Body Double (1984) | Tickets
Playing Friday (March 15) and Saturday (March 16) at Midnite
Hollywood seems like a pretty sleazy town — at least that’s the case for the version of it I’ve built in my head. It’s a town that’s equal parts ambition and exploitation, one where well-meaning rubes can get sucked down a rabbit hole of vice and perversion either as a result of desperation or from simply trusting the wrong person.
Brian De Palma’s 1984 piece of Hitchcockian sleaze, Body Double, dwells on this bottom half of the film industry, the side of town where contracts include stipulations about cumshots and where your livelihood depends on your ability to lay in a coffin for extended periods of time.
The film starts on a set of your typical direct-to-video trash, Vampire’s Kiss, a seemingly stupid punk-influenced vampire yarn whose main purpose seems to be getting to the scenes where blood runs down various ladies’ chests. The film’s vampire, feckless actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson), finds himself in the Tinseltown gutter when his severe claustrophobia prevents him from shooting, and comes home to discover his girlfriend giving the treatment to another man.
Homeless and broke, Jake finds refuge in a house-sitting gig at space-age LA bachelor pad owned by some faceless big shot. The apartment is pure, tasteless opulence. Sitting on the cliff-side of the Hollywood Hills, the UFO-shaped home is decked out with grey wall-to-wall carpeting, red doors and a circular, rotating bed. The most exciting thing for Jake, though, is the apartment’s telescope, through which he becomes obsessed with his beautiful neighbor who has an elaborate, daily masturbation routine. Out of sexual obsession, but also because he has nothing better to do, Jake begins following the woman around only to find that he isn’t the only person tailing the woman.
What follows basically amounts to a scuzzy, video store remake of Rear Window and Vertigo. For this film, De Palma largely uses Hitchcock’s stylebook as a structural guide, cribbing the same kind of camera set-ups, editing and dramatic punches that Hitch used to ratchet up tension. The subject matter, though, is purely in the wheelhouse of low-rent exploitation films.
Take the film’s famous murder sequence, for instance. The set-up, which involves Jake witnessing a rather ugly homicide via his handy masturbation spyglass, recreates a kind of alternate version of Rear Window where things go horribly, horribly wrong. But while the pacing of the crime and Jake’s dramatic attempt to prevent it is all Hitchcock, the gruesome crime itself, involving just this… great, big drill is ripped right from Slumber Party Massacre — including the not so subtle framing of the drill (18 inches, that thing!) as a giant, rotating, killer penis.
The trend continues into Body Double’s second half, which ditches Rear Window in favor of Vertigo. After witnessing the death of his neighbor Jake becomes obsessed with a hot-ticket porn actress whose patented writhing style reminds him of the routines he saw from his apartment window. Suspicious and with nothing to lose, Jake becomes involved in the porn world to reach her and figure out just what the hell happened in the apartment down the hill.
What De Palma does with Body Double is essentially appropriate Hitchcock’s style only to inject modern sensuality and violence into it to see how it changes. What makes Jake such an interesting protagonist is what a reprehensible little twerp he is. An underwear-sniffing stalker and a peeper, Jake is the kind of reprobate that’s earned the scorn of video-store clerks and homicide detectives alike. And while he may be a far cry from Jimmy Stewart, Jake ultimately becomes just as pitiable and primed for exploitation as Stewart’s flawed heroes in Rear Window and Vertigo.
Body Double wasn’t terribly well received on its release in 1984, and it’s still often thought of being extravagant to a fault. But for a movie about how easy it can be to slip into the routine of a pervert, the line between obsession and infatuation and how Hollywood culture nurses that kind of mindset, what do you expect? It does the 360 Vertigo kiss on the set of the world’s greatest porn flick that stars Melanie Griffith and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. It rules.