Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Robert J. Avrech, Brian De Palma
Starring: Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith, Gregg Henry, Deborah Shelton
Running Time: 114 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
With the recent documentary De Palma and labels like Arrow re-releasing some of the director's earlier work on Blu-Ray over the past few years, it seems like there's a lot of love for Brian De Palma going around. The films he made since the turn of the millennium haven't exactly set the world on fire, but he made enough great thrillers and cult classics in his heyday that it would be foolish to dismiss him. I must admit there are far too many of his films that I've not seen, but I'm a big fan of some of his most well known titles, such as Carrie and The Untouchables (although I haven't seen the latter for a long time). So I was particularly interested in reviewing Powerhouse Films' new Dual Format release of Body Double, aided by the fact the film had been recommended to me by a fellow film blogger.
Body Double sees the not-particularly-successful actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) come home early from set one day (after a panic attack due to claustrophobia) to find his wife having sex with another man. He's devastated of course, but the incident also causes a practical problem in that he has nowhere to stay (the house was in her name). An actor acquaintance Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) takes pity on him and lets him house-sit a luxury apartment he was watching for another friend. The apartment is first rate, but Sam shows Jake something that makes it extra-special – it has the perfect view (with the assistance of a telescope) into a neighbouring apartment housing Gloria (Deborah Shelton), an incredibly attractive young woman who performs a semi-naked erotic dance at the same time every night.
Jake soon becomes obsessed with Gloria and when he spots a suspicious looking character also spying on her and a late night visitor abusing her, he follows Gloria to make sure she's safe, as well as to find an explanation for her unusual behaviour and unpleasant company. To give too much away following this would be spoiling the fun, but the film takes some drastic twists and turns through its just-under two-hour running time.
While we're on the subject of the narrative then, I must say I found it incredibly engrossing. There's always a new mystery to keep you intrigued and, as different revelations are made, the film often changes setting and perspective to keep it constantly fresh. For instance, in the final third Jake sneaks his way into the porn movie industry, which is quite an eye-opener, although it ups the sleaze factor quite a bit and it was sleazy enough before. There's T & A aplenty throughout the film and some seedy shots felt rather unnecessary, such as when Gloria goes to try on some panties in a shop and happens to leave the curtain half open right next to a window(?!). There are several things like this that happen in the film which are almost laughably ridiculous, but a number of these make more sense after the final reveal.
As dirty as the film gets, there's still a lot of fun to be had too. The film doesn't take itself too seriously all the time, particularly in the opening and closing sequences which show Jake shooting a cheesy vampire movie. The final one of these nicely demonstrates the use of body doubles in films too – with some gratuitous nudity on display, of course.
As is to be expected from De Palma, the film is stylishly shot and directed, particularly in the main set pieces. A central murder in particular is shocking and grizzly without really showing the murder weapon going in. Instead it's viscerally effective through the choice of shots and the editing. One shot's phallic imagery is a little comically blunt though.
There are Hitchcock influences abound, something De Palma has always been famous for. The plot feels like Rear Window meets Psycho, meets Vertigo – as you have the voyeur aspects (Rear Window), a key character being killed off half way through (Psycho) and the protagonist becomes obsessed with a look-a-like (the titular body double) a la Vertigo. The central murder and some other scenes seemed out of Giallo more than Hitchock though and the film did have the feel of that Italian genre. Giallo films are heavily influenced by Hitchcock too of course, but this just felt more violent and seedy than the work of the Master of Suspense.
Speaking of suspense, there's a great build up of tension in key scenes here. Not just in the murders, but in some of the peeping Tom and stalker sequences too. A lengthy scene when Jake follows Gloria into a mall is particularly well handled.
Some sequences are less effective though, particularly a key love scene between Jake and Gloria which is overblown and over-sexualised to a ludicrous level. One scene sees the film turn into a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video too, which felt quite out of place.
I wasn't entirely convinced by Wasson's performance either. An essay in the booklet included in the set dismisses criticisms aimed at him, claiming that his kind of bland, nice-guy delivery is necessary to give such a dirty film some heart and that it fits the unreal quality of the film, but personally I felt he was a bit wooden.
All in all it's pretty trash-tastic (maybe not a real word, but you know what I mean) and I wasn't completely sold on all the performances (Griffiths is very good at least), but a gripping story, some playful tonal shifts and a great handling of tension and thrills make for a fun watch. You just might want a shower afterwards.
Body Double has been re-released by Powerhouse Films on Dual Format Blu-Ray & DVD as part of their new Indicator label. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality are both excellent.
Powerhouse have also included a decent selection of special features with the set. These include:
- Pure Cinema (38 mins): extensive interview with first assistant director Joe Napolitano
- The Seduction (17 mins): De Palma discusses the early treatment of the script
- The Setup (17 mins): an examination of the plot
- The Mystery (12 mins): Melanie Griffith discusses her nude scenes and De Palma's shyness
- The Controversy (6 mins): the cast and crew discuss the film's critical slating
- An archive interview with Craig Wasson (8 minutes)
- Isolated score track
- Original theatrical trailer
- New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
- Booklet with new and archival contents
It doesn't include a commentary like Christine, but there are more than enough featurettes included to cover every aspect of production and beyond. The 'Pure Cinema' video in particular is a great watch, and gives an in-depth look at the making of the film. The interviews don't shy away from the poor reception the film got on its release either and De Palma himself admits his central love scene doesn't work, so it's not your usual selection of back-slapping fluff stuck on to Hollywood blockbuster Blu-Rays.
Like with Christine, Powerhouse really knock it out of the park with the leaflet they've compiledtoo. On top of an interesting dissection of the film and another Guilty Pleasures list that greatly appeals to the obsessive collector in me, you get a fiery unabridged interview with De Palma which turns into a debate on pornography. Another surprising inclusion is one of the many negative reviews the film endured at the time of its release. This is not a leaflet to be ignored or chucked in the bin – it's as good as, if not better than most featurettes or documentaries.