See It Instead: Doppelgängers.
The evil double has haunted cinema since its inception, so we look at three of our favorites.
Jordan Peele’s latest horror film, Us, mines the fertile territory of the doppelgänger – an eerie body double (not a twin or clone) that usually presages tragedy for the original. This entity was prolific in German folktales and ghost stories, and made the jump to cinema very early.
In the 1920’s, The Student of Prague and Fritz Lang’s opus, Metropolis, dealt with evil copies that caused havoc. Science fiction has also dealt heavily with this idea, from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Recently, films such as Denis Villeneuve’s artsy Enemy and Alex Garland’s haunting body snatcher flick, Annihilation, have kept the tradition alive.
Here, we pick three very different body double films that hold a mirror up to humanity…often with terrifying results.
The Serious Pick: Vertigo (1958).
A retired detective with a fear of heights (Jimmy Stewart) is hired to follow his friend’s wife (Kim Novak), who is obsessed with heights. Afraid of her motives and captivated by her beauty, he agrees to tail her. His suspicion proves correct, as she tries to jump off of a bridge. After saving her life, they form a dangerous intimacy, which leads to tragedy when she is ultimately able to commit suicide due to his acrophobia. The detective is distraught about his inability to save her, when suddenly he comes across a woman who is nearly her exact double…
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a film classic. It may, in many regards, be his masterpiece. The story is as convoluted and fraught with psychological tension as any of his mysteries. Hitchcock manipulates the pacing like a jazz pianist, striking sudden notes of action amid sections of quiet that build a frustrated anticipation in the viewer. It helps that Bernard Hermann’s score is pitch perfect. The performance from Jimmy Stewart really sells the themes of insecurity, impotence, and psychological fixation. From an artistic perspective, Hitchcock innovates with the motion and depth of focus of his camera, creating iconic shots.
The Lighthearted Pick: Army of Darkness (1993).
An ordinary store clerk named Ash (Bruce Campbell) becomes caught up in a centuries long war between good and evil. Transported to the Dark Ages, he is tasked with finding an unholy book that can banish the evil dead and return him to his own time. Along the way, he is set upon by demon possessed villager, living skeletons, and even his evil half made manifest. Good thing he brought his shotgun.
Sam Raimi created the ultimate B-Movie sword and sorcery adventure in his final Evil Dead movie, all while incorporating the horror roots of the franchise and leaning into the snarky camp of his leading man. The action is over the top, the blood flies freely, and Ash quips his way into cult legend.
For all of its silliness, the film actually plays with the tropes of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, the supposed prototypical accounting of classical adventure narratives. Putting our untraditional hero through traditional paces, even up to the fairly obvious trope of meeting and defeating the evil in oneself, helps to elevate the schlock to mythic heights, which might explain why this movie became such an ironic classic.
The Unconventional Pick: Lost Highway (1997).
Fred (Bill Pullman) is a jazz saxophonist who feels deeply insecure about his sexual relationship with his wife (Patricia Arquette). Approached by a sinister stranger, his world begins to double when he is given a VHS tape that supposedly shows him murdering her. When she actually is found dead, Fred is quickly sentenced to death. On death row, he unaccountably switches bodies with a young mechanic named Pete, confounding the authorities who have to release the unrelated man. Pete’s life begins to mimic a reverse version of Fred’s, culminating in him meeting a young woman who is the double of Fred’s wife.
This is a David Lynch film, so buckle up. Lost Highway delights in obscuring its narrative, once again like a jazz improvisation that leaves out expected notes for effect. Like Twin Peaks, the film insinuates and teases ideas, rather than building a straightforward arc. The events and many characters are literally inexplicable, but in the way that makes you watch the film a dozen times – winding up with a dozen different theories.
Despite the obfuscation, the film is excellently made. In fact, the visual quality, the striking nature of the imagery, and the perfectly moody score by Angelo Badalementi make Lost Highway feel more akin to a artistic conversation piece than a traditional film. If you have a taste for the weird, Lost Highway delivers in spades, while providing lots of little hooks to catch your mind on.