De Palma, backed into a corner, comes out biting. Or drilling. Pilloried for the excesses of Scarface, not least by the ratings board, he decided, very maturely, to go for broke. He’d double down on everything he’d been called out for. Violence? He’d give them violence. How about power drills, giallo style? Sex? He’d give them porn! With an actual porn star as his leading lady (he’d ultimately reconsider). Perversion? He’d make his hero a panty sniffer! Hitchcock homages? How about Rear Window and Vertigo! Body Double is his equivalent of a schoolboy dare. You’d hardly call it a great movie – although Roger Ebert attempted to – but its shameless, batshit-crazy, sleazoid effrontery is sort-of-not-really-but-almost quite admirable.
Holly: I understand you’re sick, and you’re a liar, and you need professional help, and I do not like being yelled at.
As the ’80s dawned, De Palma segued from supernatural horror (Carrie, The Fury) to his own brand of erotic slasher (Dressed to Kill). There was an increasing playfulness with form, and willingness to comment on the artifice he was creating (Blow Out’s sound guy); Scarface seems something of an exception to his deep-dive, psycho-sexual voyeuristic path that characterised the first part of the decade, except when you consider he’d developed Prince of the City (with De Niro pegged for the lead) before Sidney Lumet took the reins. At any rate, by the time he hatched Body Double, his reputation was thoroughly underscored, and Scarface may have been a different genre, but it only served to re-emphasise how gleefully he showered himself in visceral excess.
He announced he was going to go for a full-blooded X (since both Dressed to Kill and Scarface had initially been slapped with that rating), and he was considering casting porn star Annette Haven as Holly Body (the role played by Melanie Griffith). But baiting the hook with “This is going to be the most erotic and surprising and thrilling movie I know how to make” comes with caveats. If you’re simply trying to offend, you risk sacrificing an actual storytelling intent. Pauline Kael had been the director’s number-one fan, going to bat for him amid the charges of misogyny and depravity, but even she found him wanting this time: “the voyeuristic themes and scare sequences are so similar to elements of his earlier movies that you keep waiting for the trills – the moments when he’ll top himself. And he doesn’t”.
De Palma opts for what he knows; so he gets a Hitchcock plot off the peg (see also Obsession, Dressed to Kill). He makes the main character a jobbing actor (see Blow Out for a protagonist working in the movie industry) and has a director stand-in (see also Home Movies). The butchering of a woman by a masked assailant is the key crime (see Dressed to Kill, and to an extent, Blow Out). The other female protagonist works in an industry of pronounced objectification (Dressed to Kill). There are set pieces involving dreamy, heightened, subjective pursuit (Dressed to Kill) and peril (every one of his movies). And on top of that, he experiments with a weak-spined, claustrophobic, peeping-tom, panty-sniffing male protagonist. Nice stuff, Brian. Were this a psychiatrist’s couch, the response would be “Too much information!”
There’s still a certain bracing abandon in the director’s technique that fitfully takes hold, he assumes engagement that hasn’t been earned but for long stretches here. It takes an awfully long time to get to the crucial murder, and De Palma makes the mistake of setting Craig Wasson as his lead Jake Scully. You can certainly believe Wasson is a panty-sniffing prevert, but he doesn’t invite engagement as a performer; the actor has been compared to Bill Maher (of production company Kid Love fame…), but he struck me as the unfortunate love child of Jeff Bridges and Martin Short. Kael was on the money when she suggested the picture only really fires up when Griffith comes aboard, which is after Deborah Shelton (as murder victim Gloria Revelle) exits; Shelton’s there entirely to be ogled (and impaled), and De Palma dubbing her says everything about how much presence she’s supposed to have. Griffith is pre-her drug-fuelled plump puppy look of the later-80s here, so perhaps she was on a different cocktail, or more focussed one, and she has a pep the director’s former muse Nancy Allen, likeable as she was, doesn’t.
Griffith doesn’t, unfortunately, have very much to do apart from sharing an unlikely porn-shoot scene with Jake (that he is able to segue successfully from z-grade vamp movies to on-alert hardcore suggests he is a method actor, and that any performance anxiety is expressly limited). Of course, everything about this is unlikely. That’s kind of the point.
Gregg Henry’s Sam Bouchard, the “actor” who shows Jake a place to stay, is revealed as the mysterious “Indian” pursuer of Gloria (who is living opposite); she (actually Holly) puts on a nightly dance that attracts Jake’s attention, but he later discovers this was staged by Sam, the idea being that Jake would witness her demise and provide an alibi for Sam (who, disguised as an “Indian” – “An Indian killed Gloria Revelle” – murders her with a power tool). Yes, the logistics withstand zero scrutiny.
De Palma’s having some fun, clearly, in a typically deeply unsavoury way. Although, his skill has always been lending an absurd polish to the otherwise sordid. Frequently accompanied, as here, by a high-gloss Pino Donaggio score. He stages an elaborate tailing sequence as Jake keeps tabs on Gloria and picks up her discarded panties; this includes a memorable beach hut scene and the first instance of Scully’s surprisingly efficient scoring with women who ought to find him a suspicious pig.
The murder is as grimly humorous as only De Palma can be. “I thought it was completely unjustified. It was a suspense thriller, and I was always interested in finding new ways to kill people”, he said of the mauling he received, a touch disingenuously given his intention was to provoke exactly that response. As Kael said of the view he was derivative, “This time, he’s just about spiting himself and giving them reasons not to like him”. Thus, the Indian attacking Gloria with a power drill, at one point being knocked out and her still failing to escape. And at another, “suspense” being derived from it coming unplugged at the crucial moment; finally, he hits home with the savage, mighty protrusion lowering between his legs (and De Palma has the cheek to profess innocence of any innuendo there). This proceeds to blood pouring through the hole made in the ceiling; it’s a medley of grossness, so silly it can only be taken as a very sick joke.
There’s also the bizarre, impromptu Relax promo from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, filmed while the song was still riding high in the UK charts (it wouldn’t register in the US until 1985). And the signature De Pama fake-out, this time with claustrophobic Jake at the mercy of the Indian, flashing back to a film set, returning to the coffin (where a dog ex machina sees to Sam) and then resuming his role as Dracula (with De Palma lingering over blood dripping down breasts over the end credits; the body double idea came from having a stand in for Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill).
Henry had already worked with De Palma, and their most recent collaboration was The Black Dahlia; this was Franz’s last outing for him, and he said he was basically playing his director as the director. The line “Scully, you sound like one of the conspiracy nuts. Plots all around” could easily be transposed to The X-Files a decade later, but applied to her FBI partner. Sam’s “Look what you did! You ruined my surprise ending!” also invites meta appraisal.
Kim Newman wasn’t impressed: “Despite a studied cheesiness… Body Double is all empty gestures and third-hand business. Here, DePalma is not so much imitating Hitchcock as imitating himself imitating Hitchcock”. Kael referenced the Indian as “the worst makeup job of recent times” which seems rather the point, and accused the Donaggio score of being “ladled over the images”, but when were his scores ever not? She also comments that De Palma decided to direct rather than produce only when he couldn’t get projects on the 1969 Yablonski murders and a Jim Morrison-esque rock star picture with Travolta off the ground.
Director: Best teeth gnashing I’ve ever seen.
The director had a three-picture deal with the then-Coca-Cola-corporation-owned Columbia; they nixed the X as a matter of course, and subsequently nixed the deal. De Palma was, by this point, a regular Golden Raspberry nominee – they’ve always been pretty witless as far as any coherent metric is concerned – having been in the running for Dressed to Kill and Scarface; he would later be nominated for The Bonfire of the Vanities and Mission to Mars. While I’m unable to come out as a Body Double defender, Time Out’s Chris Peachment sums up their case quite persuasively: “Unblinking tosh of this order needs to be put on the protected list”.