Brian De Palma
Review by Teddy Blanks
Posted on 15 October 2007
Source Sony DVD
Categories 31 Days of Horror
One of my favorite movies to catch on cable is Teen Witch, a comedy from the late 80s about a frumpy high schooler who becomes a witch on her 16th birthday and uses her new powers to become the most popular girl in school. It transcends being “so bad it’s good,” and with its random eruptions of white kids rapping and its lack of any expected morality—the witch does not ultimately realize that friendship is more important than fashion—it becomes fantastically surreal. Obviously, this was not the intention of the filmmakers; the strange surprises are likely a result of sloppy screenwriting and misguided attempts at being hip. But Body Double, the 1984 thriller from prolific and controversial director Brian De Palma, is as deliberately and seriously staged as movies come. And it elicits in me exactly the same reaction.
As the director of The Fury, Sisters, Obsession and especially Carrie, De Palma samples heavily from the Hitchcock playbook (I do not believe, as some do, that he is a rip-off artist), and he frequently pushes forward the intensity of scenes, often to the brink of absurdity. Body Double, though, is in its own universe, a sublimely ridiculous piece of schooled filmmaking that embraces the sheen and excess of cheap 80s Hollywood as a flashy new avant-garde.
De Palma movies often have “trick” beginnings and endings, so much so that it’s become something of a signature. To name a few, Dressed to Kill is book-ended with it was only a dream sequences; Blow Out starts with a scene of a killer stalking coeds in the shower, which turns out to be the work of the movie’s main character - a sound editor - who is searching for the right scream; and Mission to Mars’ first shot is of rocket blasting into the sky, which explodes, raining down confetti on what is revealed to be a backyard barbecue celebration of an upcoming shuttle mission. Body Double is no exception to the rule, and begins as a cheap horror flick, gliding us through a styrofoam graveyard and up to a vampire (in full make-up) who seems frozen, unable to spring out of his coffin as we expect him to. It seems we’re on a movie set, and Jake, the actor playing the vampire, is claustrophobic.
Jake’s claustrophobia is a grotesque, overblown version of Jimmy Stewart’s in Vertigo, and Craig Wasson, who portrays him, tenses up into a frozen, terrified wail that is more silly than scary. Whenever it shows up, Pino Donaggio’s score becomes a discordant string arpeggiation, sounding like a cross between the themes from Jaws and The Twilight Zone. The most memorable claustrophobic moment comes near the end of the film’s long, virtuoso stalking sequence, one of the all time great what-the-fuck movie scenes. Craig Wasson’s Jake, who looks like a younger, preppier Bill Maher, follows the woman he has been spying on every night (as if in a porn remake of Rear Window without the wheelchair, he watches through a telescope as she undresses and masturbates) to an outdoor mall. What follows is an impeccably timed, largely silent and completely baffling ten-minute long sequence that ends with Jake chasing a large Native American with thick, rubbery Freddy Krueger skin into a tunnel, where he is overcome by an intense claustrophobic attack and is unable to go any further.
Even overlooking his intense fear of confined spaces, Jake is a completely ineffective suspense hero. His motives are completely voyeuristic, and he botches his chance to prevent the murder he was set up to witness; as his sexy neighbor is being killed with a power drill upstairs, he is struggling to break free from the attack dog. He wastes away most of his time staring out the windows of the house he’s staying in, a gorgeous mid-century classic called the Chemosphere (a flying saucer on stilts looking out over Los Angeles—the ultimate bachelor pad). When he finally gets the porn star, a jaded but chipper Melanie Griffith, who he suspects was hired to pose as his murdered neighbor to come back to his crib, he can hardly keep her there long enough to ask her about it. Out of nowhere, he’s dripping with sleaze.
It’s thrilling to be completely surprised by every shot, line, and scene in a movie; to love something for its weirdness alone, its ability to keep you gasping in disbelief. Body Double is a smart movie, a mocking look at sex and Hollywood in the 80s, a mix of pornographic double-entendre and tightly plotted suspense. But it is also a complete assault on our expectations of the genre it purports itself to be, often slowing down or drawing out scenes for much longer than we bargained for, pushing it into the surreal, and pulling back again. Paul Verhoeven has achieved close to the same effect in Basic Instinct and Showgirls, but I’ve always felt that part of what makes his movies so fascinatingly weird is that something was lost in translation on the trip from Holland to Hollywood. De Palma, on the other hand, is American all the way, even if he sometimes seems more like an alien sent to expose the guts of American movies—to show us how they work and tear them apart in front of our eyes, making us think harder about what we are seeing. However we react, we react; we laugh at him, or we are offended, or we think he’s done something totally awesome.
It’s been difficult to keep this from devolving into a list of the bizarre moments that comprise Body Double, but I must mention one more thing, as a kind of epilogue. When Jake decides to act in porn, he heads to the set of his first movie, and suddenly, everything shuts down and the film becomes a music video for the song “Relax,” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The singer from the band comes into frame, lip synching the song, and leads Jake into a large room with a double staircase, what looks like a 19th century Studio 54 with waitresses in Victorian corsets and guys in ass-less leather pants. The band actually used this scene, almost shot for shot, as their music video. This cross-promotional move is confusing, but only adds to Body Double’s mystery. It also gives it the curious distinction of being the first of two ridiculous movies to prominently feature “Relax”; the second, of course, being Ben Stiller’s Zoolander.
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