Written by: Billy Brown & Dan Angel
Directed by: John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper
Starring: Robert Carradine, Stacy Keach, and Mark Hamill
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Ah, body bags. You see, if it's murder, suicide or a nasty accident, they put them in here..."
Body Bags is a can’t-miss concept with an unfortunate sell-by date; as horror anthologies found new life on television throughout the late eighties and early nineties, it only made sense that Showtime wanted in on the business, and who better to help bring it to the screen than John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper? Of course, the answer to that question might have been a bit more emphatic a decade earlier, when the duo was at the height of their respective powers.
By 1993, however, each had entered into a slump, with Hooper especially in a free-fall that reached its nadir with that year’s Night Terrors (Carpenter at least had some last gasps yet to come with In the Mouth of Madness and Vampires). For the most part, Body Bags reflects this stasis since it’s an unremarkable attempt to Xerox the glory of other anthologies, and, in doing so, feels like a collection of rejected segments from those shows.
Given its derivative nature, one is almost surprised that Showtime didn’t call it Tales From the Morgue, as that’s where it situates itself for its frame story. There, a wild-eyed mortician (Carpenter) goes into a scatter-brained spiel before delving into the macabre stories behind the most recent cadavers to arrive in his care. These serve as the film’s trio of segments, wherein viewers discover how each mangled corpse met their grisly end, with the tales ranging from standard slasher fare to supernaturally-tinged, Amicus-flavored offerings.
The opening segment finds Carpenter returning to the scene of a familiar crime in Haddonfield, Illinois. Once again, the sleepy Midwestern town has found itself terrorized by a serial killer (background news reports slyly indicate that local authorities are attributing the murders to Michael Myers), which is especially bad news for Anne (Alex Datcher), a local college student set to begin a job as an overnight gas-station attendant. Her first night on the job is expectedly weird and full of encounters with various weirdoes, such as a vagrant (serial hobo Buck Flower) and a leering older guy (a cheeky Wes Craven). Essentially a climactic stalk and slash sequence that could fit in any given slasher movie, “The Gas Station” is nonetheless a solid opener, as Datcher makes for a scrappy, personable protagonist, while Carpenter effortlessly revisits his slasher chops to create a tense atmosphere before delivering the gory payoff required by the frame story. Amusing appearances from Robert Carradine and Robert Naughton keep it light and fun—it’s never legitimately suspenseful or mean-spirited but rather a frothy and bloody exercise in splatter movie violence.
While that’s quite the slummy territory for Carpenter, the next segment, “Hair,” has him tackling something with a little bit more depth, at least from a thematic standpoint. Narratively speaking, it’s pretty straightforward: middle-aged Richard Coberts (Stacy Keach) is dismayed at his thinning hair and will do anything to restore it (or even the illusion of it—at one point, he paints his hair to compensate). Eventually, he resorts to a TV doctor’s (David Warner) experimental therapy, a process that’s initially successful but soon yields unwanted side effects. Another one of those classic, ghoulish reversals of fortune out of the Amicus mold, “Hair” is occasionally amusing, if not overly long. Keach is a delight as a portrait of stereotypical male insecurity, as Coberts fancies himself a modern day Sampson who derives his prowess (sexual and otherwise) from his locks. Once his hair grows back, it doesn’t matter that he looks ridiculous (the sight of Keach with a flowing, shoulder length mane is hysterical), nor does he question its cost—well, until his flesh begins to melt at least. When it finally cuts through its sluggish middle section, “Hair” comes to life by entering some wacky territory that allows Carpenter to once again pay reverence to 50s monster movies in a somewhat unique, grotesque manner.
He hands the reigns off to Hooper for the final segment, which features Mark Hamill as Brent Mathews a career minor league baseball player looking to finally break into the majors. Unfortunately, a grisly car accident results in the loss of his right eye and seemingly ends his career forever. Enter Doctor Lang, who offers a radical, experimental solution in the form of an eye transplant; Matthews jumps at the offer, and the procedure is initially successful before…oh, well, you know the drill by now. Shit goes bad. Specifically, Matthews’s brain goes all haywire once he begins to have mysterious, violent visions that begin to produce equally vicious mood swings. Perhaps the most inventive of the three segments here, “Eye” is similarly overlong; like “Hair,” it hinges on the eventual reveal, which feels especially familiar in the wake of The Eye. Hamill at least makes for a strong and interesting protagonist; admittedly, a lot of the allure owes to him playing way against type, first as a good-old-boy ballplayer, then as the nigh-homicidal maniac attempting to possess his body. The climax here is also the most deranged and visceral capper that the film has to offer, if only because Hamill does inject some tragic desperation into Matthews.
Taken as a whole, Body Bags is fine but struggles to find unity. The last two bits share the same thematic thread, thus leaving “The Gas Station” as the odd man out here. One wishes that the film could have gone one way or the other: had all three segments been wildly different, Body Bags would have benefited from variety. On the other hand, the film could have made for a nice collection of cautionary tales of body modification if it could have found a more suitable opener. That it doesn’t do either makes it tough for one to shake the feeling that this is nothing more than a half-hearted affair hellbent on capitalizing on a trend more than anything. To its credit, even 90s Carpenter and Hooper are preferable to anonymous talent, as the former at least provides a distinctive score alongside Jim Lang, so Body Bags at least sounds like vintage, synth-laden Carpenter. Its wealth of fun performances and appearances are also a boon: the likes of Sam Raimi and Roger Corman pop up, and their appearances truly speak to the film’s funhouse tone. If nothing else, Body Bags effectively copies the carnival-style feeling of Tales from the Crypt and Tales From the Darkside, even if it ultimately winds up feeling like a generic knock-off of both.
Somewhat ironically, its most obvious attempt to riff on the former anthology is also one of its most memorable aspects: once Showtime decided that Body Bags wouldn’t go into production as a full series, the network decided to convert it to a feature film. To accomplish this, it tapped Carpenter to return for the film’s frame story, where he essentially serves as the maniacal crypt keeper; even though he’s had fun on camera (and behind it) throughout his career, it’s downright bizarre to see Carpenter completely throw himself into this nutty role with such abandon. Hamming it up to the extreme, Carpenter muses on the state of the cadavers, talks to them, and even gets to croon a little bit (obviously, someone associated with the production noted his talents with The Coup de Villes on the Big Trouble in Little China soundtrack). If there’s anything regrettable about Showtime’s decision to make Body Bags a one-off, it’s this turn because I can only imagine the glorious world where Carpenter would have been doing this stuff on a weekly basis.
Further efforts may have also allowed Body Bags to find its footing; again, the three offerings here serve as fine horror junk food that’s been basted in genre reverence and delightful gore effects (the film is actually an incredible showcase for various mutilations and manglings). With Carpenter and Hooper at the helm, it’s also sturdily produced, but neither exactly recalls the heights of their former glory (fortunately, neither hints at their low points, either). Despite all the notable talent involved, it’s been a bit of an obscurity during the past decade since Artisan released a long out of print DVD featuring a butchered edit that excised much of that gore.
Fret not, though, as Scream Factory has once again come to the rescue with a Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack that features a sleek, upgraded presentation and a host of extras. Each segment features its own commentary, with Carpenter joining Carradine for “The Gas Station,” while the director teams up with Keach on “Hair.” Producer Sandy King and horror expert Justin Beahm comment on “Eye,” and these participants return for “Unzipping Body Bags,” a 20 minute retrospective that explains the inspiration behind the film (Carpenter and King especially seemed excited about doing these quick and dirty little numbers with noteworthy genre talent) and its eventual production. The film’s trailer rounds out another strong release from Scream Factory; while it can be argued that its gory, splattered parts are more impressive than its rigid, overly-familiar whole, Body Bags has nonetheless received an A-list treatment that’s on par with several of Carpenter and Hooper’s stronger films. Rent it!
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