If you’ve been following this site for a while you probably know that I’m obsessed with Brian De Palma. I used to consider that he was really talented, but went had a bad period where he just gave in too much to his prurient obsessions, resulting in what I used to consider his total exploitative trash period, including this film and Raising Cain. When I watched Raising Cain again about six months ago and was totally blown away, I knew this one had to come up for re-evaluation. I had seen this back in college and was really turned off by how sexually violent and apparently pointless it was. It is De Palma’s sleaziest movie by a long shot, but, as with much of De Palma’s oeuvre, if you stop expecting a solid story and just look forward to an expertly delivered filmic journey, you are amply rewarded.
The film announces its context immediately by beginning in a wholly fake-looking graveyard with dripping bloody titles straight out of a 50s B horror film. We move down to see an opening coffin, with a vampire leaning out, but then he just freezes and stays there. This is our claustrophobic hero, Jake, and he is having an attack. His director, by the way, is played by Dennis Franz.
We then have the film title, set against a desert backdrop that is soon revealed to be a flat painted film backdrop. This lets you know immediately that this movie is going to be about how appearances can be deceiving, especially in the realm of film.
Soon after this the sexual nature of what we’re about to see is announced by a man in tight shorts walking up to a woman and putting a hot dog in her mouth, as they both stand next to this giant bun and hot dog [above] that is more than a little suggestive. This is part of why De Palma is a brilliant constructor of films, because in these first few minutes he is not only beginning the story, but announcing his themes and telling you HOW to read the film.
Anyway, after his freeze-up Jake demands to re-shoot the scene, knowing that if he doesn’t re-shoot it now he will be fired and they’ll get someone else… someone who could be considered a body double. Jake IS let go, and he goes home and finds his girlfriend in bed with another man. He returns to drinking after what we must assume was a drinking problem, then goes to an audition. We find that the movie he was working on was “Vampire’s Kiss.” I can’t wait to look on IMDb and see if the actual movie Vampire’s Kiss came out before or after this one [it was after, in 1989]. Then he goes to his acting class, where he attempts to deliver a scene in which he relives his feelings at being assaulted by his brothers. But he can’t open up his feelings, leading his acting coach, after being quite free with his hands all over Jake’s body, to yell at him, the actor: “You have to ACT!” This statement will have a double meaning throughout the film, as Jake both can’t act and also can’t take action.
So there’s this blond guy, Alex, staring intently at Jake during the acting exercise, and later they run into each other and have a drink. Jake spills his guts about how he was nowhere to stay, and Alex says that he is supposed to be house-sitting this place, but he has to go away, and if Jake were to stay there he would both have a place to live and be doing Alex a favor.
Turns out the house is this egregiously designed octagonal thing on a post, offering stunning view of Los Angeles. Alex shows Jake to the telescope, set up to observe this house across the way, where he says that this woman does this autoerotic dance act “like clockwork” at the same time every night. It turns out that our pal Jake is quite a little voyeur, and becomes kind of obsessed with watching the woman.
Somewhere in here we see Jake watching a funny 80s music video where someone says “My, my. Uh-oh. The house is burning and there’s no one home.” I just thought it was so funny, and it made me want to hear the rest of the song!
Anyway, so Jake is becoming obsessed with the woman across the way, and he also observes this OTHER guy watching her as well. So he ends up following the woman all day, ostensibly to protect her from the menacing other guy, and extremely obvious as he’s only about 20 feet behind her, but she never notices. He even watches her try on some panties [she’s rather careless about closing her dressing room blinds], which arouses the suspicion of the sales clerk, who calls the hot security guard. The guard comes over and asks Jake “Excuse me, can I help you?” and when Jake just says “no” and moves on, the security guard just wanders off. They say good employees are hard to find. Later Jake steals the woman's panties from out of the trash.
There is a really good moment when Jake is finally alone with the woman in the elevator, whereupon he is too uncomfortable to say anything. You can see that he’s just building up to introduce himself when the door opens up and the elevator fills with shoppers. They also see the creepy guy who is following the woman, who has been lurking around this whole time.
There’s still more following as he trails her this multi-level beach house, then out to the beach, where her purse is snatched by the guy following her [and you’re like “THAT’s what this was all about? He followed her all day just to grab her purse?”], and Jake runs after him, hoping to be a hero to this woman he’s obsessed with. He follows the thug into this tunnel, where he has a claustrophobic attack. He is literally stuck there helpless in the middle of the tunnel, which is handled quite well. The thug rifles through the woman’s purse and takes one thing [turns out to be a key card to the house]. The woman comes in and walks Jake out into the light, where all of a sudden they have this huge makeout session that is presented in high De Palma romance / obsession complete with spinning camera. If you are wondering WHY we would suddenly go into this fantasy sequence in the middle of what we thought was a realistic scenario… well, that would be a very good question.
LEVEL-ONE SPOILERS > > >
That night, Jake is of course watching his friend across the way. He sees that the freaky thug guy is in the house. We’ll talk about the many Hitchcock references later, but it’s worth pointing out here that the thug’s hair, an obvious wig, is quite reminiscent of the wig Norman from Psycho wore when he was killing as his mother. Jake tries to call and warn the woman, but too late. So he runs over there, recruiting some joggers along the way [De Palma seems to be unique in perceiving the menacing qualities of joggers]. Meanwhile, upstairs the guy has taken this 3-foot-long power drill and shoved it into the woman’s back, immediately followed by a wonderful shot of the dog, downstairs, reacting to the sound of her scream. Jake breaks in and is attacked by the dog. Upstairs, we see the drill explicitly being presented as a phallus, coming down directly out of the crotch of the killer, then follows an incredible shot from Jake’s POV, looking past the attacking dog and seeing the drill, dripping blood, come through the ceiling! The killer escapes and the woman is dead.
Then we have a wonderful scene featuring this amazingly sly and controlling detective, who knows from the start that Jake is lying. He finds the panties on Jake and says “What’s this? Are they yours?”
Jake goes home and watches the porn channel, where he sees a video for a movie with Melanie Griffith as Holly Body. He sees that it’s available at Tower, and they’re open ‘til midnight, so he checks his watch and RUNS to Tower, and you’re like, “Wow, dude really is in touch with his peeping side.” And not just that, but our obsessed little Jake decides that the best way to meet Holly is for him to become a porn star himself, so he auditions and sure enough is given a role. You know, how many of us would be this motivated? I mean, I like Bruno, Michael Braun and Paul Baressi, but you don’t see me becoming a porn star just to meet them [not like I didn’t think about it]. We have to applaud our Jake for having the courage to live his dreams.
We then enter this Frankie Goes to Hollywood video for “Relax,” which we are to understand IS the porn movie. In here you will briefly see the member of FGTH who did nothing but dance, and who I thought was sort of hot [because he was the only one with a ‘stache]. Anyway, so Jake does a scene with Holly, but he cums in her for real and obviously enjoys it, leading one of the assistants to say “What about the cumshot? I thought we were doing Body Talk here, not Last Tango.”
So he asks Holly out. You will notice that somewhere in here Jake cuts his air and totally transforms himself into a porn producer-type. There is a funny moment in which Holly pretends to take a society woman as a porn star and give her a tip on an opening job.
SPOILERS LEVEL TWO > > >
Anyway, so Jake has Holly back to his place and he worms it out of her: SHE was hired to dance in the house across the way the first two nights, then on the third night it was the real wife and she was murdered. And he quickly puts together that ALEX, the guy who did him the “favor” by letting him watch the house, was actually setting Jake up as a witness. He tells Holly that he isn’t a real porn producer, and she’s all pissed and leaves, leading to a huge car pile-up outside which we hear but never see but it’s like “Huh? What is it with that?”
So soon enough the real killer, Alex, shows up, and throws Holly and Jake into a grave to bury them alive. Jake, in the grave, has another claustrophobic attack, and cannot get out. He hears Alex tell him, like the drama teacher earlier; “You have to ACT.”
Then we have a long interlude back at the movie set where Jake froze up at the beginning, and he demands a second take, and this time he gets it. Forcing himself to overcome his claustrophobia, Jake pulls himself out of the coffin, and, back in reality, he grabs the shovel from Alex and pulls himself out. “You seem overdramatic,” says Alex, before buying it. The farm, that is, not the act.
At the end, the credits start to run while we see Jake in his white vampire makeup, stealing into a shower with a woman. He is presumably now a full-time porn star, and Holly, at the sidelines, is perhaps a producer or something. They call cut and bring in a body double, and proceed with the scene. As the final credits roll, we see Jake bite the woman, and blood run down over her breasts.
< < < SPOILERS END
It’s a lot of fun and you definitely feel that you’re in the hands of an expert leading you down a very defined path, although admittedly QUITE sleazy. There are LONG classic De Palma sequences, told visually, such as the stalking / following sequence, and the murder by drill. There’s also a great deal of Hitchcock references sprinkled throughout, most notably to Rear Window and Vertigo. I personally don’t consider De Palma a Hitchcock “imitator” as someone who responds very deeply to Hitchcock’s themes, and has absorbed a great deal of what Hitchcock understood about the ways in which movies are put together.
This movie is very self-referential in being a story entirely couched in the kind of photographic deception of the movies. The opening credits set this firmly in the realm of parody of certain movie types, and the whole idea of taking a movie convention—the body double—and using it in real life, as well as the self-conscious music video parody at the center all point to this entire thing revolving around the waffling between reality and movie reality, and which is more real than the other. But this is nothing new for De Palma.
The trailer for this movie nicely uses a Venetian blind motif to convey the idea of voyeurism, and is graphically interesting, especially on the transition between De Palma’s name and the movie title.
Overall, another De Palma thing in which if you’re interested in a serious movie thriller, you’d be a lot less satisfied than in you’re interested in a meditation on the falsity of the movies beautifully constructed to be a fascinating journey in itself. As is usual with De Palma, the technique is much more interesting than the story. It can’t be long now before some of De Palma’s movies come up for remakes [This just in! A remake of Sisters in in the works], and it would be interesting to see someone take this one and build a straightforward thriller out of it, probably ignoring the elements of personal obsession that make this primarily a De Palma film.
Yes, if you’re into De Palma and want to see him pursue his meta technique and personal sexual obsessions. If you want a straightforward horror thriller… well, this one’s more satisfying than some of his others.