Saturday Nightmares: Body Double (1984)
It’s hard to imagine a world where Body Double is a Ken Widerhorn (Return of the Living Dead part II) film. Originally, Brian De Palma had intended to write and produce, but opted to get behind the camera when another of his projects fell through.
And it’s a good thing, too, since making 'Hitchcockian' thrillers has always been the director’s strong point. Sisters, Obsession, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out are examples of De Palma’s ability to tap into the Hitchcock verve while carving his own niche of twisted sexuality and brutal murder. Dismissing De Palma as little more than a Hitchcock knockoff has always been an unfair dismissal in my eyes, as crafting genuine suspense isn’t a talent every director is capable of. Hell, Van Sant recreated Psycho shot-for-shot and failed more miserably than any other director ever has.
With De Palma, even when we feel like we've seen it before, it's often a setup to veer the story into both different and unexpected directions. True to form, Body Double isn’t just an unexpected thriller, but it’s also a hilarious commentary on the art of genre filmmaking.
After battling the MPAA over Dressed to Kill and Scarface, De Palma wanted to push the envelope past the point of no return. And while Body Double falls short of featuring the “real” sex that was originally envisioned, it emerges as the director’s masterpiece: featuring some outrageous gore and ample and exploitative nudity, it’s arguably the only example of a bona fide American giallo. Over-the-top, packed tight with ridiculous plot twists and genuine suspense, the end result is one of the best films of the 1980s and a real personal favorite of mine.
Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is a horror film actor fallen on hard times. After taking a house sitting gig, he discovers that he can see into the bedroom of sexy neighbor Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton) – who just so happens to perform a nightly striptease at her window. When she’s murdered by a hulking Indian wielding a power drill, Scully is plunged into a bizarre murder mystery involving 80s porn queen Holly Body (Melanie Griffith – decked out in 80s hotness) – who inadvertently holds the key to finding the killer.
Drawing stark divisions between critics and audiences alike, this one is nothing short of amazing. It’s tough to fault people for their inability to get behind a protagonist who fishes a pair of worn panties out of a trash barrel just to sniff them, but it’s just a small example of the pitch black humor illustrated here. And it’s true that the narrative is pretty wacked out, but it’s also unpredictable. Body Double functions as both a compelling horror film and a brutally funny middle finger to both the MPAA and the director's harshest critics (the end credits are a direct response to the criticisms he took for using a body double for Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill).
And, as far as I'm concerned, it's hard to find any fault with any of this. Craig Wasson (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3) is great as the struggling actor, both likable and sympathetic. Stealing the film however, is Melanie Griffith’s ditzy porn star. It’s the best performance of her career and the 80s glam look really does her wonders. De Palma originally intended real porn star Annette Haven to play the role and offered it to Jamie Lee Curtis once she passed, but it's hard to imagine anyone other than Griffith here. Holly Body could’ve been nothing more than a hot piece of ass, but Griffith infuses the character with enough charm and charisma to make her an absolute delight. Gregg Henry shows up as a fellow actor and friend to Wasson, while Dennis Franz plays an abrasive genre director – a performance inspired by our resident director.
Body Double switches gears quite often: grisly, erotic, funny, suspenseful and just plain scummy but, somehow, it never feels confused. It’s all just a part of the ride – one the viewer isn’t likely to forget. It’s also home of some of the best visual set pieces in the director’s career: the power drill murder, the strip tease, the beach encounter, the mall scene and the climactic traffic jam. And one doesn’t mention this without drawing attention to the delightful Frankie Goes to Hollywood cameo. True to form, De Palma misdirects the audience as often as he manipulates his characters – keeping all of us in the dark until the mystery is ready to be revealed.
Obviously, this isn’t going to please everybody. Those accustomed to European cinematic conventions are probably going to take the most joy in watching this madness unfold. It’s surprising to see an American film emulate the giallo 'formula' with such success, but De Palma nails it. Movies like this are almost impossible to come by in this day and age: sometimes needlessly exploitative, yet packed with more artistry and ingenuity than most of today’s Hollywood thrillers, this is a blast to watch from beginning to end.
On an interesting note, the film's teaser trailer won a Clio Award.
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