The Film: 4/5
Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is having a very bad day. The consummate Los Angeles working actor has just lost his only job playing a vampire in a low-budget exploitation flick because the claustrophobia he's had since childhood causes him to freeze up during scenes where he has to lie in a closed coffin. Then he comes home to find his girlfriend Carol (a extraordinarily nude Barbara Crampton) having sex with another man, which means Jake is going to have to find himself another place to crash. To his rescue comes fellow actor Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) with an offer to stay in a architect's wet dream of a house in the Hollywood Hills while Sam heads up to Seattle for an acting job. The place has everything a single professional man could want in a domicile, including an alluring next door neighbor named Gloria (Deborah Shelton) who performs an erotic dance in front of her bedroom window every evening around the same time.
Jake is naturally drawn to observe Gloria's nightly performances through a convenient telescope, but as he watches he begins to notice things he wish he could unseen like a strange and gruesome-looking Indian lurking around Gloria's property. Jake's concern for his temporary neighbor becomes an obsession as he begins to follow her around town, hoping to keep her safe from the menacing Indian whose intentions are becoming clear with every action he takes. The obsession ultimately takes a turn into amateur sleuthing territory after Jake fails to save Gloria from being brutally murdered by the Indian and a fated run-in with a porn cable channel leads him to adult film vixen Holly Body (Melanie Griffith). It seems that one of Holly's trademarks is a hypnotic dance routine eerily similar to the one Gloria used to perform, and as the circumstances behind the murder are slowly unraveled Jake will have to give the performance of his life in order for Holly and himself to stay alive.
Believe it or not, Body Double was originally intended to be Brian DePalma's sharp, upturned middle finger to every critic who had long accused him of being a bloodthirsty, Hitchcock-aping misogynist and pornographer. He had fought drawn-out battles with the MPAA over the violence and sexual content in his previous features Dressed to Kill and Scarface, and though he was later vindicated on both films at the box office and on home video DePalma had long grown weary of being labeled as something he was desperately trying to prove he wasn't. Thus he temporarily decided to surrender and deliver to his harshest detractors a movie that would embody every single biased ideal they had of him as a filmmaker: it would be bloody as hell and the most sexual film ever released by a major studio. It wouldn't get slapped with an X rating, it would grab that rating by its cojones and force it to submit to its will. As he was conceiving the story for what would become Body Double with co-writer Robert J. Avrech, DePalma chose to put the brakes on his overpowering darker impulses and channel the anger he felt towards the prudish censorship boards of the world into telling a much different story that he had initially planned.
Coming from a director who has never shied from showing the most appalling violence in his films, Body Double is remarkably restrained for a DePalma feature. There is only one murder scene, but it has a masterfully intense build-up and is bloody as hell even though most of the actual killing takes place off screen. Instead, Body Double is one of the director's most character-driven and satirical movies. DePalma started his career with offbeat black comedies like Greetings and Hi, Mom!, and his 1974 classic Phantom of the Paradise remains a timeless spoof of the music industry's inhumane nature towards real musicians and its empirical hubris that it can create beloved acts itself rather than allow them to emerge organically from the club scene. With Body Double DePalma explores the lonely lives of working careers, the dehumanizing treatment they suffer at the hands of dictatorial directors (represented by Dennis Franz, once always at the ready to play a blowsy sleazebag for DePalma, playing the cantankerous director of the movie within the movie Vampire's Kiss that Jake gets fired from at the start of Body Double with some of DePalma's own mannerisms and even a similar wardrobe), pompous acting teachers, and presenting the world of adult cinema that employs Holly and many others as a more glamorous but no less forgiving mirror image of the trashy horror flicks that gave Jake and countless future movie stars their big breaks. He does this all with a knowing sense of lighthearted humor that respectfully mocks the so-called bottom feeders of the film industry while simultaneously acknowledging their redeemable qualities as independent artists.
DePalma has always looked to the films of Alfred Hitchcock for inspiration and guidance; both Carrie and Dressed to Kill contained stylistic callbacks to Psycho, while his undisputed masterpiece Blow Out is reminiscent in places of the Master of Suspense's classics North by Northwest and The 39 Steps. Body Double's plot will be mighty familiar to fans of Rear Window and Vertigo, though DePalma could never quite achieve the emotional and technical brilliance of those movies. He does craft several suspenseful set pieces, the bulk of which are devoted to Jake's obsession with protecting Gloria by following her on a daytime excursion and rushing to her aid when she is suddenly confronted by the hideous Indian who has been stalking her. The latter sequences is drawn out to hysterical levels and becomes almost comedic as Jake encounters unbelievable obstacles along the way and the Indian employs a phallic power drill to attack Gloria with (shades of Slumber Party Massacre?). I couldn't help but laugh when DePalma frames the Indian lowering the drill into his helpless prey so that it looks it's emerging from between his legs. Fans of the original American Psycho novel will know this scene as the one Patrick Bateman loves to watch while masturbating.
Jake Scully is a terrific patsy character, the typical wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time depending on your perspective. Craig Wasson's acting career never reached the heights of Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, but he does bear a striking resemblance to blacklisted film noir legend John Garfield and his lack of star power does help him immerse himself deep into the role of Scully. He's oddly sympathetic even when his actions might seem creepy. Besides any struggling actor in L.A., New York, or abroad can certainly relate to Jake's day-by-day plight to stay afloat in a business where the strongest will gladly devour the souls of the meek and unprepared to further their own ends. Over an hour of Body Double's running time has elapsed before Melanie Griffith makes her grand entrance as Holly Body, but she manages to not only create a vivid personality out of a handful of effective dialogue scenes that ensure this movie never gets any cable airplay any time soon but to provide the audience with a window into the steel trap mind and soul beneath her gorgeous exterior.
Primetime soap beauty Deborah Shelton is easy on the eyes and makes a vulnerable victim, but that's about as good as her slight performance gets. It's difficult to blame the actress because she does what she can with a character that is little more than a plot device. Having played characters both good and evil it was a wise move to cast Gregg Henry as Sam, the friendly fellow actor with dubious motivations. His part in the plot against Jake might become apparent long before it's actually revealed but at least Henry has a blast trying to keep us cynical mystery lovers in the dark for as long as humanly possible. Eagle-eyed viewers might be able to spot cameo appearances from B-movie scream queen Brinke Stevens (Nightmare Sisters) as an actress in one of Holly's XXX flicks, not to mention Slavitza Jovan - better known as the frightening face of Gozer the Destructor in Ghostbusters - as a Rodeo Drive saleswoman suspicious of Jake.
Body Double was the first of eight features on which DePalma worked with cinematographer Stephen H. Burum. Prior to working on this film he had shot Francis Ford Coppola's acclaimed S.E. Hinton adaptations The Outsiders and Rumble Fish and demonstrated a genuine knack for striking visual compositions and finding the hidden beauty in awful scenarios. Burum brings out the repugnant yet pleasurable allure of mid-80's Los Angeles and the affluent, upscale homes that serve as imperative locations in the film. The music score by longtime DePalma collaborator Pino Donaggio is alternately brooding and melodramatic and it makes a perfect fit for the occasionally schizophrenic tone of Body Double. This is a world where anything can literally happen,
Even though Twilight Time skimps when it comes to including bonus features on their releases that weren't already in existence the company excels in the high-definition remastering department. When Body Double was announced as a T.T. Blu-ray title I was excited because Brian DePalma movies often look sumptuous when upgraded to HD. Sad to say that the 1080p transfer of the movie which is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio doesn't look any better than a really nice DVD upconvert. I doubt DePalma or Burum had much involvement in this transfer. I can't tell you that the quality of Twilight Time's work is a total wash because Body Double has always looked good when displayed in its proper aspect ratio. The retina-scarring decadence of mid-80's Hollywood that serves as the film's colorful backdrop is here in all its neon-drenched glory and looking mightily opulent in a "cocaine's a helluva drug" manner, particularly in the "Relax" porn movie set musical number. During the majority of the film the color palette seems oddly muted and lacking in visual clarity, but details are stronger in other scenes and the amount of grain left in the print is evident without drawing much attention. Good for what it is overall, though a more committed home video company like Arrow, Criterion, or Second Sight could do Body Double greater justice. Sound-wise the Blu-ray presentation fares better.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is nothing to write home about, but then again Body Double is hardly a reference standard type of film. The dialogue sounds perceptible and the Donaggio score gets a nice boost without the different elements of the audio mix overwhelming each other and creating unwarranted distortion. It's about the best we fans of the movie can ask for until a better release comes along, and I'm sure it will. English subtitles are also included.
The only new bonus feature is an isolated audio track featuring Donaggio's full score with crystal clarity. The remaining extra is a four-part retrospective documentary produced for the 2006 special edition DVD by Laurent Bouzereau: "The Seduction" (17 minutes) traces the development of Body Double, casting, and how DePalma originally wanted to hire porn starlet Annette Haven (though she is not referred to by name here) for the role of Holly, a decision that was rejected loudly by Columbia; "The Set-Up" (17 minutes) covers the rehearsal process, the search for the right house to play Jake's opulent temporary digs, the staging of the love scene at the beach and DePalma's frank admission that he may have gone overboard there, and reveals that the dog that attacked Jake when he was trying to save Gloria was the same dog that played the killer German Shepherd in Sam Fuller's White Dog; "The Mystery" (12 minutes) covers the principal photography and Griffith's performance; and finally, "The Controversy" (5 minutes) focuses on the media firestorm over the sex and violence in Body Double that greeted the movie upon its release and how it later established a cult following the U.S. and Europe on home video and cable. Director DePalma and stars Griffith, Shelton, Henry, and Franz were interviewed for these featurettes, but star Wasson and other members of the cast and crew were notable no-shows.
The disc also comes with a booklet of liner notes about Body Double written by Julie Kirgo.
For its debut outing on Blu-ray Brian DePalma’s underrated erotic thriller Body Double wasn’t given much respect when it comes to A/V quality, especially if you compare it to some of Twilight Time’s past releases. But the movie still remains great fun to watch after nearly three decades and the presence of the old DVD documentaries keeps this disc from slipping into drink coaster status. Now that this Blu is out of print I will leave the decision to spend hundreds of dollars on Amazon and Ebay to secure a sealed copy up to you. Take it from me, a better release is bound to come along.