Monday, March 21, 2011

Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1984)

Every now and then a guilty thought will inadvertently creep into his head, driving him to look away in mock disgust. But the erotic benefits that come with gazing upon his subject's scantily clad body will always lure him back into the perverted fold. Whether it be your shapely next-door neighbour sunning themselves–the inherent durability of their Turkish heritage providing the dermatological fortitude necessary to allow them to lay out for hours on end–in a chartreuse bathing suit (one with the words "fun zone" playfully emblazoned in turquoise across the garments midsection) on a rusty deck chair by their unfinished swimming pool (every move she makes is greeted with a metallic squeaking sound), or the leggy mother of two who lives down the street struggling to push a red wheel barrel full of nutrient-rich potting soil across the lumpy surface of her weed-infested front lawn (the sweat dripping off her taut calves causes her socks to bunch up around her succulent ankles), the desire to stare awkwardly at people you don't know for lengthy periods of time shall never wane. Never! Sure, tacos smothered in fresh salsa or even an episode of that television program you inexplicably watch will pull you away from time to time, but the forbidden thrills that come with spying on Deborah Shelton as she tries on white panties at a swankier than usual pantie establishment located in the swankier part of town are your primary sources of pleasure.

A yet unseen entity in Body Double, Brian De Palma's stylish ode to stalking in L.A., has pretty much based the entirety their devious plan around on the habitual nature of one who lives to leer at others. A skittish actor, one who flirts with unemployment on a semi-regular basis, named Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) literally hurls himself into the heady world of voyeurism, indoor plant care, covert tailing, and pornography. After finding his live-in lady friend (Barbara Crampton) mounting the retractable stain-maker of another man (her face glowing in response to the quality its retractability), the actor in the light brown corduroy blazer suddenly finds himself homeless.

On top of discovering his lady friend with another man, Jake's fear of enclosed spaces gets him fired from a low budget vampire movie called Vampire's Kiss (he plays a new wave vampire), attends an acting seminar where he pretends to be a sardine ("Feel. Personalize. Act."), and eats at a restaurant that is shaped like a giant hotdog ("Tail o' the Pup").

Asked to housesit by Sam (Gregg Henry), a fellow actor who feels sorry for the down on his luck thespian, Jake ends up staying at an extravagant home (it looked like a flying saucer on stilts) located in the Hollywood Hills. While his new living quarters may have everything a youngish man living in the mid-1980s could want: a rotating bed, cordless telephone, a fully stocked bar, cable tv (the video for "House is Burning" by Vivabeat can be seen playing at one point), it's the spectacular view that grabs the bulk of Jake's attention; a view that is enhanced greatly by a strategically placed telescope. Made aware of a sexy brunette woman who lives across the way, and her proclivity for dancing seductively in her bedroom every night at midnight, Jake, taking a break from watering the plants, decides to watch her do her thing. Interrupted after she had just finished inspecting the integrity of the diamond-encrusted strap on her left shoe by mysterious man in a hat, Jake witnesses an argument between the two that leaves the woman a tad frazzled.

Concerned for her safety, and of course, extremely turned on, Jake decides to keep a watchful eye on her after spotting her being followed by a menacing-looking dude in a ponytail. This sequence, the what I like to call "the posh outdoor mall/panties in the trash encounter" (I know, as far as titles to sequences that appear in Brian De Palma films go, it needs a little work), was my favourite stalking scene in the entire movie. The way Jake was right on top of his subject, the point-of-view camera angles, and the ultra chic local (a sort of open air promenade for rich people) all combined to create one intense shopping experience.

Keen observers will notice that the modest slit on the back of his subject's off-white dress would reveal the back of one of her knees with each womanly step. Turning into a sort of back of the knee peepshow for anybody lucky enough to be walking behind her, Jake drinks in each sway of her hips like he were a booze-starved alcoholic.

When I saw that Gloria Revelle (Deborah Shelton), we discover her name after we see the contents of her purse, had dropped the panties, the same panties we watched her try on and purchase with the intensity of a thousand suns, in the trash, I thought to myself: What a waste of a perfectly good pair of panties. However, when Jake rescues the barely worn panties, in clear view of Gloria (who is busy tipping the mall's valet), from the crumpled grip of their soon to be trashy tomb, I cried misguided tears of joy. In all my years of looking at stuff, never have I seen a decision this logical, this sane implemented in a movie before. I doubt Will Smith would ever star in a movie where he ends up pocketing a pair of panties that weren't his. Of course, the hallowed panties end up shining an unsavoury light on him later in the movie. And even though a square detective (Guy Boyd), one straight out of a 1940's film noir, has the nerve to call him a "pantie sniffer" during questioning, I'm sure everyone will agree that his impromptu pantie adoption was the correct course of action.

The rescued panties aside, everything that happens after Jake enters the mall was filmmaking at its finest. The beach/tunnel chase, the fact that the sequence was mostly dialogue-free, the bizarre make out session (complete with aggressive neck kissing), the sly smirk Jake sports every so often as he's following Mrs. Revelle, the close call with "The Indian" in the elevator (one that was filled to the brim with freshly scrubbed yuppies), they all came together to fashion one seriously gripping slab of suspense cinema.

Recovering from a dog bite and the mental strain that normally transpires after one sees a bloodied power drill snake its way through a chunk of drywall, Jake does what most people do after experiencing something traumatic: He opens up a bottle of Jack Daniel's and throws himself head-first into the warm, non-judgmental embrace of pornography (the salacious images on the screen will not hurt you). While watching a bunch of trailers hyping the latest in adult entertainment, Jake notices something eerily familiar about the body of one of the performers cavorting about on the screen. Now, to the non-voyeur, the idea of noticing someone's body might sound ridiculous, but you've got to remember the peeper code, which is: "I like to watch." In other words, every inch of your body, yes, even the back of your tasty knees, whether you like it or not, have been meticulously cataloged in their depraved minds (a depraved mind is a fertile mind).

Not one to let a half-baked hunch go unexplored, Jake heads down to the local Tower Records and buys a copy Holly Goes to Hollywood on VHS (it was also available on Beta). After some diligent fast-forwarding, he soon discovers that the body in question belongs to Holly Body (Melanie Griffith), a svelte porno queen who seems to be modeled after Cara Lott (who appears briefly in a scene with Brinke Stevens). Determined to get close to Holly, Jake weasels his way into the adult film industry. Actually, all he did was make a phone call, show up for an audition, recite his two lines, and he was in.

When I first heard the thumping intro to the iconic "Relax," Frankie Goes to Hollywood's anti-ejaculation smash hit, playing on the soundtrack, which, up until now, has been awash with the tantalizing music of Pino Donaggio (an hypnotic masterwork, if I ever heard one), I thought to myself: Interesting song choice. Since the decor was bathed in every kind of animal print imaginable (my fave was the pink zebra print on the wall outside the washrooms), I would have went with something by Vicious Pink ("CCCan't You See"). Nevertheless, it made perfect sense to have Holly Johnson play the club's doorman. Leading Jake (who looked nerd-tastic in an argyle sweater) into the depths of an S&M nightclub featuring a bevy of neon maniacs in studs and leather, the FGTH frontman (along with fellow band member Paul Rutherford) serenade the impish actor, as he attempts to make a name for himself as a porn star.

The nightclub/adult movie shoot was merely one of many kooky surprises Brain De Palma (Phantom of the Paradise) throws at you in Body Double. I mean, I anticipated the stylish directing, and, not to mention, the satirical jabs at Hollywood (Dennis Franz plays a sleazy, De Palma-esque horror director). But the aforementioned make out session at that mouth of that ominous-looking tunnel solidified this film's standing as one strange and trippy ride. Getting back to the directing for a second, you'll be hard pressed to find another film that is this skillfully directed from this or any period. I'd even go as far as to put it up there with William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. in terms of craftsmanship.

I'll admit, the overall configuration of her leather mini-skirt was sublime (the front zipper was to die for), as were the opaque tightnesss of her pantyhose (which looked extra opaque in the lighting of the Jake's garish ufo pad). Oh, and the casual manner in which she declared she wasn't into "water sports" was downright adorable (no "animal acts" either). They were all pluses as I carefully scrutinized Melanie Griffith's nuanced performance. (I won't lie, the actress can come off as a tad shrill at times.) But when it came to representing Reagan-era femininity, nothing comes close to topping the sight of Deborah Shelton walking in heels, driving convertibles, talking on the phone, window shopping, trying on panties, removing her sunglasses, adjusting the fit of her shoes, riding escalators, and brushing her hair in Los Angeles circa 1984.

Billed fourth in the credits, the gorgeous Deborah Shelton doesn't need to say a word (and apparently she didn't, as it's rumoured that Helen Shaver dubbed all of her dialogue in the film). Regardless, the sheer power of her delicate physique is enough to convey the thoughts and wishes of her character. If Deborah, as she looked in Body Double, walked down the street of any North American today, she would have to constantly worry about tripping over the passed out bodies of all the feckless degenerates unaccustomed to witnessing such a statuesque example of self-assured womanhood.

Oozing the quirky styles and idiosyncratic fashions of the period, yet, at the same time, not sacrificing one iota when it came to projecting an air of class and dignity, Body Double is one of the few films to successfully blend technical proficiency with a lurid premise in a way that seems effortless.



  1. The best part was when you see the camera crew reflected in a mirror during the porno shoot scene.

  2. One of my very favorite movies; we're talking maybe top 20 (and I've seen a fuckload of movies and a movieload of fuck). I originally saw this on TV when I was 8 or 9 and was nervous that the movie might turn into a full blown porno at any moment, adding to the tension.

    The Tower Records is the same one seen in Valet Girls (on Sunset). I used to work at a Tower Records across town back in the day (where Dennis Franz was a regular customer, ironically).

    Did I mention the Frankie Goes to Hollywood video game I had as a kid? What a strange game, one which has nothing to do with the band, except for the little midi versions of Relax and others. You had to walk into people's homes (no one else is around, like it's after the apocalypse) and look for clues to solve a murder, and also "increase your humanity" by completing nonsensical mini games that would pop up. It was impossible and confounding, just like life.

  3. Off topic, but please watch this trailer for a new movie called THE FP. I'd like to know your thoughts. My brain is having a hard time with it, and I thought you might be able to add clarity.

  4. Seriously love this movie. We were shown it in one of my film studies subjects first year at university/college - awkward to say the least. Nevertheless many years later I have truly grown to love all of De Palmas films.


  5. One of my favorite films as well. It's so delicious I just want to eat it up with a spoon. I'd even use a spork.

    Love the review.

  6. Heck yeah! It's this De Palma fanboy's favorite De Palma film. Never really understood the less-than-stellar critical responses over the years, but glad to see it finally getting the love it so richly deserves.

    Fun review, especially the (rightful) fixation on Deborah Shelton.

  7. @JSusskind: Yeah, it's a cool moment. I like the way it subtly informs the audience that they have been watching a film within a film, or this case, a film within a porno (not to imply that pornos aren't "films"), for the past five minutes.

    @Thomas Dukenfield: 8 or 9?!? I'm no prude, but that's messed up. ;)

    I like the Tower Records scene in Body Double because the guy who works there informs Jake that the film he wants is available on VHS, Beta, and something called "half-inch" and "quarter-inch." As a format Luddite, I enjoyed hearing this kind of language.

    There's a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video game?!?

    Oooh, there are clips of the game on YouTube, maybe I'll watch 'em -- you know, just to see if it's as weird, I mean, confounding, as you say it is.

    My initial reaction to The FP trailer was that it looks like The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift meets Stomp the Yard. My second reaction involved a lot of head scratching, especially over the excessive use of the n-word.

    @Gaby and Jane: Even Snake Eyes? Just kidding, I haven't seen it. I hear Nic Cage has a giant cyst on his neck or face at one point.

    @Cinema Du Meep: I'd use chopsticks -- you know, if I knew how to use them.

    @Russ: I was surprised to hear, after watching the featurettes on the DVD, that Body Double was severely trashed when it came out in 1984. Anyway, like you, I'm glad to see that it has a substantial following.

    Thanks, Russ. It's good to know that my fixation was rightful. :)

  8. Yeah, I always wondered about the "available on 1/2 inch and quarter inch" comment. I presume that he's referring to the Akai 1/4" system, which looked like a cross between a VHS tape and an audio cassette, and the 1/2" Sony Betacam (not to be confused with Betamax), which is sort of a improved version of the conventional Beta.

    However, both of these formats were meant for recording. I don't think there were ever any home video releases in these formats, but porn was released on both Beta and laserdisc. If the line isn't bullshit, I gotta assume that they would transfer a VHS or Beta copy to either 1/2" or 1/4" if you paid upfront. That's the only thing I can come up with.

    So, I do know a bit about technology, as long as it's incredibly outdated :)

  9. Happy Junos weekend!
    You know, I don't think I've ever seen a DePalma movie. :0

  10. Wait, I saw Mission Impossible. But nothing else. Not even Scarface.

  11. @Thomas Dukenfield: I had a feeling you'd be able to shed some light on the "1/2 inch and quarter inch" part of the clerks format-based chunk of dialogue.

    @A: Happy Junos weekend to you, too.

    I'm rooting for Platinum Blonde in the best new artist category. Yeah, I realize it's not 1983, but I can root for whoever I want. ;)

    The Untouchables? Mission Impossible? Scarface? Sisters? (I should say, I haven't seen the first two, either. And I've only seen bits of Scarface -- I've seen the ending and the chainsaw scene dozens of times.)

    Oh and you'll notice I left out Carrie. Well, I figure you'd avoid that one since it's horror flick, and it features a young, sweat-hog-era John Travolta.

  12. i just watched this for the first time with no prior knowledge of the plot. the make out and drill scenes were both incredible and ridiculous and my jaw was literally on the floor when frankie goes to hollywood happened, just when i thought i knew what sort of film it was! mind = blown.

  13. I love it when people's jaws touch the floor while watching filmed entertainment. :)

  14. Your final paragraph about no one combining these elements so effortlessly is deadly accurate. I saw this film once in high school, over at a friend's house; and then watched it again and again in my mind for years. Every time I see Craig Wasson's face my brain says "oh , yeah...he was in that other movie....ummm...WAIT! I'm just remembering him with the vampire makeup from this same damn film!" There is a single scene in this film that pulls me out of the reality of the whole thing every time. Have you guessed it yet? The scene where Wasson is looking out the window and it's some kind bizarre blue screen/back projected weirdness! I've always wondered if there was some other piece of footage that was cut which would explain what the hell was going on in that scene. The house you refer to is one of the most famous movie locations in Los Angeles. It's called the Chemosphere, and was featured in an episode of tThe Outer Limits, the retro Charlie's Angels film made in 2000 and Troy McClure's fish-centric pad on The Simpsons.

  15. Hey, sambson. Thanks for the informative comment, and thanks for mentioning as the final paragraph, as I just noticed that I forgot to put a "the" before the word "period." :)