United States. Directed by Brian De Palma, 1984. Starring Craig Wasson,Β Gregg Henry, Melanie Griffith.Β 114 minutes.

Brian De Palma, the modern master of suspense, invites you to witness a seduction, a mystery, a murder,” read the copy on the Body Double posters. To film-goers in 1984, the implication couldn’t be any clearer. “Modern master of suspense” is the key phrase. There were many skilled suspense directors, but only one unqualified “master of suspense,” Alfred Hitchcock. I suspect that the copywriter who wrote those words wanted the public to make the connection between Body Double and Hitch.

Anyone who saw the film hoping to see a suspense thriller in Hitchcock’s tradition wouldn’t have been disappointed. Hitch’s influence on De Palma has always been obvious, but Body Double borders on pastiche. Jake Scully, the down-on-his-luck actor played by Craig Wasson, suffers from claustrophobia and indulges in voyeurism, recalling Jimmy Stewart’s characters in Vertigo and Rear Window. And it’s probably coincidence that female lead Melanie Griffith is the daughter of Hitchcock Blonde Tippi Hedren, but you never know.

Of course, De Palma is De Palma and he can’t help but employ subject matter a bit more sordid (comparatively speaking) than Hitchcock’s. Wasson’s quest to uncover the murderer of his erotic-dancing neighbor (Deborah Shelton…OR IS SHE???) leads him to audition for a porn film. (De Palma reportedly wanted Body Double to be the first mainstream Hollywood picture to feature unsimulated sex, which for some reason strikes me as an obvious desire for him to have.) Peeping isn’t the only deviant fetish Wasson indulges in; he also has a pair of Shelton’s undies in his pants pocket. And let’s not forget the film’s central murder, carried out (for some reason) with an industrial drill in a scene highly reminiscent of another Hitchock acolyte, Dario Argento. No wonder it’s Patrick Bateman’s favorite movie.

As a filmmaker De Palma tends to place style over substance, which sounds like a criticism, but isn’t in this case. His command over pacing and atmosphere ensure the audience is glued to the edge of its seat throughout. The reveal of the killer’s identity shouldn‘t work, because it’s obvious from the first moment he appears on-screen, but it does work. It’s the art of shocking the viewer with the things he or she already knows, and it’s central to making suspense work.

Similarly, De Palma knows the importance of composition and the film’s lurid visual aesthetic is a treat. Certain sequences are dated–particularly a scene between Wasson and Shelton that borders on the cornball. At another point, De Palma puts the plot on hold for four minutes to turn the film into a music video. The song is Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s venerable “Relax,” the perfect song for a movie about a guy who looks through a telescope and watches a woman masturbate. Just in case you didn’t get the point, HGTH singer Holly Johnson makes an uncredited appearance in what is probably the most perfect cameo of the entire 1980s, gliding around a porno set (for a film called Holly Does Hollywood, even!) like he owned the place. Hell, maybe he did.

Certainly it doesn’t hurt that the film’s script, outlandish though it may be, is solidly constructed and doesn’t have any holes you could drive a creepy panel van through. But that’s icing on the cake. Watch Body Double for the story, and you watch for the wrong reason.

The cast is solid although the dearth of major stars (Griffith doesn’t really count, as this was her first leading role, so the closest it gets to having a “big name” is Dennis Franz in a small but memorable role as a cranky film director) is notable considering it was made between Scarface and the Danny DeVito/Joe Piscopo vehicle Wise Guys. Wasson is an engaging protagonist, although his penchant for peeping might be even creepier today than it was in the mid-’80s. I’ve never been a huge fan of Griffith, who plays porn star Holly Body, and I think sometimes she reaches too hard for the southern California girl stereotype, but for the most part she does just fine. Shelton’s performance is okay, but there’s not a whole lot for her to do, and whoever it is that’s dubbing her voice sounds vaguely detached.

The best performance comes from character-actor Gregg Henry (always and forever Eddie Izzard’s boss on The Riches) as Sam, a fellow actor with an incredible crash pad with the most amazing view. His take on a popular thriller stereotype–the always-smiling, fun-loving, vaguely douchey buddy with a dark side you never suspected–is critical to the film’s success. In a way, it’s almost more important that Henry nails his character than Wasson, and he does–Sam is probably more memorable than either Scully or Holly.

Body Double is a curious beast, a bit of a throwback, the kind of movie they didn’t really make anymore, mainly because the person who made the best ones died. And yet, it’s firmly rooted in 1984 (may I remind you that Frankie Goes to Hollywood is in it?). It might look a bit cheesy to modern eyes, but if you’re willing to not only look past the ’80s veneer but revel in it, you’re in for a treat: one of the best suspense thrillers of its era.

Body Double poster

13 thoughts on “Body Double

  1. The reviews of the time were scathing and the Cinema Score equivalent in 1984 gave this a D rating.Time changes perspective though I had always really liked it and the pacing is a big part of the reason. That stalking scene through the upscale mall is slow and meandering and builds tension like crazy. I’ll be doing a post on this in late October if you are interested. I really enjoy Gregg Henry in a film when he pops up. I thought he was really solid in the Mel Gibson Payback from a decade or so ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s right, I’d totally forgotten he was in Payback! I gotta watch that one again sometime; I remember liking it at the time but I haven’t seen it in years…

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  2. Gloriously trashy fun. This is right up there for me with De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise” in terms of re-watch value. One thing that amuses me today is to think about how much Craig Wasson resembles Bill Maher–and how great Maher would be in the scene where Melanie Griffith talks about her refusal to do “animal acts.” Anyway, thanks for the review!

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  3. Not my favourite dePalma, but I do think this has improved with age. It’s certainly cleverly constructed, and I’m always surprised by the visual storytelling although some elements do seem confused – is it porn? a 40s inspired thriller? film noir? Perhaps it’s strength is that it’s all those things at once, a classic example of 80s pastiche.

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  4. This a well written and insightful review, seeing virtues in the film that the critics could not see then. I saw the film a couple of times back in the 1980s, and have always thought it was underrated. Graig Wasson was appearing in all kinds of film back then (notably in the vastly underrated Four Friends, and then completely disappeared. Terrific actor. I think it is misleading to call Dennis Franz a big star, as he was as small as every one else in the film. By the way, he was in my graduating class at Proviso East in 1962. While I loved the Relax sequence, I have qualms about being there, as it took me out of the movie (“put the plot on hold”). This is the type of film that this site was set up for, calling attention to films that have been overlooked or need reevaluation.

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