Unwinding Brian De Palma’s blatant enigma
Brian De Palma is a filmmaker who has always attracted controversy. Not only does he attract it, he seems to openly encourage it, and that was certainly the case with Body Double, a lewd and violent thriller which set out to offend with the wry impudence of someone sick and tired of having the same old accusations levelled at them. Described by Paul Attanasio of The Washington Post as a movie that “…has been carefully calculated to offend almost everyone — and probably will,” the queerly elusive Body Double proved a huge commercial flop on the heels of the equally controversial and hugely successful gangster epic Scarface, managing a paltry $8,800,000 dollars at the US box office. “Body Double was reviled when it came out,” De Palma told The Guardian in 2016. “Reviled. It really hurt. I got slaughtered by the press right at the height of the women’s liberation movement… I thought it was completely unjustified. It was a suspense thriller, and I was always interested in finding new ways to kill people.”
With this comment, De Palma was referring to the movie’s most controversial scene, one that sees the elegant Deborah Shelton stalked and penetrated with a phallic drill in a moment deemed so shocking that Bret Easton Ellis referenced Body Double in his equally violent and controversial novel American Psycho, decadent protagonist Patrick Bateman admitting to having seen the film no less than 37 times (just take a moment to absorb that image). Like Body Double, Ellis’s novel was called out for its blatant depictions of violence against women and general misogyny, and when the book was finally adapted for the silver screen after years in production limbo, director Mary Harron focused more on the source material’s wit than it’s profound depictions of murder, describing Scarface scribe Oliver Stone, another controversial director initially tied to the project, as “the single worst person to do it.” Just imagine that movie in the hands of a director who gave us Natural Born Killers.
Another accusation levelled at De Palma is his so-called aping of legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, something else that is plainly obvious in Body Double, which has more than a shade of Hitch classics Vertigo and Rear Window ― particularly the latter, since Body Double is basically an exercise in voyeurism that taps into our darkest urges. There is so much of Hitchcock in Body Double that you practically drown in it, and the movie often makes you feel like you’re drowning, it’s woozy, dreamlike aura leaving you feeling disoriented, stumbling through a rich and often perplexing suspense thriller that is so masterfully executed you’re completely engrossed, despite its fantastical nature and offbeat flourishes. If Body Double was De Palma’s attempt to show us just how well he could do Hitchcock, then message received. The legendary Hitch would have been proud.
Body Double is so indulgent you’ll either love it or hate it. It’s not something you’ll watch passively time and time again. Criticism for the movie was mostly negative, due largely to a backdrop of women’s rights events, but others would praise the film from a technical standpoint. Typically, long-time allies/rivals Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert would have opposing opinions. Both were known detractors of the infamous slasher film, which Body Double, released towards the end of the sub-genre’s Golden Age, inevitably tapped into, and once again Siskel couldn’t help himself, writing, “When the drill came onto the screen, De Palma lost me and control of his movie. At that point ‘Body Double’ ceased to be a homage to Hitchcock and instead became a cheap splatter film, and not a very good one at that.” Known De Palma advocate Ebert had a very different opinion, stating, “Body Double is an exhilarating exercise in pure filmmaking. A thriller in the Hitchcock tradition in which there’s no particular point except that the hero is flawed, weak, and in terrible danger — and we identify with him completely.”
Sam Bouchard: Don’t be so melodramatic.
The movie stars Craig Wasson as Jake Scully, a struggling actor with a history of alcohol abuse who falls off the wagon after catching his adulterous wife red-handed. Scully is struggling on the bottom rung of Hollywood when a fellow thesp offers him temporary accommodation in a wealthy contact’s apartment — a futuristic building with the towering, unreal presence of the Bates mansion. As an extra treat, unexpected saviour, Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry), offers Jake the pleasures of the apartment’s telescope, giving him a perfect view of a sultry neighbour who performs an erotic dance each night after returning home. Wasson quickly becomes obsessed with the beautiful stranger, particularly when he notices a second man stalking her, but since he can be accused of the very same crime, he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands and quickly becomes a convenient pawn in an unreal mystery with so many twists and turns it would be a crime to reveal them.
Aesthetically, the movie is so lush it’s almost hypnotic. The director’s pronounced use of lighting and slanted camerawork create an overtly fictional dreamworld that you just kind of fall into, and it never feels like you’ll hit the ground, however hopelessly you plummet. The film is often like a nightmare that you don’t wish to wake from, that you’re intent on exploring in spite of yourself. The more I watch Body Double, the more it seems like a platform for De Palma’s critical grievances. Firstly, we have the highly sexualized Shelton as the seedy apple of our protagonist’s eye, her demise shot through a rather familiar Rear Window lens. Wasson’s Scully has much in common with Rear Window‘s L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart): a growing obsession, an inescapable predicament and questions of personal morality. Scully is drawn deeper into the mire against his own best judgement. The infamous drill scene is unashamedly chauvinistic. It is also masterfully executed and fraught with tension, a painstaking exercise in suspense that leaves you gritting your teeth and narrowing your eyes as you await the inescapable. Of course, the scene wouldn’t have been half as effective if the victim of our priapic killer were a man — the equivalent of having John Wayne take on Marilyn Monroe in a bout of pistols at dawn.
Not content with protracted scenes of stylish masturbation, the movie takes an unexpected tumble into the sleazy depths of the porn industry, a discovery leading Scully to Melanie Griffith’s porno superstar, Holly Body (subtle, no?), and a larger-than-life porno set straight out of an MTV video. Here we are treated to the colourful meta-appearance of Frankie Goes to Hollywood vocalist Holly Johnson, who adds to the sexual furore with a wholly unexpected performance of his then controversial gay anthem Relax. The original mix of Relax — one that featured a series of sound effects deemed sexually offensive — was even the source of controversy within gay communities. As producer Trevor Horn would explain, “We got so many complaints about it — particularly from gay clubs, who found it offensive — that we cut it in half and reduced it down to eight minutes by taking out some of the slightly more offensive parts.” Griffith’s Holly Body is a walking contradiction: intelligent yet queerly naive; respectable based on the fact that she is unwilling to subject herself to the more extreme fetishes of the human condition.
Holly Body: I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M or any variations of that particular bent, no water sports either. I will not shave my pussy, no fist-fucking and absolutely no coming in my face. I get $2000 a day and I do not work without a contract.
I find it interesting that those same critics who dismiss De Palma as a glorified Hitchcock clone are often the same who call him out for violence and misogyny. I write this because Hitch, who was no less controversial back in his day, is often treated as a man who did no wrong in the eyes of society. Hitchcock has developed an almost God-like status since his death in 1980, and it’s hardly surprising. Movies such as Psycho, The Birds and North by North West are the lifeblood of modern cinema, movies that are dissected and emulated by budding filmmakers across the globe. Hitch’s style and innovations can be found in films from all genres. Danny DeVito would give us a comic retelling of Strangers on a Train with madcap comedy Throw Momma From the Train and John Carpenter would kick-start the slasher sub-genre by utilising Hitchcock’s mocking wit for low-budget revelation Halloween. Even the great David Lynch, a director who is seemingly immune to the derivative tag, would use a 50s aesthetic for exquisite mindfuck Mullholland Drive, shades of the director’s favourite Hitch flick Vertigo more than prevalent.
The fact is, controversy sells, and De Palma often went above and beyond the boundaries, rubbing sexuality and murder in our faces like a blood-soaked rag. Such exploitative ventures were deemed cheap and misguided by critics, particularly since the influence of one of their darlings was so transparent, but people forget that back in 1960, Hitchcock was similarly lambasted after unleashing Norman Bates onto the cinematic landscape, a Freudian wet dream with a penchant for sexually motivated murder. Psycho famously struggled to acquire financing due to its unprecedented potential for mainstream controversy — one of the reasons why the movie was shot in iconic black and white (another being Hitch’s belief that colour, particularly for the infamous shower scene, would be too much for audiences of the time). Just as shocking were those glimpses of Janet Leigh’s naked flesh, first as she cavorted in her underwear, and then completely nude, at least to the imagination, as Norman’s knife seemed to penetrate her naked torso. Psycho may seem tame by today’s standards, but at the time it was deeply taboo in the eyes of society.
During the 1970s, the Italian Giallo would take the blood and guts mystery formula to a whole other stratosphere, and by the 1980s explicit violence was much more admissible. The aforementioned slasher — a sub-genre that Hitchcock would act as the genesis for along with Michael Powell and his sorely mistreated progenitor Peeping Tom — was motivated entirely by violence and misogyny, two tried-and-tested components that would contribute to the home video revolution. The slasher and Hitch are worlds apart in terms of graphic extremities, but that was more to do with the evolution of film and society as a whole. In 1960, the sight of an onscreen toilet, another reason for Psycho‘s controversy, was deemed unacceptable for adult audiences. In 1983, Mark Rosman’s The House on Sorority Row gave us a decapitated head in a toilet. Times had most certainly changed.
Jake Scully : You’re fantastic. Really. Sensational. And I’ll tell you something else. You’ve got a terrific…
Holly Body : Body.
Jake Scully : Smile.
Holly Body : Smile?
De Palma’s Scarface would also feature a quasi-incestuous relationship between Montana and runaway sister, Gina, adding fuel to an already raging fire. Here, the violence and sexual implications were bloody and blatant, but not dissimilar to those found in Psycho, at least in terms of intent. With Body Double, De Palma seems to address all of those accusations head-on, right down to casting Griffith (Hitchcock star Tipi Hedren’s daughter) as the movie’s marquee female, a move previously undertaken by John Carpenter with the casting of Janet Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween. So obvious is Hitchcock’s influence that the movie at times becomes little more than a blatant pastiche, a combination of Vertigo and Rear Window tied in an uber-suspenseful, cinematic bow.
Ultimately, Body Double seems like a protest against the all-too-serious and overbearing criticisms of society at large, which often finds more problems within the fictitious realms of movies than it does real-life atrocities, most of which are swept under the proverbial rug as we live comparative lives of luxury. Such topics are usually manufactured as a source of distraction from humanity’s true crimes and often cheapen the true legacy of civil rights advancements. Social media is a perfect example. If you sling words like misogyny and racism around ad nauseam, they lose all meaning, lost in a swamp of armchair outrage and shrugged off as a means for personal gratification, which is a dangerous game in itself. Violence in slasher movies, the misrepresentation of women, the unabashed liberation of sexuality, both hetro and homo, it’s all here, and it’s all tinged with just a smidgen of irony.
Is Body Double an exercise in style-over-substance? On the surface of things, perhaps. But the substance lies with its technical prowess, and the subtext and absurd overtones provide the movie’s meatier discourse. De Palma shades Body Double with the watercolour brush of ethereal fantasy, but what he ultimately delivers is a masterful exercise in Hitchcockian suspense, one that is wound with the flawless precision of a Swiss watchmaker. It takes great expertise to keep your audience in the dark until the very end, and even more to keep them engrossed in a plot which seems to have little or no logic. Perhaps the point of the movie was to provide a pulpit for those who are more concerned with scandal than filmmaking, while others can derive satisfaction from the fruits of De Palma’s technical mastery. We sometimes forget that movies are exactly that: movies, and Body Double — a title that works on both a literal and figurative level — is a movie in the purest sense of the word.