Craig Wasson stars in BODY DOUBLE.

Retro Review: Body Double

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