By the time Brian De Palma made 1984's Body Double, he had been described as a Hitchcockian imitator for more than a decade, since his first stab at Hitchcock-styled suspense with 1973's Sisters. Though he had enjoyed some box-office success with such films as Carrie (1976) and Dressed to Kill (1980), his most personal film Blow Out (1981) was considered a misfire, even though it was rightfully heralded by Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. And then came 1983's Scarface. A big studio epic that has since become a classic of its kind, De Palma had to keep cutting the film for the MPAA to make it less violent something that had also happened with Dressed to Kill. Some might say he was a little pissed off by this point. "I always sort of get penalized because I do this stuff very well," he said, and with Scarface he had a knock-down, drag-out fight with the ratings board, re-editing the picture four times before finally earning an "R" rating after an appeal. His response to all the trouble was found in an infamous Esquire interview, in which he said "I'm going to go out and make an X-rated suspense porn picture. I'm sick of being censored. So, if they want an 'X,' they'll get a real 'X'." That picture, born of innumerable frustrations, was to be Body Double, which took place in a Hitchockian universe where the main character obviously a voyeur gets sucked into the adult film industry.
Craig Wasson stars as Jake Skully, a loser B-actor who gets kicked off a cheapie vampire film (entitled Vampire's Kiss) when his claustrophobia ruins a take. His day gets even worse when he returns home to find his girlfriend in bed with another man. Jake thus heads down to a local bar for a relapse and bumps into fellow actor Sam (Gregg Henry), who just got some seasonal work and needs someone to fill in on his house-sitting duties. The home (John Lautner's "Chemosphere") is a palace, and before Sam leaves he points out that the next-door neighbor does an onanistic dance every night. Jake then begins to follow the woman, Gloria (Deborah Shelton), in a way that invokes Hitchcock's Vertigo although it gets much darker when Jake steals Gloria's discarded panties from the garbage. He keeps following her and makes contact, but they are interrupted when a Native American man steals her purse, forcing Jake to chase after the thief until they head into a tunnel that paralyzes him with claustrophobia. That night, Jake is concerned and checks up on Gloria, only to see the same thief breaking into Gloria's house. But like 'Scottie' Ferguson in Vertigo, Jake's too late. Destroyed, Jake turns to pornography and sees porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) do the exact same self-stimulating dance that Gloria did. Putting two and two together, he then decides to find Holly Body for himself and find out what's really been going on.
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Received tepidly upon its theatrical release, Body Double is the ultimate response film a picture wherein Brian De Palma counters his critics and addresses their accusations that he's an imitator, a misogynist, and/or a pornographer. But as a great artist, De Palma crafts his response in a playful, engaging manner that showcases the director's sly wit. From the title (which derives from De Palma's use of a body double for Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill) to the nods toward Hitch's filmography, the movie is quite simply De Palma going over public complaints, point by point, in the only way he knows how by actually making a movie. As such, the film's biggest fans have been De Palma aficionados (though De Palma booster Pauline Kael dismissed it), and for some good reasons Craig Wasson's performance is functional in that he's a believable patsy, and there's delicious irony in that a supposed woman-hater gave the juiciest role in his movie to Melanie Griffith, who offers a compelling turn as the knowing, but slightly ditzy, Holly Body. And, of course, The Master's touch is felt throughout, assisted by a knowing score from Pino Donaggio, which lends a jazzy reworking of Bernard Hermann in the numerous set-pieces that De Palma stages with a professional's ease and an exacting hand. He also has a wonderful eye for the sleazy side of Hollywood, with clever location work. For a decade that is often considered one of the worst in cinema history, Brian De Palma was one of the few interesting and exciting directors working in the '80s, and Body Double is a key to understanding his sensibilities.
Sony's "Special Edition" release of Body Double upgrades a previous bare-bones version with an excellent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. New to this edition are four featurettes "The Seduction" (16 min.), "The Setup" (16 min.), "The Mystery" (12 min.), and "The Controversy" (5 min.), featuring retrospective interviews with Brian De Palma, stars Melanie Griffith, Deborah Shelton and Gregg Henry, and others. Keep-case.