‘Body Double’ – Brian De Palma’s surreal erotic thriller on Netflix

Brian De Palma borrows liberally from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo for Body Double (1984), but to dismiss this polarizing film as a Hitchcock pastiche is to miss the point—and the sheer, thrilling cinematic gusto—of his operatic thriller.

Fittingly opening on a film within a film, it stars Craig Wasson as struggling young actor Jake Scully. Suffering from crippling claustrophobia and performance anxiety, Scully seems to be a born loser whose luck has turned when a fellow acting student (Gregg Henry) offers him the sublet of a lifetime: a space age apartment (real life L.A. landmark The Chemosphere) with a direct view into the open window of an exhibitionist beauty who performs a nightly strip tease. Scully turns from voyeur to stalker, following the woman (Deborah Shelton) to a lingerie shop and spotting a rival stalker who looks like a refugee from an eighties slasher movie.

That’s all lead up to a brutal and gruesome murder that he observes from afar and fails to stop despite his panicked efforts. It plunges him into depression and guilt until he spots a familiar strip tease on an adult cable channel and goes undercover in the L.A. porno scene to find adult star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith). It’s the first step into unraveling a mystery that has ensnared him as a patsy.

As a murder mystery, Body Double is absurdly elaborate and at times simply absurd. As a piece of filmmaking, it is delirious. Think of the elaborate set-up and execution of murder as a movie created for an audience of one. Jake slips from a silky, erotically-charged dream where he’s the romantic hero to a horrific nightmare that leaves him helpless and impotent. Until he begins to suspect that everything he’s experienced may have been staged for him.

De Palma takes great pleasure in playing with the artificiality of movies, with audience expectations and identification, with the idea of playing parts and giving performances. And of course he delivers stunning set pieces. Jake’s shadowing of his mystery woman through the elegant Rodeo Collection mall and down to the beach is an elaborately choreographed work of beauty and suspense, a dreamy piece of bodies in motion, a play of two stalkers observing the same object of obsession. And when Jake takes his place in an adult film production, it transforms into a glamorous, energetic work of erotic exuberance shot like a high-end music video with a long, graceful take by a camera that floats through it all like a dream.

Body Double was met with a hostile reception. The majority of critics hated it, accusing it of misogyny, and yes, the murder—involving an enormous electric drill wielded by a masked killer—is a truly grotesque and hateful gesture. It is also so outrageous and implausible that it comes off less an act of violence or a comment on the killer and more a piece of theater: a performance for Jake, the police, and us. For De Palma, it is all about creating a fantasy: grindhouse violence as pop art.

So often branded as an imitator of Alfred Hitchcock, many critic missed the point: De Palma made a movie about the movie experience. Its reputation has been at least in part redeemed, however, as we get distance from the era (it’s easier to see it as De Palma’s satire of eighties L.A. culture) and De Palma’s career. There’s nothing “real” in Body Double, not the glib psychology behind the motivations, not the logic in the elaborate staging of a gruesome murder, and certainly not the fantasy of personal triumph over such an ordeal. It’s all about the illogic of emotion, the beyond-logic of the hyper-saturated image, and the breathless waltz of De Palma’s camera through a dream version of the world.

The National Society of Film Critics gave Melanie Griffith an award for best supporting actress, the only award this otherwise critically lambasted film received.

Guy Boyd, Dennis Franz, and cult actress Barbara Crampton costar.

For more, read my review at TCM

Rated R

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Body Double (Sony) [Blu-ray]
Body Double (Twilight Time) [Blu-ray]
Body Double [DVD]

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The Blu-ray and DVD releases include four featurettes produced by De Palma scholar and documentary veteran Laurent Bouzreau.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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