Body Double SE Review

I’ve reviewed Body Double twice for DVD Times and I think that on both occasions I was rather too harsh on what now strikes me as an entertaining, often witty jeu d’esprit; a great director letting his hair down on a project he doesn’t much care about. Anyway, the following is my 2004 review of the film accompanied by a coda in which I’ll be a little more generous.

2002’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 (a script eventually filmed starring Charles Bronson), 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”.

Well, nearly three years on from the above review, my feelings about Body Double have mellowed. Yes, it’s a very, very silly film indeed but I think the merits have become more apparent over the years. The ending remains a major problem – as does that make-up job – but the scenes in pornland, laughable as they are, are mostly redeemed by the vitality of Melanie Griffith’s performance. She’s one of De Palma’s most vividly realised women characters and a riposte, in herself, to his feminist critics. More significantly, I believe that the strength of the two big set-pieces – the mall/beach stalking and the murder – is so great that they make the film worthwhile all by themselves. I really can’t think of any living director who could do those scenes as well as De Palma does and the first of the two demonstrates his unique skills in combining warm sensuality with a chill of horror – something which is very different from Hitchcock’s style. So, on the whole, Body Double is more than worth seeing and I suspect that as time goes on, its cult reputation will increase considerably.

The Disc

Columbia previously released Body Double in the early days of R1 DVD and this new disc is a considerable improvement on that first edition. Whether it’s actually special enough to be a ‘Special Edition’ is a moot point however.

The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is pretty good. I haven't seen the original R1 release but all reports suggest that this is a remastered transfer which is a considerable improvement. Certainly, the colours are very pleasing with natural skin tones and a lovely palate of pastels which provide a superb evocation of Los Angeles in the 1980s. There is some minor grain visible along with occasional artifacting - notably in the opening coffin sequence - but on the whole this looks very nice. The 5.1 soundtrack is a remix from the original Dolby Stereo. It's not very lively in terms of surround moments with the music taking up the channels at times while the subwoofer comes into play for some of those harsh low synthesiser notes and occasional sound effects. Dialogue is restricted to the front channels.

Along with some trailers, unrelated to the film, we get four featurettes, each lasting about fifteen minutes. Annoyingly these cannot be played together as a single documentary. The first, entitled The Seduction looks at casting the film; the second, The Setup considers the first half of the film; the third, The Mystery deals with the second half; and The Controversy considers, rather superficially, the poor critical reception of the film and criticisms from feminists about its portrayal of women. There’s some good interview material in each of these featurettes with Gregg Henry and Melanie Griffith being particularly candid. But Deborah Shelton tends towards the luvvieish and Brian De Palma is peculiarly guarded, professing pleasure at the finished product but never quite managing to be convincing. The biggest problem is that the background to the film is almost entirely skipped over – De Palma’s intention of making an ‘X’ rated mainstream film, his original intention to just produce it, his work with Annette Haven. Typically for Laurent Bouzereau – and we’re stuck with him on the upcoming Black Dahlia disc – there’s a determined shying away from controversy, even when controversy is supposed to be the subject of the documentary.

The film has optional subtitles but there are none for the extra features. There are 28 chapter stops.

If you already own Body Double but aren't a big fan then this release is probably surplus to your requirements. If you either love the film or want to get hold of it, then this new SE should serve very nicely.

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