Our voyage through the Criterion Channel’s Erotic Thrillers collection continues. Only this time, only one movie. Mind you, that wasn’t the initial design, but plans were thwarted when confronted with what’s bound to become a new favorite – Brian De Palma’s 1984 Hitchcock homage sui generis, Body Double. The thing demanded full attention, a drill held low and ready to fuck to death whoever dared to ignore its call. So, it’s time to kill morality where it stands, bury good taste while you’re at it, and surrender to the wild ride. Let’s go down the rabbit hole into Vioporn wonderland…
If you pore over Brian De Palma’s interviews and soundbites, the documentary about him or podcasts on his films, you might find the director describing Alfred Hitchcock’s cinema in Brechtian terms. The mechanisms of filmmaking aren’t made to go by undetected but are so overt they call attention to themselves. They delight in reminding the spectator of the fundamental falsity before their eyes. Such gestures further problematize the experience of watching, making movies into prisms that refract the audience’s gaze back at them. They make it the central subject.
Many of De Palma’s creations have grappled with such concepts.
After 1976’s Obsession perverted Vertigo’s bad romance around a commanding Herrmann score, and 1980’s Dressed to Kill re-contextualized Psycho’s structure, Body Double represents the peak of his Hitchcock fixation. Pulling from Rear Window and Vertigo again, the cineaste puts forward a thesis in the form of unapologetic trash. The story told is, appropriately, that of all movie-makers and movie-watchers – the tale of a peeping tom. Only this one witnesses a murder while housesitting.
The lovely abode, high on the Hollywood hills, is decorated in the style of a posh sex club – all black leather, satin, and velvet begging for the stain of hot sweat and cum splatter. And so, it’s the perfect setting for homoerotic bonding to ferment into hetero-crazed lasciviousness, voyeurism unbound by lofty architecture. It’s also ideal for bloodshed. In any case, like a good neo-noir idiot stuck in a bad situation, he becomes obsessed with discovering the truth behind what happened. A lead, mayhap nothing more than an intrusive hard-on, takes him toward the porn business.
There’s a demented Craig Wasson performance to regard along the way. He’s joined by Melanie Griffith in her star-making role, serving as tonal disruptor in charge. Add to the cast a mysterious Native American killer that might not be real, as if he were a product of our guy’s imagination. Body Double is prone to dissect 1980s straight white male insecurities, whether consciously or not, and a racist outlook on life is part of the recipe. Such a sick imagination that man has. The movie is also, importantly, the story of an actor, a liar, a charlatan who trades in illusion, if not self-delusion.
Like an acting workshop cum nightmare, the world of this fucked-up movie feels in constant flux, mutable in the ways dreams often are, and wet fantasies always end up being. Roleplay, pretending to be someone else, makes new truths in this unreality, everything a sham. Take bravery, which is nothing more than a lie you tell yourself. To not be afraid, act like you’re not afraid, simple as that. Only, there are limits to what you can get away with. Somehow, a creep is always a creep, regardless of lies, what side of the camera they’re on, or even what side of the screen.
No wonder our non-heroic hero starts the picture in the film-within-a-film part of a vampire creep and ends it in the same place, a palindrome of life imitates art imitates life. Then again, all this verbiage may make Body Double sound deeper than it is. Don’t worry, for there’s little pretension in this sleaze-fest, a self-aware return to form after De Palma’s bid at legitimacy went down the drain with Scarface. This is genre fare, pulpy and ridiculous, so drunk on its absurdity that it will stop everything in its tracks for a “Relax” music video complete with Frankie Goes to Hollywood lip-syncing.
Crassness rules all, and something as innocuous as a hot dog stand must look as obscene as possible. Fakery is also king, with driving scenes going as far as copying Hitchcock’s rear projections for a nice shattered illusion, akin to a sledgehammer pulverizing fine china. However, be unsafe in the knowledge that the audience is complicit in all that mess. At crucial points, De Palma keeps cutting back to the voyeur from the spied-upon body, making the ecstasy uncomfortable. He confronts one audience with another, forcing the viewer to regard the act of viewing. It’s De Palma’s Hitchcock fantasy repeated.
And so, we, the audience, are trapped in the same game of projection that screws over the top-billed cretin. Oh, how our leading man judges another stranger who watches his preferred late-night entertainment. Maybe he’s jealous of not being the only one, and maybe he’s afraid of what he recognizes in those dark eyes. Maybe he’s disgusted at this vision of his own predatorial id unleashed. De Palma certainty seems so inclined. Only his revulsion is mixed with glee at manipulating his audience to feel the same and still have a good time despite it all.
Going back to the auteur’s game, consider stalking. The act derives logically from looking, which forces the audience to reconsider their access to the people on-screen. What are we, if not peeping toms? What is the camera if not a prowling entity? It’s dumb and genius at the same time, vertigo inverted as claustrophobia. It’s high-art turned impossible to differentiate from the lowest junk. If it works, it doesn’t matter. In the end, the picture will even show off its tackiness as a badge of honor alongside its leopard-print scarves and anklets worn with a whiff of Phyllis Dietrichson.