in sexual toyland in a very colorful, well choreographed and scored scene. A real porn director could never imagine shooting something like this, but De Palma had fun experimenting with making a music video. It’s a good one, too.

De Palma also has fun with props, making them outlandish, cheap, and delightfully cheesy. His touches of eroticism are light (almost too light in the porn movie) and have us wondering what kind of a creep we’re cheering for. Jake seems like an all-American boy, the kind that masturbates to R. Crumb comic books, that is. De Palma knows his target audience and lets them sit in the driver’s seat of this bumper-car thriller.

I recommend Body Double to anyone who wants something a little different. It’s got it all—and a little bit more.

  • Mark spoke:
    6th/06/2006 to 10:32 pm

    I saw this in 1985 when I was 14 years old. I saw it again recently on cable and it brought the 80’s back with a nostalgic rush! I can see the influence of Hitchcock’s, Rear Window.

  • Rod spoke:
    7th/06/2006 to 12:08 am

    I loved Body Double when I first saw it – one of De Palma’s most sublime cinematic jokes, perhaps not as great as Dressed to Kill or The Fury, but hilarious and beautiful all the same. Speaking of De Palma, his adaptation of James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia is coming up soon. Now that should be one lunatic flick.

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