Body Double, 1984.
Directed by Brian De Palma.
Starring Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Barbara Crampton, Gregg Henry, Dennis Franz, Deborah Shelton, Guy Boyd.
An out-of-work actor becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman after spying on her through a telescope, leading to a series of nasty events.
After beginning the 1980s with the triple-whammy of Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Scarface, filmmaker Brian De Palma’s next effort would be a slightly lesser offering in the shape of 1984’s Body Double, a more Hitchcockian movie than his previous couple of films but one that also saw the director toning down some of his usual trademarks in favour of a few different techniques.
Jake Scully (Craig Wasson – A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors) is a happy-go-lucky jobbing actor who suffers from claustrophobia, making his latest role as a vampire buried in a grave a bit of a chore. Scully gets sent home early after having a panic attack but walks in to his home and catches his girlfriend Carol (Barbara Crampton – Re-Animator) in bed with another man, and as it is her house then Jake has to find somewhere else to live. Through his various acting auditions Jake keeps bumping into friend-of-a-friend Sam (Gregg Henry – Slither) and once the two hit it off Sam offers Jake the opportunity to stay in a friend’s luxury apartment while the owner is away, the only condition being that he waters the plants every day.
Once there Sam shows Jake the telescope where he can spy on the neighbours, particularly a sexy brunette named Gloria (Deborah Shelton – Dallas) who lives across the street and likes to dance naked by her window every night. It isn’t long before Jake becomes obsessed with the beautiful woman and begins to follow her around, that is until he notices she has another stalker in the shape of an odd-looking Native American. After witnessing her murder at the hands of the Native American, Jake tries to get to the bottom of why she was killed and finds himself getting deeper and deeper in the seedy world of pornography where not everything is quite what it seems.
Foregoing his usual split-screen style in favour of long tracking shots, Body Double is a fantastic looking film that the Blu-ray transfer does justice. De Palma’s techniques of creating tension from very little pay off as the first half of the film spends a long time setting up Jake Scully as a character to identify with, a lot of it in silence as he follows Gloria across the city and through a shopping arcade. What follows is a brutal kill scene that De Palma shoots as if you were in the room with the actors, capturing every gruesome moment up close before the inevitable police investigation begins and Jake gets caught up in a situation that doesn’t put him in the frame but doesn’t look too good to the investigating detective.
And then the film seems to hit a brick wall as the tone shifts from sexy, edgy thriller to a sleazy mystery as a new character is introduced and it goes off in a slightly different direction as Jake works out that what he was watching through the telescope wasn’t quite what he thought it was and he is now determined to catch the killer himself. It is during this second half of the film that the tension seems to drain away as Jake poses as a porn movie producer in order to get close to a certain character who may hold the key to the mysterious Gloria and her eventual fate, and thanks to the clarity of the HD picture and some probably intentional goading camera shots by De Palma it is pretty easy to figure out who the killer is, which makes the next part of the film something of a grind to sit through as Craig Wasson tries his best to be a convincing porn industry mogul in order to discover what the audience has already worked out. Of course, Hitchcock’s ‘bomb under the desk’ theory comes into play here – the audience knowing what is going on but the characters on-screen don’t, thus creating tension – but in this instance it doesn’t work as Brian De Palma extends scenes where not a lot is happening into even longer scenes of not a lot happening to no real end except for the sake of emulating Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
Despite being fairly stylish, when put up against De Palma’s other movies from this period Body Double feels somewhat restrained and – horror of horrors – relatively straightforward visually. The strength of the film lies with Craig Wasson and his everyman persona, the character of Jake Scully being fundamentally flawed from the moment we are introduced to him and never really getting out of that particular rut so by the time of the telegraphed final twist he has never really progressed that much, which could have been a fatal flaw had Wasson not played to his strength of being quite bland (in a good way). Body Double is, for the first half at least, a fun and often bizarre thriller that is very intriguing but once the central set piece reveals possibly a little more than it should, all the filmmaking techniques in the world cannot disguise the ridiculousness of the story and how padded the second half of the film is. De Palma fans will love the Blu-ray transfer of the film as it does look very (too?) clear and lush, and the booklet that accompanies the film features some vintage articles and interviews with Brian De Palma as well as new writings on the film, but unless you’re a devotee then Body Double may be one to rent and watch once rather than one you’ll want to come back to again and again.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★