by Jay Seaver
There are times during "Body Double" when you can taste Brian De Palma's love of movies. It's an unconditional love; there seems to be a place in his heart for any movie that makes the audience feel something, whether it be laughter, disgust, arousal, suspense, or even the intellectual pleasure of noting a well-composed shot. It's a B-movie plot made by a gifted filmmaker bringing his A-game.Our story features Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), an actor who has recently been fired from a horror movie because of his claustrophobia (those scenes in a coffin sent him over the edge) and moved out of his home because he broke up with his girlfriend. While drifting between workshops and auditions, a fellow actor (Gregg Henry) mentions a housesitting gig, complete with downward-pointed telescope. The neighbor, Gloria (Deborah Shelton), does a striptease every night, which of course leads to Jake, with time on his hands, obsessing over and following her. It soon becomes clear that someone else is following her, and that fellow is clearly dangerous. Soon, the police are involved, looking at "peeper" Jake suspiciously. It seems straightforward, until an ad for adult movies, of all things, makes him suspect that things aren't as they appear, and he seeks out porn star Holly (Melanie Griffith) to help him figure out the mystery in which he's embroiled.
"Juicy and pulpy."
I fear I'm giving too much away; De Palma's film is built like a murder mystery, but it takes its time in giving the audience a body. Meanwhile, we watch. We're supposed to watch; like Rear Window, this is a film about watching, how we simultaneously take great delight in watching the woman across the street get naked while finding Jake sort of pervy for doing the same. Unlike Jake, we know going in that we're getting a mystery, and close observation will probably be rewarded, but gathering the right information is tricky. De Palma and his frequent cinematographer, Stephen H. Burum, know their way around a camera like few others, so he might quietly present valuable clues while the audience is impressed with an elaborate tracking shot, or drift past something important in a screen crowded with eighties excess, only to whip back later.
The excess is glorious, too. It's not just that we can look at it from the distance of a generation and snigger at the clothes and hairstyles; even at the time, some of the settings are crazy. Take the place where Jake house-sits, a thoroughly impractical place that looks like a flying saucer that crashed in the Hollywood Hills and got converted to residential usage. Toward the end, De Palma and co-writer Robert Avrech go the dream-sequence route in a way that begs both to be seen as parody and to be taken seriously. The movie business presented is the low end of the scale - cheap horror and porn - but even as the glamor is stripped away, making a movie still looks like fun, if you can handle the stress.
It's fun to look at the cast twenty years later and consider what became of them. Today, you'd probably say Dennis Franz is the biggest name on the marquee, but he's playing a bit part, the bellowing director who fires Jake to start things on a downward spiral. After him, it's probably Melanie Griffith, whose character we don't meet until halfway through the film. It's a bit of a hammy performance, but it suits the tone of the film. She does a nice job of making Holly jaded and a little cynical, but still able to be freaked out by the crazy theories Jake starts spouting. Gregg Henry is a familiar face, and even if his Sam seems a bit seedy, it's no more so than you should perhaps expect. Craig Wasson, meanwhile, has worked steadily but probably never had a part as prominent as this since. Like Griffith, it's not the sort of performance you later want to recognize as exceptional, but it gets the story told and works in a thriller: He does confused well enough, and knows when to hit "creepy" and when to hit "innocent", do both on cue so as to keep us from knowing just what direction the film's going to go next. Deborah Shelton, meanwhile, hits the right balance between aloof and lonely as Gloria.
De Palma's not working with "subtle" - the ponytailed creep who follows Gloria is a scarred grotesquerie, and the story is twisty in the way a good pulp novel is twisty: Each new chapter puts the audience in a new place that's more lurid than the last. There's glee taken with the sex and violence - what goes on with the electric drill is just as unpleasant as the audience imagines it to be, for instance. De Palma doesn't just make an id-tickler that has no value beyond what gets it its R rating, though; it's a solvable mystery that winks at the audience, unashamed of its shocks. It's modern pulp fiction, and doesn't apologize for it.And it shouldn't; De Palma recognized how much fun these stories are and let his pulp be pulp. It's excellent pulp, because he brings his considerable skills to bear, rather than acting like he's slumming.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=2271&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/30/06 11:07:58