Body Double Review
Last year’s Femme Fatale demonstrated yet again why Brian De Palma is one of the most accomplished directors of his generation. I kept reminding myself of this when watching Body Double, a film which is such a mess that you can’t believe it was made by the same man. It’s not a total disaster and there are individual scenes which work very well, but it’s a sloppy and lazy piece of work with little of the elegance one would reasonably expect from De Palma.
The plot is promisingly insane, conflating Vertigo and Rear Window in such an outrageous manner as to make one suspect that De Palma is deliberately goading his critics. Craig Wasson, showing all the signs of having undergone a charisma bypass operation, plays a struggling actor who is working in a no-budget horror movie. He's playing a vampire - although he looks more like Billy Idol after a heavy night - and finds, while lying in a coffin, that he suffers from acute claustrophobia. The film's director, played by a pre-NYPD Dennis Franz, is understandably a bit narked by this and suggests to his star that a vacation might be in order. By a series of events too coincidental to repeat here, Wasson find himself suddenly single, homeless and jobless. Then he meets a fellow actor, played by Gregg Henry, who suggests that he might look after a friend's apartment while he is away on business. The brighter side of this arrangement is that, by looking through a telescope, Wasson can spy on a beautiful woman who likes wandering around her house masturbating, with the curtains open. Wasson becomes obsessed with this woman, and begins to stalk her around high class Beverley Hills locations. But then he discovers that someone else is following her - someone with considerably more sinister motives and a very, very big drill...
Before laying in to De Palma too much, it’s worth considering the case for the defence. Firstly, there are too extended sequences which are classic examples of his technique and which hold up well against anything else he’s done. The first is Wasson’s stalking of the woman around a Beverly Hills mall and then down to the beach motel. This is gorgeous stuff, filmed with a combination of crane and Steadicam and scored to one of Pino Donaggio’s most rapturous love themes. Once down on the beach, De Palma stages a nice love play around some beach huts which is well played by Wasson and the only time that he suggests anything resembling screen presence. The second is the death by drill scene. This certainly reprises some of what De Palma has done before but it’s a funny and exciting sequence with just the right number of delaying tactics before the reasonably tactful murder. This, coming around the fifty minute mark gets you hyped up to enjoy the rest of the film in the hope that it might be more of the guiltily enjoyable trash that its become. In terms of the film itself, it’s worth pointing out that De Palma didn’t originally intend to direct the film. It was written by Robert Averich and the intention was for him to direct it with De Palma acting as producer. But when two major projects proved impossible to finance – one on the Yablonski murders, another on a rock star to be played by John Travolta – De Palma decided to make this film himself. He then intended to make the first mainstream hardcore movie, casting the porn star Annette Haven, but this plan fell through as well. So the end result is obviously a compromised project which has been completed in a somewhat half-hearted manner.
But this doesn’t quite explain why the film falls so flat. The two scenes mentioned above are beautifully filmed and they work very well but they carry obvious echoes of two previous De Palma moments – the art gallery scene in Dressed To Kill and the chainsaw set-piece in Scarface. This is symptomatic. All through the film, you get the sense that De Palma is treading water and repeating himself without much enthusiasm. If he was enjoying himself, as he does in the equally insane but considerably more interesting Raising Cain, then it would be forgivable but there is a mechanical quality which prevents the film from taking wing. The steals from Hitchcock in De Palma’s other films have a dizzy wit to them, as if he were riffing on his favourite moments and commenting on the generic conventions. In Body Double, they are more like a checklist of moments which he is expected to include. The same goes for the sex, which is curiously unerotic. The locker room scene in Carrie has a sleazy, exciting voyeuristic quality as if we were watching the wet dream of a 14 year old. The peeper scenes in this film lack any kind of charge, whether sleazy or sensual.
However, the film really goes off the rails in the second half. Our hero's obsession with the woman leads him into the world of LA porn. Donning a crafty disguise which consists of leather trousers and slicked back hair, Wasson pretends to be a porn director. I suspect that he's watched Paul Schrader's Hardcore a few too many times, a film in which George C.Scott adopts an almost identical disguise. However, just to show that even the least distinguished films can be influential, it has to be said that Joel Schumacher's inane 8MM suggests that Joel's entire knowledge of the porn industry comes from watching Body Double.
However, just when you’ve given up on the movie, Melanie Griffith turns up and walks away with it. She gives a wonderfully funny, unexpected performance as porn star Holly Body. Not only does she look the part, she's got a vivacious comic presence that drags the whole film into something resembling life. She also gets the best dialogue, which was originally edited by the sensitive BBFC and is consequently worth quoting: "I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M...No watersports either. I will not shave my pussy, no fist fucking and absolutely no coming in my face." This was the only time I laughed during the entire film, whereas, in De Palma's best work, the humour is constantly coming out of the characters and the dialogue.
As I said earlier, a key problem is that, for a film dealing with sex, there's almost no genuine eroticism at all. The masturbation scenes are simultaneously overheated and hilariously unarousing, while the central "erotic" scene features Frankie Goes To Hollywood performing "Relax" in a manner that suggests some dubious heterosexual meaning to the song. The re-created scenes from porn don’t ring true and the evocation of the porn world is risible. The cinematography doesn’t help here. All the scenes in this section of the film are lit in an even manner which lacks atmosphere and imagination. Stephen H.Burum is a very capable DP so I can only imagine that he was infected by the general atmosphere of malaise which lingers around the entire film. The twist ending, incidentally, is utterly absurd. The solution to the mystery of the ‘Indian’ – and why he is wearing such bad make-up – is easily guessable and the ‘body double’ plotline hinges on the implication that someone can masturbate in such a distinctive way for it to be instantly identifiable. I can only speak for myself, but this seems unlikely. If anyone can prove otherwise, please let me know care of DVD Times and mark your envelope “Distinctive Wanking”.
This Region 2 DVD was originally released back in 1999 but has been re-released at the budget price of £5.99. This makes it rather better value than it was when it cost twenty quid but it’s still not all that much of a bargain.
The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. It’s not a bad transfer. The colours are striking, given the slightly bland palate that has been used, and there is very little grain in evidence. A small amount of artifacting is visible throughout but this is not a serious issue. However, fine detail is lacking in some places while in others there is noticeable edge enhancement.
The Dolby Surround soundtrack is a good presentation of the original Dolby Stereo mix. There are some good separations and the dialogue is clear. However, the music is very much to the fore throughout and can be rather too strident at times. Also included are German and Italian Surround tracks and French and Spanish Mono tracks.
There are no extras of note, apart from the rather enjoyable trailer. This is portentous and daft, being one of those affairs where a voiceover asks ambiguous questions while soft-focus erotica is glimpsed behind fancy graphics. This trailer is subtitled. We also get filmographies of De Palma, Craig Wasson, Melanie Griffith and Dennis Franz.
There are 28 chapter stops and a wide range of subtitles.
Brian De Palma completists will probably already own this release and they will doubtless have their own views on it. As one of their number, I can’t find too much good to say about other than that it has a few good ideas and some well achieved set-pieces. It’s certainly not first rank De Palma but it’s not a total washout either. This DVD is acceptable and is worth getting if you like daft erotic thrillers, especially at the new lower price.