Photographer Adrian Wilde (Michael Callan) is troubled by disturbing nightmares in which he murders models posing for his racy photos. Between confiding in his psychiatrist, Adrian strikes a romance with Mindy Jordache (Joanna Pettet) whilst also helping out his brother B.J. (James Stacy), a crippled stunt driver coping with a failed marriage. Meanwhile a maniac is terrorizing the city, killing cover girls and hookers. The death of an undercover policeman draws detectives Fontain (Pamela Hensley) and Buckhold (David Young) onto the case. When one of Adrian’s models is found dead, the photographer comes to suspect he really is a murderer.
Despite some sporadically gory, slasher-style slayings, this is really a throwback to those probing psychological studies of flamboyant madmen common throughout the Sixties and early Seventies. The kind of films that allowed actors to pull out the stops and descend into ranting hysteria and indeed star Michael Callan proves no exception as away from prying eyes, Adrian sobs, shrieks and rants at his own mirror image to unsettling effect. Produced by Callan as a change of pace from the light comedy roles he was known for in the Fifties and Sixties, Double Exposure is an interestingly offbeat, if uneven thriller. While the plot is actually a variation on that of The Photographer (1974), an earlier collaboration between the actor and writer-producer-director William Byron Hillman, this time around the filmmakers favoured a looser, character driven approach with relaxed and seemingly semi-improvised performances from the strong cast.
Indeed, along with the cinematography by R. Michael Stringer, the acting is remarkably accomplished for a low-budget thriller from those sultans of sleaze at Crown International Pictures. Callan expertly essays the rapidly unravelling Adrian Wilde, the oft-underrated Joanna Pettet is instantly engaging and pulls off an exceptional American accent, and TV regular Pamela Hensley - who aside from roles in Rollerball (1975) and Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975) fuelled the adolescent fantasies of a generation as scantily-clad Princess Ardala in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) - is surprisingly convincing as a hardboiled cop.
It is one of those thrillers hinging on the question of what is real and what is imagined, edited in a manner to leave viewers uncertain whether Adrian is committing these murders or not, though it plays the trick of following each murder with him waking up in a cold sweat a little too often. As schizophrenic as its central protagonist, the film segues awkwardly between the sleazy slaying of naked hookers and centrefolds, and more interesting character-driven psychological suspense. Hillman juggles several plot strands and slips in embarassing scenes where ageing hipsters Adrian and B.J. party with nubile lovelies on the disco floor and an incongrous interlude where the boys and their lady friends cheer on a bout between female mud wrestlers. Classy. The mood shifts inconsistently from goofy nonsense to compelling suspense but the cast hold our interest. Alongside the principle cast, Blazing Saddles (1973) star Cleavon Little appears as the belligerent police chief and regular John Cassavetes player Seymour Cassel plays Adrian’s psychiatrist.
Most of the film centres around the interplay between characters in a manner that does recall some of Cassavetes’ work. Only the finale reverts to conventional suspense thriller tactics as the leggy Pettet is menaced in the mist by the killer and the last reel springs a few gory surprises. Not exactly an unsung classic but accomplished in parts and a pleasing stab at something different amidst the increasingly hackneyed slasher era.