In 1984 Brian De Palma dusted off his best Alfred Hitchcock imitation in the by now infamous Body Double. We all know the story by now. In fact, if you’ve seen the far superior Vertigo and Rear Window films, you knew the story already. Claustrophobic vampire actor Jake Scully is having a hard time. He’s just been fired because he can’t lie in a coffin, and getting home early, he walks in on his girlfriend in bed with another man. Out of work and homeless, things look up when a fellow actor gets him a sweet housesit…ing gig in a flying saucer shaped condo overlooking the Hollywood valley. There, he is obsessed with a neighbor he spies on with a conveniently provided telescope as she performs all sorts of sordid little things naked in the window. Looks like things are really going well now, until he believes he has witnessed a murder. His investigation into what he saw leads him to the underworld of the porn industry and into the arms of porn queen Holly Body (Griffith). Most of the film takes place at a painfully slow pace. De Palma offers up a lot of stylistic cinematography but not enough action or suspense to keep us all that interested. While the erotic nature of the film was quite shocking in 1985, it just doesn’t pack that kind of a punch today. When De Palma wants to, he can simply ooze atmosphere on film. In Body Double, he oozes something a bit less flattering.
Part of the blame for the film’s awkward pace must be taken up by Craig Wasson. He simply can’t emote beyond a typical movie of the week level. The same can be said for villain Sam (Henry). On one hand, De Palma is trying to dazzle us with the epic scope of the thing, but his two main actors limit that range significantly. Credit should be given to Melanie Griffith, who is miscast in her part, but carries it off with more credibility than one would expect. The stand out has to be Deborah Shelton, who is captivating with little to say. Dennis Franz stands out in his comedy relief portrayal of the director who fires Jake. He’s playing De Palma to a fault, including De Palma’s own clothes. Both men admit in the extras that Rubin was indeed based upon De Palma..
It’s obvious that De Palma attempts to make up for the obvious imitation and lack of charismatic casting with shock value. Ultimately all we’re left with is a nickel peep show. His attempt to disguise the hero worship of Hitchcock is found only in the dissension of the porn industry which the class act Hitch would not dignify.
Body Double is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The print is a mixed bag. I have not seen the earlier DVD so can not offer any indication of how it compares to that release. Aside from a bit too much grain at times, the transfer is pretty good. Color is often soft, but well defined. Black levels are adequate, owing some problems to an uneven display of contrast. The print looks very much dated, with all of the characteristics of a 70’s or early 80’s film. It’s too dark at times and too light at others. At least it’s clean with little artifact or marks to speak of.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is pretty uninspired. There’s nothing going on that couldn’t have been handled just as well in a 2.0 presentation. Subs are inactive. This is a very quiet film. Many minutes pass with little or no sound at all. The score is at times one of the best things about this film, but its presentation here falls mostly flat.
There are four short features that really could have been one single piece. Royalty contracts are the reason these longer features are broken up into short segments. Each of the participants is obviously being interviewed at the same time and place. All but Wesson are available to offer their thoughts.“The Seduction” The most interesting thing here is De Palma’s original intent to use porn stars, which was quickly stopped by studio execs. Griffith offers the most character insight. It turns out De Palma only used her as a last resort.“The Set-Up” I’m not sure exactly what the “theme” of this 17 minute feature was. Again, the same participants offer their views on the technical aspects of shooting the film. Again, De Palma seems as obsessed with the voyeuristic nature of the film as Scully was in the film. “The Mystery” This piece, shorter by a couple of minutes, looks at the plot points of the film. Considerable time is spent on the actual murder and there is some insight into why certain things like the drill were done the way they were. This is a place where Wesson is suspiciously AWOL.“The Controversy” De Palma spends about five minutes defending the film from the critics he was inundated with in 1984. Problem is, it’s not relevant any more.
It’s hard today to imagine that Body Double opened to the level of scandal that it did. Theatres were picketed by women’s groups and religious morality groups. The actresses were condemned for taking part. The film was blasted for being exploitive, and some labeled it pornographic. Of course, nothing in Body Double comes even close to approaching these labels today. As much as De Palma complains about the harsh treatment, it’s unlikely the film would have been as successful as it was if not for the risqué nature judged by the culture of the day. It appears De Palma owes much to the tidal wave of controversy surrounding the picture. Still, the film does have its fans, and a place in cinema history. If you’re of that mind, you will happily relive these steamy moments of celluloid. And if it gets too hot? “Throw some water on it.”
Special Features List
- “The Seduction” featurette
- “The Setup” featurette
- “The Mystery” featurette
- “The Controversy” featurette