Brian De Palma may have gone to the well once too often with this 1984 neo-noir thriller. After winning critical acclaim for Hitchcockian thrillers like Greetings (1968), Obsession (1976) and Dressed to Kill (1980), he was raked by some critics for the obvious parallels between Body Double and such classics as Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). Taken on its own, however, the picture is a seductive thriller with some terrific suspense scenes, most notably a pursuit through a posh Beverly Hills shopping mall, and a breakout performance by Melanie Griffith as a porn star caught up in the mayhem.
Craig Wasson stars as a struggling actor who has just lost a job in a softcore vampire film because his claustrophobia makes it impossible to shoot scenes in his character’s coffin. When his girlfriend throws him out, a new friend (Gregg Henry) hooks him up with a house-sitting job in the Hollywood Hills. As an added attraction, the house has a telescope with which he can spy on a beautiful neighbor (Deborah Shelton) who has a habit of dancing provocatively in front of her unshaded window each night. Before long Craig is obsessed, only to be thrown into a tailspin when he sees her murdered and is unable to save her. Burying his guilt and grief in porn, he watches a film featuring Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) that seems to hold a key to the murder, if he can overcome his fears long enough to follow the clues.
De Palma had just enjoyed a huge hit with Scarface (1983), prompting Columbia Pictures to offer him a three-picture deal. As a follow-up, he decided to return to the suspense thrillers on which he had built his career. Having gone through major battles with the MPAA’s Code and Rating Administration (CARA) in the past over sex and violence in his films, he decided to make a film that would “give them everything they hate and more of it than they’ve ever seen” (De Palma, quoted in “Brian De Palma Thinks We Need More Violence in Our Lives,” Rick Lyman, Philadelphia Inquirer).
The film’s title is the industry term for an actor or actress hired to fill in for the star in a shot in which the star’s face is not visible. Body doubles are frequently used for nude scenes when the star refuses to strip for the camera. In fact, the use of a body double for Angie Dickinson’s nude shower scene in De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) inspired the plot. De Palma wanted to play with the indirection involved in making one person appear to be another. He had been impressed with Robert J. Avrech’s horror thriller Death Nun (1982) and hired him to help write the screenplay. Together they screened Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo for inspiration. Originally the film was set in New York, but they moved it to Los Angeles, which offered a wealth of filmable locations like the tunnel to the beach in Long Beach and the Rodeo Collection shopping complex. The octagonal house in which Wasson stays is the “Chemosphere” in the San Fernando Valley, designed by John Lautner in 1960. It’s been called “the most modern home built in the world” (Encyclopedia Britannica).
For the male lead, De Palma cast Craig Wasson, a 29-year-old actor who had shown his comfort with sexual material in Ghost Story (1981) and had won praise for his dramatic performance in Four Friends (1981). He also cast actors with whom he had worked previously, including Gregg Henry, who had been in Scarface, and Dennis Franz, who had made four other films with De Palma, including Blow Out (1981) and Scarface. Franz modeled his director character on De Palma. Barbara Crampton made her film debut as Wasson’s cheating girlfriend before going on to a lengthy career in daytime drama (The Bold and the Beautiful, The Young and the Restless) and horror films like Re-Animator (1985) and You’re Next (2011).
In keeping with its exploration of the world of adult films, Body Double features future playwright Michael Kearns, who had appeared in the gay porn film L.A. Tool & Die (1979), centerfold Lindsay Freeman (billed as Alexandra Day) and porn stars Annette Haven and Cara Lott (billed s Pamela Weston). Haven was De Palma’s original choice for Griffith’s role, but the studio vetoed his choice because of her previous films. Other stars considered for the part include Tatum O’Neal, Jamie Lee Curtis and Carrie Fisher. Brooke Shields turned it down to attend Princeton, while Linda Hamilton was offered the role but was too busy with preparations for The Terminator (1984). De Palma already knew Griffith through her husband, Steven Bauer, who had appeared in Scarface and would do an uncredited bit here as assistant director on one of Holly’s films. Part of Griffith’s screen test was a sexually explicit scene that was destroyed at her request. In the film, the performer’s face is never seen during that scene.
As the object of Wasson’s obsessions, De Palma wanted to cast Dutch erotic star Sylvia Kristel, who became famous in Emmanuelle (1974) and its sequels. When she proved unavailable, he cast former Miss USA Deborah Shelton, who tested with scenes from Body Heat (1981) and Scenes from a Marriage (1974). During editing, De Palma decided he didn’t like her voice, so he had the role dubbed by Canadian actress Helen Shaver.
When first submitted to the CARA, Body Double was awarded an X, which would have limited its theatrical release, so De Palma made some minor cuts, mostly to the porn movie scenes, to get an R. Nonetheless, on its release, Body Double generated considerable controversy because of its depiction of the adult film world and a violent murder using a phallic power drill. Variety described it as a “sexpenser,” a portmanteau combining “sex” and “suspense.” Though their critic, Todd McCarthy, praised De Palma’s camera work, he also complained the picture was just “visual riffs on Alfred Hitchcock.” Los Angeles Times critic Sheila Benson called it “elaborately empty, silly and desperately derivative,” while Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune dismissed it as “a cheap splatter film, and not a very good one at that.” On the positive side, Roger Ebert called it “an exhilarating exercise in pure filmmaking” and Vincent Canby of The New York Times said it was “a De Palma original, a movie that might have offended Hitchcock’s wryly avuncular public personality, while appealing to his darker, most private fantasies.” The picture did not do well at the box office, prompting Columbia to cancel their three-picture deal with De Palma. To cap it all, he was nominated for Worst Director at the Golden Raspberries, only to lose to John Derek for Bolero (1984).
Despite mixed reviews and poor box office, the film provided a big career boost for Griffith, who won the National Society of Film Critics Award and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She has said the role helped her land the leads in Something Wild (1986) and Working Girl (1988), the films that made her a star. Her performance also inspired porn star Rochelle Lee Travis to take Holly Body as her professional name.
Over the years, Body Double has become something of a cult film. Fans have come to revere it for its Hitchcock references, De Palma’s over-the-top directorial flourishes and Pino Donaggio’s soundtrack, not to mention the inclusion of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s new-wave hit “Relax,” which highlights a video-style sequence in the picture. The film-within-a-film, “Vampire’s Kiss,” would lend its name to a 1988 horror comedy starring Nicolas Cage. Body Double itself was remade in Hindi as Pahia Nasha (1993).
Producers: Brian De Palma, Howard Gottfried
Director: De Palma
Screenplay: Robert J. Avrech, De Palma
Based on a story by De Palma
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Score: Pino Donaggio
Cast: Craig Wasson (Jake), Melanie Griffith (Holly), Gregg Henry (Sam), Deborah Shelton (Gloria), Guy Boyd (Jim McLean), Dennis Franz (Rubin), Lane Davies (Billy), Barbara Crampton (Carol)