Off-screen wolf calls and eerie silhouetted palm trees assault us right-off-the-bat, usher us into a cemetery bathed in spookhouse shadow. A hideous, dead doll-faced monster comes to life and so do we, sit straight up in our seats until, presto, change-o, the great Brian De Palma fools us by revealing it’s only a horror movie set. Indeed! Then again, De Palma is known for throwing ice cold water in our unsuspecting faces. In movies like CARRIE, THE FURY, BLOW OUT, SCARFACE, the first MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and (my personal favorite), DRESSED TO KILL, his key signature—rapturous violence—hypnotizes with its ability to lure us down a sunlit street before hitting us over the head with the dark unknown waiting around every corner. Light aside dark, this is De Palma’s stock-in-trade for he, more than probably any other director I can think of, except maybe his hero, Alfred Hitchcock, poses the question, “How can we recognize the light unless there is something dark beside which it can shine”?
BODY DOUBLE is Brian De Palma’s very deliberate homage to Hitchcock. Criticized on first release as being a dreadful Hitchcock knock-off, detractors have come over the years to embrace it as a salute to a genius by a genius, a tribute that takes classics like REAR WINDOW, PSYCHO and especially VERTIGO a step further than Hitchcock did, actually more than a few steps; strict censorship laws stunted Hitchcock from being as explicit as he wanted to be, particularly in sex scenes. So many times he was forced to find new ways to subtly suggest the libidinous side of his characters (and he became a master at doing that). By the time De Palma came along, rules about what the screen could and could not show had loosened (this was the super liberal ’70s and ’80s, remember). It can be stated, safely, I think, that De Palma completed Hitchcock.
His 1984 film, BODY DOUBLE more than backs this up. A story of deception and betrayal, it escorts us into the lurid world of voyeurism and Hollywood porn, and pretty much leaves us there to feel dirty like its characters, its milieu.
I have always liked actor Craig Wasson and wonder why he never became the big star he started to become. In the 1980s, he was poised on the brink of megastardom helming such high-profile films as THE BOYS IN COMPANY C, GO TELL THE SPARTANS, FOUR FRIENDS and GHOST STORY. He had a boyish danger to him, handsome but not too handsome, goofy and insouciant at the same time. A combination of Bill Maher and a Claymation figure, he perfected the type of guy who, one minute sweetly rescues your kitten from a tree then in the next minute, drags you suddenly into bed there to ravish you with his sexual prowess. These qualities make him perfect for BODY DOUBLE’s Jake Scully, a down-on-his-luck actor whose lack of professional success is compounded by a personal breakdown when he walks in on his girlfriend in bed with another man. Jake just can’t catch a break, until, that is, a fellow actor, Sam Bouchard, rescues him from an abusive Improv instructor who is demanding Jake let loose with a blood-curdling scream, show his emotions at being trapped in a claustrophobic space. Jake’s inability to let go of himself, his body, his mind and psyche, to cry out, to “act” will later prove crucial to the plot. But for now, he is almost sexually soothed and seduced by the caring Bouchard. Together, the two bond over beers at a neighborhood bar—Jake spills his guts about his recent troubles. Bouchard offers him the curative balm of a sweet sublet deal while he is out-of-town, Jake accepts and our story is merrily, fatefully on its way.
Jake finds himself in a swank leather-and-red-walls bachelor pad straight out of James Bond or maybe out of The Jetsons, De Palma’s salute to the unreal, even alien goings-on we are about to be treated to. In a moment of playful, boys-will-be-boys naughtiness, (shades of REAR WINDOW!), Bouchard puts Jake wise to the high-powered telescope he uses to spy on a female neighbor who nightly does a solo strip tease. Bouchard departs, and Jake superglues himself to the lens, drooling over the explicit, clandestine sexual energy of this delicious danse erotique. Wasson, whose character starts off as an ordinary, down-to-earth sort, quickly finds himself neck-deep in extraordinary events. This is where BODY DOUBLE heats up and never lets up. De Palma has us in his capable hands, playing us like a fiddle.
Music plays a crucial role in any De Palma film. The scores he chooses (this one by Pino Donaggio) always lead a lush life—coming at us, leaving, then weaving their way back, in and out of the action. Characterized by philharmonic strings and deep, fluid rushes, they seem the last kind of music thrillers of this type would have. Deceptively orchestral, the scores intend to throw us off-guard—we half-expect Linda Ronstadt or Streisand to appear and sing. Instead, someone walks into the wrong elevator and gets slashed to ribbons by a psychopath.
Like VERTIGO, REAR WINDOW and PSYCHO, BODY DOUBLE is a movie about obsession and especially about the voyeurism obsessions lead to. The classic use of Venetian blinds is here. Window slats delineate the action in a cinematic way. They put us closer to what we are watching, yet keep us hidden so the people we are spying on cannot see us. They bring an unreality to our view—reveal and block at the same time. Are we really seeing what we are seeing? Are we being deceived? The lines between imagination and reality blur, magnetize us and Jake. It turns us into Peeping Toms. Jake and the audience, too, become lurking voyeurs. We feel dirty but we cannot look away. We cave to our human nature to ogle the forbidden, delighted to be in on the “peep show”, but ashamed. We become co-conspirators, of Jake, of course, but more completely, of De Palma.
Like the Hitchcock movies De Palma seeks to conjure, BODY DOUBLE is a film about following. What begins for Jake as simple interest, soon morphs into a cat-and-mouse danger game. De Palma uses the labyrinthine trickery of an ordinary city mall for us to get lost in. No dialogue occurs, rather, a seduction, nearly dream-like—the camera floats, making Jake’s Mystery Girl in white seem to float, the curvy folds of her buttocks float. Jake becomes a sweaty stalker following first the girl, then the creep following her, then following them both, then being followed by them, a hide-and-seek of interminable suspense. Music slices the action like a knife, an echo of the Venetian window slats that sliced through previous scenes. Suddenly, Jake, trying to rescue his Mystery Girl from danger, becomes trapped in a dark tunnel. He becomes the one needing rescue. He is only in a harmless, shallow passageway, but his terror at not being able to cry out for help, his “repression” mutes him. He slinks along the wall as if trying to climb sideways out of a deep and waterless well. His claustrophobia is potent, accentuated by the director’s use of a long-shot lens, up-and-down, back-and-forth in a dizzying nausea underscoring Jake’s own. We feel his torment. Ironically, only the mysterious girl can lead him out of the spell she herself has cast (like Kim Novak in VERTIGO).
There is no question that BODY DOUBLE owes its mood, its tone, its themes to Hitchcock. In the impossibly erotic dressing room scene where Jake watches libidinously as Mystery Girl changes her scanties, De Palma does what Hitch in elements of VERTIGO and REAR WINDOW couldn’t due to censorship restrictions—he shows us the woman’s naughty bits, her vagina, her thighs. We know Jake has a raging erection. We feel the heat coming off the screen in waves. De Palma idolized Hitchock but also created his own wider, freer, more explicit vision. In the 70s and 80s, sex and violence ruled. BODY DOUBLE is Hitchcock taken to an absurd level, but De Palma’s skill, his craftsmanship, make it work, and work brilliantly. I will not tell you what is going on here or what the movie reveals. De Palma is out to scare us, true, but also, operating on a much deeper level, is his desire to use our fears to make bold statements about men and women, sex, sexual objectification, violence, rape and rage. Time and again, he creates roundelays of sexual tension—a dizzying shot of Jake on a round, revolving bed, makes us feel his drunken state by skating and snaking around him repeatedly.
Sex is violence. In De Palma’s hands, he can oscillate between eroticism, humor and frightening terror within a few frames. As audience members, we don’t know whether to laugh, cringe or run screaming from the theater. It would be a mistake to pooh-pooh De Palma’s humor — his films are filled with it. However macabre and wry it might be, it works nicely to break the tension of a scary scene; we teeter between fear and laughter, carnival goers on a roller coaster ride.
Sex sizzles out of this movie like hot, buttered popcorn. De Palma lights a bonfire under what had become the tired thriller genre using dick and pussy as his match. His interjection of Melanie Griffith midway through adds a slice of steaming pie to the proceedings. Her baby girl sexpot voice serves the plot well here —she is just great at insinuating sex even when she is talking about making tea for breakfast. A disco scene, S&M-heavy with leather and thrusting hips, lifts us up into a delirium of sexual fervor along with Jake who, throughout our story, keeps letting his serious investigation into the mystery at the movie’s core get waylaid by his own horniness. When the film wants to go full-throttle dirty, it leaves its white and beach sand palette far behind. The focus sinks from the romantic, white tenderness of Mystery Girl to lurid purples, baroque blues. Ripe buttocks and breasts hump and bump to the beat of “Relax”, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s groundbreaking 1984 paean to masturbation (lead singer, Holly Johnson even makes a slinky, sexy, Joel Grey in CABARET cameo!)
BODY DOUBLE poses vital questions, still valid in 2016. When does love or a crush become sex? Sex, love? When do both merge to become destructive? When does sexual interest turn into a Voyeurism of No Return? “Watch and keep watching”, one character advises.
I don’t want to say too much more but the surprise at the end is killer! De Palma fires all guns — swelling music, tight direction, quick cuts, breathless actors— to raise his conclusion to symphonic heights. He is the conductor bringing every aspect of his directorial genius into play as he carries us with him to his orchestra’s final roar!