Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #493
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: October 26, 1984
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $8,801,940 (USA)
Running Time: 114 minutes
Director: Brian De Palma
Producer: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Brian De Palma, Robert J. Avrech
Special Effects: Thomas R. Burman
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Score: Pino Donaggio
Editing: Gerald B. Greenberg, Bill Pankow, Kristina Boden
Studios: Columbia Pictures Corporation, Delphi II Productions
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Stars: Craig Wasson, Gregg Henry, Melanie Griffith, Deborah Shelton, Guy Boyd, Dennis Franz, David Haskell, Rebecca Stanley, Al Israel, Douglas Warhit, B.J. Jones, Russ Marin, Lane Davies, Barbara Crampton, Larry Flash Jenkins, Monte Landis, Linda Shaw, Mindi Miller
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♬
 Pino Donaggio “Love and Menace”
 Pino Donaggio “Telescope”
 Frankie Goes to Hollywood “Relax”
When Body Double arrived on the scene back in 1984, Brian De Palma was riding on the crest of a wave. Scarface had enjoyed massive critical and theatrical success a year earlier and it appeared as though things were on the rise for the talented and often undervalued filmmaker. While his output during the seventies had been particularly impressive, this hadn’t necessarily always converted into box office receipts, Carrie aside. Superior thrillers such as The Fury, Blow Out and Dressed To Kill had all sadly under-performed and his tale of Cuban immigrant Tony Montana looked to have saved him from being cast aside. Then came Body Double.
Not only did Body Double struggle to find its audience but critics gave it something of a hammering also. It was misunderstood almost unanimously and De Palma even earned himself the dreaded Razzie Award nomination for crimes against cinema, earning it the worst possible kind of publicity. Only Melanie Griffith escaped with her credibility intact after receiving rave reviews for her turn as Holly Body. Other than that, this was seen as a calamity of a movie and delivered directly to the sin bin. However, not everybody hated it. During Mary Harron’s American Psycho, Patrick Bateman made a point of naming this his all-time favorite movie and boasted of having watched it 37 times. What’s good for Bateman is good for me, so I decided to give it a second look.
I had originally watched this way back in 1984 and my vague memories suggested that a fun time had been had by all. However, I had no idea what was about to transpire upon second playback. Back then it was just another video rental and hadn’t left any real lasting impression as I was perhaps too young to truly get what De Palma was driving at. Much water has since passed under the bridge and I was now aware of his intention to pay straight homage to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, in particular Rear Window and Vertigo which both tackled themes of voyeurism and obsession. I was also mindful of the fact that he had applied a kitchen sink mentality when shooting Body Double, making for a potpourri of different genre staples.
Barely a minute had passed before I let out the first of many squeals of appreciation. Our main protagonist Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is shooting a scene for a low-budget horror movie and playing the titular role as vampire of the piece. Crammed into a tight space like a fanged sardine, his acute claustrophobia gets the better of him and he literally freezes with his mouth agape. We feel his pain but the moment when a solitary tear rolls down his frigid cheek takes this opening scene to an entirely different level. It is clear from this early point that satire is one of the components being thrown into the mix and, what’s more, the tear of laughter sliding down my own face attested to him hitting the ground running. Truly a great cinematic moment and Dennis Franz’s spot-on contribution as his despondent director Rubin is simply incalculable. Anybody who has ever been on a film set should sympathize with his thankless task.
“How do you do that? How do you get a girl’s face to glow? I got sixteen years of good humping, not once did I even get a glimmer, let alone a fucking glow! Glowing?”
Things don’t get much better for the hapless also-ran as he returns home to find his playaway wife Carol (Barbara Crampton in her first nude role) in a rather compromising position and with a glowing face like he could only hope to achieve through coitus. He vacates the premises like a timid shrew and heads down to the nearest bar to drown his sorrows. The only way is up right? Indeed it is as a chance meeting with affable fellow actor Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) sends a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity his way. Sam is looking for a house-sitter, Jake is in desperate need of somewhere to lick his wounds, and his Modernist bachelor pad high above the Hollywood Hills is a free rental certainly not to be sniffed at.
Things are on the up for Jake and are about to get even more erect as Sam shows Jake the local sights courtesy of his very own eye in the sky telescope. Below his line of sight is Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) and this playful minx gets kicks from laying on free of charge exhibitionist performances like clockwork, night after night. Watching Jake become acquainted with his Peeping Tom 5000 accompanied by Pino Donaggio’s lustful siren song is a joy to witness as he desperately attempts to stave off his peaked curiosity, just to return for one more look mere seconds later. Until this point, he has seemed like a nobody but suddenly it dawns on him that a nobody is merely a somebody just waiting to happen. Game on.
Being a shameless voyeur myself, I could instantly feel the bond forming between us. It felt almost as though I was Jake and every bad decision he makes from hereon in mirrors the kind of bad decision I too would take, being in his loafers. While these free shows are all well and good to begin with, it isn’t long before his zoom unearths someone far less easy on the eye. An Indian, with face so pitted that he makes Bryan Adams resemble Abigail Breslin, is prowling around the grounds directly outside her boudoir and seems to have far more ominous plans than simply catching an eyeful of her delicious wares. Time to activate phase two of the creepy stalker plan and do some legwork.
The scene where Jake tails his neighbor, first through a bustling mall, then into a cramped elevator, and eventually down to a five-tiered beach house, ending in a tight tunnel much to his desperation, is a pure masterclass in filmmaking, from a visual standpoint and also through its steady build-up of literally breathtaking suspense. However, De Palma never forgets the route to our funny bone and a brilliantly expressive Wasson plays ball most willingly. He is onto the Indian and, furthermore, is now squarely on Gloria’s radar after saving the day (and then being saved himself as he is ushered from his mortifying crawl space). She even affords him a solitary kiss, which he takes most appreciatively, sniffing and licking her jugular as though a vampire revitalized. With that, she walks away, and the murder mystery is straight back on.
Events soon escalate once again and, this time, his ill-thought out plan places Gloria in extreme peril as the Indian returns to finish the job. Moments like these are priceless as we don’t know whether to bust a gut or pop our bulging cranial veins through sheer alarm. De Palma finds such a fine balance that it almost feels as though we’re watching two different movies through two different telescopes. His shot choices are as divine as his reverential Hitchcock nods and I’m fairly assured that Alfred would be more than satisfied with his loving homage. However, he is not done yet and priceless set-pieces such as these are all that Body Double ever needs to have going for it.
“I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M or any variations of that particular bent, no water sports either. I will not shave my pussy, no fist fucking and absolutely no coming in my face. I get $2000 a day and I do not work without a contract.”
Before long we are introduced to the colorful world of studio pornography and it is here that we first meet skin flick queen Holly Body (played by Griffith, who just so happens to be the daughter of one of Hitchcock’s top pieces of totty Tippi Hedren). To make things even more surreal, Frankie Goes To Hollywood are also on-hand to shoot their new promo video. It’s the kind of ludicrous move that most filmmakers would never even dream of but, within the particularly yielding parameters of Body Double, it’s simply par-for-the-course. The interactions between a rejuvenated slicked back Jake and the bodacious Holly are pure nitroglycerin and, the moment when she reveals what she is and isn’t prepared to do on set, surprisingly poignant.
As it twists and turns like a python on a snake board towards a “gotcha” conclusion so totally out of left field that it’s almost in another state entirely, De Palma ensures that we are in it right up to our necks. Moreover, as vampire’s kisses go, we could do a lot worse than a puckered Wassan. He proves the ideal nobody and is the kind of average schmuck that Hitchcock used to love throwing into increasingly precarious situations. He’s also effortlessly lovable, despite any questionable nocturnal habits, and in fact as a direct result of them. As his resolve begins to flag, so does our own, and every hazardous step he takes closer to solving the mystery, is a step we take together.
De Palma had recently made a social commentary with Scarface and Body Double is him returning to what made the seventies such a flush period for him. There are few films more suspense-filled and, fewer still, so consistently gratifying on so many different levels. We have a Hitchcockian thriller, with a dash of Russ Meyer, a dash of Driller Killer, and topped off with a smattering of John Landis. Truly there is no other film quite like it and, when you consider that De Palma is playing the straight homage card unapologetically, true originality is quite the coup.
The cinematography by Stephen Burum draws us in with its bold colors, soft lighting, and all manner of evocative camera techniques. De Palma is evidently riffing on show business in general and he brings such inimitable style to proceedings that we can but sit there mesmerized for the best part of two hours. It’s never far from skirting with the downright preposterous and long-time collaborator Donnagio’s glorious score is as much of a character as anyone caught in the crosshairs.
We’re constantly looking for a boom mic to drop into frame, and half expecting the set to come crashing down around our ears at any given moment, but the story by De Palma and Robert J. Avrech is so damned athletic that we hardly even pause to draw breath. 114 minutes later as they wrap in perhaps the most illustrious manner possible, we are both utterly exhausted and downright exhilarated. This is how we should feel upon closure. A good thriller will tease you until the end, a great thriller will carry on tantalizing long after its director yells cut, and that is precisely what Body Double does.
I love that a near perfect piece of cinematic brie such as this bagged itself a Razzie nod. So did Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls and it didn’t stop that being a raucous romp through the forbidden heavens. Body Double is proof that there is no such thing as bad press and no Oscar nod could ever provide the same kind of ironic and satirical statement. Films like this should be rejoiced as we pass the baton to a new generation of cinephiles. I only wish it had been a part of my curriculum during my scholarship as Lord of The Flies taught me squat about sneaking about like a deviant. Porky’s taught me that. But Paulie The Penis just didn’t possess the same kind of downtrodden charm as Jake Scully.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: One jolting case of invasive keyhole surgery stands out, particularly given the manner in which the Indian mounts his phallic jeweller’s drill. It really gives us a start, as the execution itself is little more than a comedy of errors, and promptly reminds us that De Palma will never be culpable of going soft. Meanwhile, Griffith parades around in and out of lingerie and his wayward lens makes plenty sure that it drinks in every splendid moment.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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