Thursday 23 June 2011

Movie Review: Body Double (1984)

Stylish but deeply flawed, Body Double is director Brian De Palma's attempt to modernize Hitchcock by introducing a potent dose of sexuality and a sharper instrument of death. Uninspired performances and a plot that crumbles under close inspection undermine the pizzazz.

Jake (Craig Wasson) is finding out just how bad a failing Hollywood career can get: reduced to playing the vampire in a Grade Z slasher flick, claustrophobia paralyzes him while he is entombed in his casket. Then he catches his girlfriend in bed with another guy, before being utterly humiliated in an acting class. Forced to abandon his apartment, Jake seems to catch a break when shady fellow-actor Sam (Gregg Henry) offers him the chance to house-sit a stunning villa with a breathtaking view. The major perk: sexy neighbour Gloria (Deborah Shelton) puts on a solo striptease show in front of her window every night, and Sam encourages Jake to watch through the conveniently available telescope.

Jake helps himself to the nightly eye candy, and quickly notices that Gloria is being dangerously stalked by one ugly looking Indian. Jake starts stalking both Gloria and her stalker, following them through a mall and on the beach, and is indecisive as to whether to interfere or not. It doesn't matter much: the following night Gloria is gruesomely murdered by the Indian, while Jake watches helplessly through the telescope. But many things are not what they seem: Jake discovers that porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) was unwittingly duping him into witnessing a carefully staged murder. Jake has to unravel all the lies that he is being subjected to, and in the process both he and Holly become targets for the murderer.

De Palma imports at least a couple of classic Hitcockian themes: the Rear Window witness-to-a-murder, and the Vertigo acrophobia here becomes claustrophobia. There are other small touches, including the murder-on-the-phone from Dial M For Murder. But from the opening scenes De Palma also litters his movie with what-you-see-is-not-real references, and the mix of modernized Hitchcockian elements and almost overt winking at the audience just doesn't bake well.

Unfortunately, Body Double may have one of De Palma's all-time weakest casts. Craig Wasson , Gregg Henry and Deborah Shelton take up a lot of oxygen and deliver precious little presence in return. Wasson floats through the film in a vacuous state; Henry hisses slimy evil intent; and former beauty queen Shelton stares blankly out of her mesmerizing eyes, gradually realizing that television is going to be the only place where her lack of acting talent will flourish. Melanie Griffith arrives late and immediately injects a much needed shot of wicked edginess and sly humour, but by the time she makes her entrance, the pervasive bland acting delivered by everyone else has already suffocated the film.

With character behaviour straight out of a first year writing class for the imagination-challenged, Body Double is left with only it's emphasis on style to save it, and here De Palma does score points. The film oozes sleek extravagance, from the ridiculously attractive design of the look-out house to the sensual voyeuristic scenes and the sojourn into the ultra-expensive mall, De Palma layers luxury that, through Jake's eyes, is inaccessible to most mortals.

Body Double is more of an interesting curiosity than a good film, a bit of an unkempt cul-de-sac on the otherwise generally well-maintained De Palma career avenue.

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