Director Brian De Palma, 44, is grouped with the so-called movie brats—filmmakers who learned their craft in the ’60s and flourished in the ’70s and ’80s. Critics speak with admiration of Lucas’ adventurers, Scorsese’s losers, Spielberg’s kids and Coppola’s families. De Palma has staked out more controversial terrain: suspense, violence and eroticism. In some quarters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Scarface and now Body Double have gained De Palma the reputation of an artist in gore. In Dressed to Kill Angle Dickinson was sliced up with a razor. In Scarface a low-life drug dealer was sent to his reward with a chain saw. In Body Double Deborah Shelton is dispatched by a drill with a huge two-foot bit, which continues through the floor and showers co-star Craig Wasson in the room below with blood. As might be imagined, groups like Women Against Pornography (which protested Dressed to Kill) have not been happy with Body Double or De Palma. Senior writer William Plummer met with him to discuss his new film and such issues as sex and violence in the movies.
Where did you get the drill idea?
I do a lot of murder mysteries, and after a while you get tired of the usual instruments. You can use a knife, a rope, but now we have electrical instruments, which are truly terrifying.
But why a drill? Why one that big?
An Indian wants to be witnessed breaking into a safe by the Craig Wasson character. The prop had to be big for Craig to see him across the canyon. It was not my intention to create a sexual image with the drill, although it could be construed that way.
Why do you think people say you’re contemptuous of women?
Because I have a lot of women victims in my movies. I also have a lot of men victims. But women in peril work better in the suspense genre. It all goes back to the Perils of Pauline.
They don’t “work better” because you are a man?
No. If you have a haunted house and you have a woman walking around with a candelabrum, you fear for her more than you would for a husky man.
So it has to do with female frailty?
Absolutely. It’s part of the suspense form. Remember Roy Scheider in The Still of the Night? He was a man in peril, but it didn’t really work. A blind Audrey Hepburn wandering around in Wait Until Dark, trying to get away from some psychopath trying to kill her, I mean, come on, that was terrifying!
You don’t buy the feminist view that men learn from movies how to assault and rape women?
No, no. I subscribe to the Aristotelian theory. I believe that movies purge you of these emotions.
But there are cases where viewers saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and—
Sure, there are all kinds of cases.
But you don’t feel any responsibility?
I don’t feel there’s any connection. I think if you’re dealing with a psychopath, anything can set him off.
Then we shouldn’t hold our artists accountable for violence in their works?
We live in a society of free access, free will. We can certainly guide our children about the things we don’t want them to see.
I’ve heard people say that your movies are amoral, if not immoral.
I don’t think morality applies to art. It’s a ludicrous idea. I mean, what is the morality of a still life? I don’t think there’s good or bad fruit in the bowl.
Is Body Double pornographic in your view?
No. Most people who talk about pornography have never seen it. They use “pornographic” to cover a multitude of sins. A pornographic movie is one that is constructed to make you climax.
Okay, let’s say that your movies are not geared to bring the audience to climax or to teach men how to mutilate women. What kind of emotions are you trying to arouse in moviegoers?
I’m interested in shaking up the audience’s sense of reality, jolting it out of conventional ways of perceiving things. That’s what excites me.
Sounds like an old-fashioned notion of the avant-garde.
I guess it is. I am, you know, a creature of the ’60s. My first successful, movie had an X rating. I made Dionysus in ’69, a documentary of one of those plays that actually got the audience totally involved in the drama. It’s based on The Bacchae by Euripides. At one point Dionysus says to Pentheus, “What you need is a girl!” And Pentheus says, “I’m king. I can have any girl I want.” To back his boast, Pentheus has to go into the audience, grab some girl and try to have intercourse with her onstage. Let me tell you, there was enormous tension in the audience. Pentheus would be among them; he’d be kissing a girl, stroking her—
These are girls in the audience?
Yes. Of course 99 times out of 100 the girl rejects him, but nobody knows what’s going to happen. Everybody gets all shook up, out of control. This is what I’m trying to do today—to introduce avant-garde concepts into very large commercial pictures.
Why do people shriek or laugh at inappropriate moments at De Palma movies?
Because they’re so uneasy. They can’t deal with it. Later, in an effort to explain their reactions, they try to rationalize the experience. They say it’s too violent; it’s contemptuous of women. Like Rex Reed, they say it’s horrible garbage. Or the other big cop-out: It’s all satire. They can’t deal with the drill because it’s so viscerally disturbing, so they say it’s parody. I guess the problem is I’ve always been the urban guerrilla. You know, I got a house in California and an apartment here in New York, and I’m very successful, but I’ve still got these ’60s impulses.
So what you’ve got is everybody out of control. The actors in their separate scripts are out of control. The audience is out of control. You, it seems, are the only one in control.
Yes. I’m conducting.