Brian De Palma makes movies about the movie experience. He takes great pleasure in playing with the artificiality of movies, with audience expectations and the way we identify with characters, with the idea of playing parts and giving performances. Body Double, like many of his films, even begins with a movie within the movie, in this case a cheesy vampire flick by way of an eighties rock video. The film open in saturated giallo color and hokey old clichés like the graveyard with headstones and crosses and howling wolves on the soundtrack. As the camera cranes down through the earth and into a vampire’s coffin, the permed bloodsucker awake in the casket freezes: the actor Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) is claustrophobic. The take is halted and Jake is sent home but as far as De Palma is concerned we’re still in a movie; every shot of Jake is against some artificial backdrop or set piece being moved across the studio lot. It’s Scully in De Palma-land, and that’s just the beginning.
Jake is a born patsy, the meek, trusting nice guy with performance anxiety and a potentially fatal weakness in crippling claustrophobia. Returning home early, flowers in hand for his girlfriend, he hears the sounds of heavy breathing and moaning as he strolls through his house but his expression is merely quizzical, a dazed smile and a cocked head, as if he was pondering what the neighbors could possibly be up to as he approaches the bedroom. Apparently his girl (Stuart Gordon favorite Barbara Crampton in a brief but revealing appearance) found someone less reserved. Betrayed and rejected, he flees, and counts himself lucky when he runs into a guy in acting class with a sublet that is too good to be true. This space age bachelor pad, which resembles a mini-Space Needle or a flying saucer on stilts, is a real-life Los Angeles landmark called the Chemosphere and it has a direct view into the open window of an exhibitionist beauty who performs a strip tease every night to her unseen audience. A telescope is helpfully positioned for optimal viewing.