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Body Double: Special Edition

Sony Pictures // R // October 3, 2006
List Price: $19.94 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted September 10, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Product:
It was one of the most scandalous movies ever released, if you believe the critics at the time. It degraded women, tried to legitimize the porn industry, and drew disgusting gratification out of brutalizing its female characters. Its director was already labeled a loose canon crackpot, his previous effort a gore-laced love letter to a Cuban émigré and his salacious life of crime. Ever since he turned Stephen King's first novel into a fall of '76 hit, Brian DePalma had been pushing the limits of cinema, attempting to fuse arcane optical approaches (split screens, multiple angles) into his homage heavy desire to emulate his motion picture mentor, one Alfred Hitchcock. After a sloppy start in the '60s, the '70s saw the amiable auteur hit with Sisters, Carrie, Obsession, The Fury and Dressed to Kill. But after the outrage surrounding Scarface, the director was looking for a return to form. He thought he had it in Body Double, a clear cinematic mash-up of Vertigo and Rear Window. He even tossed in a little Tinsel Town satire just to be safe. The result was outside the realm of his expectations. Double was indeed a hit, but it was also a substantive scandal. Though relatively tame today, back then it was viewed as a sleazy splatter fest. Now, after a six year absence on DVD, Sony has released the reviled feature in a new Special Edition package. Between the film and the added content, Double loses little of its luster. It remains a visionary trip into the future of film.

The Plot:
Actor Jake Scully is having a very bad day. After freezing up on the set of the horror movie Vampire's Kiss, he's returns home to find his girlfriend screwing another guy. Homeless, and eventually jobless (claustrophobia and coffins don't mix in low budget film land), he is desperate for a place to stay. In walks fellow thespian Sam Buchard with an offer too good to be true. A space age condo overlooking a wealthy neighborhood is available for the taking, and all Scully has to do is water the plants and make like a good housesitter. Instantly agreeing, Scully soon learns the locale's other major perk. Every night, like clockwork, a sexy woman across the way does a topless bump and grind before 'self' satisfying her obvious need. Scully soon finds himself hopelessly obsessed with the lady, and ends up following her around town. When they finally meet, the attraction is instant, but their possible romance is not meant to be. A suspicious looking Native American is also following Scully's dream girl, and he doesn't look friendly. Before we know it, our hero witnesses a horrible crime. While trying to come to grips with what happened, he stumbles upon a clue. A porn star named Holly Body bares a striking resemblance to his masturbating neighbor. Hoping to investigate the connection, Scully seeks out Holly. It's not long after that both learn they are in danger – Scully for being a witness, and Holly for being the possible Body Double.

The DVD:
Body Double represents Brian DePalma's last Master of Suspense-inspired masterpiece. With only Raising Cain in 1992, Snake Eyes in 1998 and Femme Fatale in 2002 as attempted returns to thriller genre glory (all three failed) the 22 years between Double's debut and the release of this Special Edition DVD have found the filmmaker attempting full blown franchise blockbusters (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible), serious sci-fi (Mission to Mars) a second stab at a Scarface like crime epic (Carlito's Way) and the honor of helming one of cinema's most notorious belly flops (the awful adaptation of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities). Yet aside from the near mythic qualities of his ode to the Miami drug scene of the early 80s, and in the process turning Al Pacino's Tony Montana into a full blown hip hop icon, DePalma's signature style was all but missing for most of the '80s and '90s. His clever camerawork, reliance on conventions from the past (rear projection, scale recreation studio sets) and occasional optical overkill (he's one of the remaining moviemakers that think split screen is the height of compositional invention) put him clearly in the company of the past masters he so readily imitates. While pundits can argue over his effectiveness as a storyteller, or the artificiality of his artistry, DePalma was once a noted name alongside Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola. Today, such mythologizing seems misguided.

It's not wholly his fault. Two decades detached from the material that made his name seems to have permanently sullied DePalma's acumen. Nothing he's done since Body Double resonates with as much cheek or chutzpah as this peeping Tom treat. Working with a pitch perfect cast – everyone, from Craig Wasson's claustrophobic rube Jake Scully to Melanie Griffith's slightly stupid porn queen Holly Body, is definitive and dead on – and using films like Vertigo and Rear Window as more of a reference than an actual rip-off, DePalma shows incredible skill in walking us through a mystery that could easily unravel at any point. As a matter of fact, detail-oriented viewers with a razor sharp attention span might figure out this film long before the director is ready to deliver a denouement. As with any movie of this kind, characters featured prominently usually have something to do with the final reveal, even if it's indirectly. Part of the fun in Body Double is seeing the pieces of the puzzle gently fall into place. Unlike modern filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan, who continuously telegraph and foreshadow their clues throughout the entire narrative, DePalma just sets them out once: if you pick up on them, fine. If not, it's your loss.

Besides, he's having so much fun with his subtle slam at Hollywood that you don't mind the misdirection. In fact, one could argue that the reason he suffered from such a Greed decade backlash is that DePalma was purposefully poisoning the hand that fed him here. The movie's horror film opening recalls Blow Out, especially in showing how low rent and laughable most studio films can be. Wasson's vampire drag reminds one of Billy Idol's outfit from Tobe Hooper's horrible "Dancing with Myself" music video, and the final credits scene, where a well endowed woman is substituted for a relatively flat-chested star is hilarious in its insider wit. DePalma peppers Body Double with all kinds of industry spoofs, from his own lampoon of the MTV style (it's so odd to see one hit wonder Frankie Goes to Hollywood featured in the film's "Relax" sex orgy sequence) to the art of auditioning in the adult industry. Body Double is indeed a movie with a great deal of humor, relying on the standard sentiment that comedy helps cut some of the violence's more disturbing elements. For its time, the death scene in this film was highly controversial. In many ways, it resonated the same way that audiences reacted to the killings in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Though he was far more graphic in Scarface, DePalma uses his grand directorial gifts to craft a rather nasty demise for a main character. Via implication and suggestion, we "see' more than the filmmaker ever dares show.

On the other hand, the nudity here is all up front and above board. Griffith is topless so often in this film that when she finally puts on clothes, she looks stiff and unnatural. Her scenes with Wasson are a wonder to behold – she puts on the ditz and then slowly back pedals to a position in which Holly is viewed as both flighty and fiercely independent. It's an important message, one of Body Double's most misunderstood themes. At the time, DePalma was mercilessly slammed as being a misogynistic chauvinist out to destroy women – either with power tools, or through their depiction as dumb, abused victims. Oddly enough, Holly Body never comes across as some sort of carnal casualty. In fact, she's more like the post-modern porn stars of today, completely upfront about what they do and unafraid to set standards as to sex acts and their depiction. No, the reason for all the mid '80s heat derives directly from the subject matter – the still scandalous adult industry – and not the people who are a part of it. Holly is a heroine here, a wise if slightly wonky young lady who leads our hero to an essential piece of the puzzle. She completely countermands any argument about exploiting females for the sake of cinema. Since she's in on the joke, her XXX predicament is easier to accept. It's stellar subtexts like these, as well as the clockwork plotting and pacing, that make Body Double a forgotten gem. DePalma may have had more mainstream success since the original release of this movie, but he's never been as clever – or confrontational – since.

The Video:
The original version of Body Double, released way back in DVD's formative year of 1998, had both a 1.85:1 widescreen image as well as a 1.33:1 pan and scan nightmare on the flip side. Later on, the disc was rereleased in a "budget" form with the full screen option only. For a director who carefully controls his compositions like DePalma, such an atrocious optical approach cancels out all the film's inherent artistry. Now, thanks to Sony's Special Edition presentation of the title, Body Double has been digitally remastered and restored to its former 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen glory. Without the original available for comparison, it is still safe to say that the image here is exceptional, loaded with color and never before seen details. Some of the movie's more stylized mannerisms – rear projection, obvious studio sets – are a tad more obvious in this transfer, but the expertly controlled contrasts and lack of detrimental defects makes for one amazing opitcal experience.

The Audio:
Sony also satisfies the audiophiles' concerns by presenting Body Double in a crystal clear, aesthetically pleasing Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 mix. Utilizing both negative spatial ambience (during the suspense scenes) as well as key directional elements within the film, we get a channel challenging presentation that keeps use centered within the storyline. Also worth noting is the spectacular score created by Italian maestro Pino Donnagio. It's an amazing sonic experience, moving from dreamlike electronica to full blown orchestral pomp within a single signature statement. You'll instantly fall in love with the lilting theme used during Wasson's voyeuristic moments, yet its just one part of Donnagio's intensely moving music.

The Extras:
With only Wasson missing from the four featurettes that make up the hour of added content here, this latest version of Body Double offers a great deal of insight into the production – and problems – of the movie's making. DePalma presides over the documentary interviews, telling how he came up with the idea, who he wanted to cast originally (the porn industry plays a part in this narrative, remember) and the scandal surrounding the eventual release. Griffith offers her take on nudity, the concept of being stereotyped as a "dumb blonde" and how Double helped her break out into more substantive roles. Add in considered comments from Dennis Franz (who we discover was riffing on DePalma for his cameo as a crass film director), Deborah Shelton (still looking quite good after 20-plus years) and the genial Gregg Henry, and you've got a detailed dissection of a frequently misunderstood movie. While a full blown commentary would have been nice, and Wasson's absence is never addressed, this is still a sensational DVD package, worthy of the film being featured.

Final Thoughts:
While some will argue over its transparent mystery and lack of real erotic heat, many who remember Brian DePalma as a certified '70s maverick will thoroughly enjoy Body Double's directorial drive. For anyone who's interested in where this one time artisan - now reduced to making Tom Cruise cool and Kevin Costner authoritative - actually started from, need look no further than this fine film. Without question, the movie and its redone DVD presentation deserve a rating of Highly Recommended. In fact, Body Double may just be one of the best films of the '80s, an ahead of its time suspense satire that merges murder with moviemaking and money shots to illustrate the future of the motion picture medium. Indeed, most of the films made today have something in common with the situations playing out here. From the mainstreaming of adult material to the constant blurring of sex with violence, we now live in an age where DePalma's vision of obsession and death are everyday entertainment elements. Not bad for a guy written off over two decades ago as a hack Hitchcock. Between this fine feature and the undying devotion toward his crime and cocaine epic, DePalma's place in the history of film is secured. Too bad he had to sway so far from his normal cinematic tendencies to remain relevant in today's manufactured movie landscape.

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