Having scandalized a nation with the excellent Dressed to Kill (1980) De Palma planned to go one better with his next Body Double, this time re-mixing Vertigo and Rear Window and then adding some madness that’s all his own. It’s more polished than its predecessor, but lacks the visceral shocks, although much is made up by the gleeful deconstruction of male spectatorship in a film in which a crime is solved because the protagonist (Craig Wasson as a loser B-Movie actor) surfs porn channels at night. The twist is so ludicrous it trumps all other elements in this thriller that once again throws the audience a dirty look and suggest that watching films might just be a bit perverted.
Wasson is Jake Scully an actor fired from a terrible vampire film because he suffers from claustrophobia. He goes home and finds his wife in bed with another man (worse than that, he makes her “Glow”). A new friend (Gregg Henry) offers him a place to stay, in what must be the most 1980s location ever, the Ultramodern Chemosphere complete with rotating bed and a telescope that spies on the hot woman dancing opposite. Mix in a mysterious Native American TV engineer and a murder plot soon hatches in which, in the least subtly phallic way imaginable, a woman is killed by a very large drill. Haunted by this woman Jake cracks up, watches porn and spies Melanie Griffith (as porn-star Holly Body) who has some familiar dance moves. Jake, being a bit mad, decides the best way to follow up his observation is to star in a porn-film opposite Holly, a scene which includes Frankie Goes to Hollywood singing their subtle anthem Relax (and I mean the actual band turns up, not just the song).
On paper nothing should work about this film. The protagonist is unlikable, the plot hinges on ludicrous behavior and coincidences and the finale involves a dog misidentifying his owner, but the whole is done with such (heavily 1980s) style and verve that it works, dashing though its running time at breakneck speed. It also makes some neat observations about the male audience, and the differences between being a Peeping Tom and watching porn. Just as in Dressed to Kill women are not represented well, there are only two really, but the men are far worse: a bunch of selfish, obsessive voyeurs. And De Palma’s willingness to throw in every thriller trick makes it hypnotic watching.