The Test of Time: Body Double (1984)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY BRIAN DE PALMA

STARRING CRAIG WASSON, MELANIE GRIFFITH, GREGG HENRY, DENNIS FRANZ, DEBORAH SHELTON

Here’s a tough one for ya: what’s your all-time favorite Brian De Palma flick?

My answer changes with the wind. One day I’ll bang the drum for his first-rate Pacino-De Niro gangster outings like SCARFACE, THE UNTOUCHABLES and CARLITO’S WAY, and the next I’ll be reveling deeply in the horror of SISTERS, CARRIE and DRESSED TO KILL. And that’s not even counting quite possibly De Palma’s best and most underrated film, BLOW OUT, which features John Travolta’s best performance this side of PULP FICTION and GET SHORTY.

But we say that to say this: De Palma’s SCARFACE follow-up, the ultra-sleazy and BODY DOUBLE, is not only among one of his most overlooked movies, but the overtly amalgamated REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO Hitchcock homage easily ranks his most skillfully directed films as well. I f*cking love this movie for a variety of reasons, namely in the way it isn’t afraid to explore – and hilariously excoriate – both the low-budget horror film industry, and the adult-film industry, and how the two are inextricably linked through the stigma of substandard Hollywood quality. Horror films have often been dismissed as one notch above pornography, and De Palma has an adulterated blast toying with this perception while still channeling his filmmaking idol. As BODY DOUBLE celebrates its 35th anniversary next month, it’s time we see how it fares against the harshest of critics. It’s The Test of Time below y’all!

THE STORY: Clearly inspired by REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO, De Palma also reportedly drew the idea of BODY DOUBLE after toiling away on the set of DRESSED TO KILL, in which Angie Dickinson required a body double for her indelible nude shower scene in the film. The original screenplay co-written by De Palma and Robert J. Avrech (BLOOD BRIDE, DARK TOWER) set the story in New York, but the idea to relocate the story to Los Angeles was a sensible one – not only diegetically, as the story revolves around the fringes of Hollywood – but aesthetically as well, with the sunny allure and seduction of L.A. countering the dark, seedy, gory violence that shows up later on. Plot wise, the story picks up with Jake Scully (Bill Maher, I mean Craig Wasson), a middling b-movie actor, freezing up inside a coffin during a horror movie shoot. It turns out Scully hasn’t vertigo, wracked by dizzy-spells at high altitudes, but rather he’s claustrophobic and becomes petrified when squeezed into tight places. Rubin, the director of the film (Dennis Franz, doing his best De Palma impersonation), fires Jake for seizing up. If that wasn’t upsetting enough, Jake goes home to find his girlfriend Carol (Barbara Crampton in her film debut) cowgirl riding some other stud.

Looking for a new place to stay, Jake is introduced to a fellow actor at an audition named Sam (Gregg Henry), who allows Jake to stay at his swanky L.A. bachelor pad. The place has a full bar and rotating bed as if Hugh Hefner resided there. Sam shows Jake a telescope on the balcony, which is pointed to a neighboring mansion. Inside the windows, a sexy socialite named Gloria Deborah Shelton) can be seen doing a lurid striptease every single night. Jake takes an immediate shine to Gloria, and becomes so infatuated with her that he begins to voyeuristically leer at her through the window. One night, Jake spots a creepy interloper resembling a Native American inside Gloria’s room, looting her jewelry. Later, the Indian impales Gloria to death with the biggest Freudian phallus this side of Jimmy Stewart’s telescope in REAR WINDOW, a four-foot power-drill! A lengthy chase ensues, bringing Jake in contact with the porno industry, where he is drawn to a sexy new siren named Holly Body (Melanie Griffith). As Jake works to overcome his claustrophobia while getting closer to Holly, he uncovers who is behind the murder and how Holly was used as a sacrificial pawn in the murderer’s master-plan.

WHAT HOLDS-UP: Outside of Stanley Kubrick, nobody can shoot a movie like Brian De Palma. The balletic direction and virtuosic camerawork in BODY DOUBLE is second to none, which is what you’d expect when De Palma decides to honor Hitchcock so formally and faithfully. Whether it’s the lengthy tracking shots, the hypnotic Steadicam work, the fluidly choreographed compositions and jarring camera angles are so masterfully crafted that, if it weren’t for the physical fashion trends of the day, you would never be able to tell when the movie was made. It’s that assuredly crafted, that gorgeously filmed, and that timelessly designed. There’s one extended sequence in the middle of the film that, while it does detract from the momentum of the movies pacing, it perfectly exemplifies what we’re describing. Essentially, there’s a protracted, dialogue-free, 20-minute stalk-and-follow sequence where Jake tails Gloria through various locations.

It’s here that the movie is most meant to emulate Hitchcock, favoring the show-me-not-tell-me mastery of the form. The way in which De Palma blocks these scenes and the manner in which his longtime DP Stephen H. Burum (THE UNTOUCHABLES, RAISING CAIN, THE OUTSIDERS, RUMBLE FISH, etc.) careens the camera so kinetically while still capturing an array of muscular imagery is among the best things BODY DOUBLE still has in its corner. Nighttime, daytime, interior, exterior, high-brow, low-brow, De Palma runs this visual gamut in BODY DOUBLE in a way that may never show its age. As an addendum to this almost silent chase scene, the use of Pino Donaggio’s throwback, Bernard Herman-style score also holds up incredibly well today. Not only in this one sequence, but overall, particularly in the voyeur rooftop scenes, where the ahead-of-its-time notes remind of a whispery 90s R&B track, PM Dawn style. Pino and De Palma have been making great music together going back to CARRIE, and BODY DOUBLE is right up there with some of their best collaborations.

Another aspect that really holds up in BODY DOUBLE is the mysterious killer, and his wicked weapon of choice. My Lord. I remember my dad telling about this flick a long ass time ago about a dude who uses such a giant drill that he corkscrews a broad through up through the ceiling. I didn’t believe him. Years later I found BODY DOUBLE during my autodidactic De Palma education and, whoa, there it was! Okay, so the driller killer nails Gloria down through the floor, not up through the ceiling, but the gist remains. Of course, Freud would have an absolute field day with the phallic iconography of such a large drill that the killer sports, often between his legs, before brutally penetrating his helpless female victims. It’s the kind of imagery Hitchcock could never get away with, and frankly, subject matter that may not fly these days either.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: What blows now is the doubt that a movie like BODY DOUBLE could never be made today. The themes of misogyny, criminal sex offenders, female objectification, the male gaze, violence towards women and the like simply would not fly in the current climate we live in today. Rightly or wrongly, it’s not up to me to say, but unless made as a pointed satire criticizing such, the subject matter of BODY DOUBLE in 1984 would almost certainly be roundly rejected in 2019 before even getting the green light. As it is, I think De Palma was less interested in making a statement of any kind and more interested in giving another heartfelt homage to Hitch.

In terms of the actual plot, one area I think De Palma missed the mark is in the finale. While I absolutely love the way in which the story inherently comes around full circle to place Jake back in a coffin, the very place of horror that begins the tale, there’s a weird cutaway fantasy sequence I don’t think quite works. It’s meant to depict how Jake overcomes his claustrophobia, as he suddenly moves from the outdoor coffin with the killer looming over him to back on the film set, where he confronts Rubin and slays his psychological demons so to speak. While I admire the attempt and understand the motivation here, I think it’s too confusing, not to mention too long, to work as intended. By the time Jake comes out of his trance and once again squares off with the killer, we’ve been taken out of the action by now, and for too long, for it to really mount the requisite level of suspense. Still, this is a small excusable shortcoming that hardly makes much of a difference to the way the film is received.

THE VERDICT: 35 years later, BODY DOUBLE remains sturdily propped, yet still registers as an underrated De Palma effort. Perhaps because it was sandwiched in between SCARFACE and THE UNTOUCHABLES, the movie sort of flew under the radar, but the point is the movie has not lost much of its potency over the past three and half decades. Few directors have ever had the trained eye of Brian De Palma, and BODY DOUBLE proves that even his smaller titles still tower mightily over many of his contemporaries. BODY DOUBLE is still sleek, sexy, sordid, suspenseful and supremely skillful!

GET BODY DOUBLE ON BLU-RAY HERE

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.