Body Bags (1993) d. John Carpenter / Tobe Hooper (USA)
I’ll be honest, until its recent DVD/BR unearthing by Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory division, I had nearly forgotten this made-for-cable anthology effort even existed, much less sought it out. Since it’s billed as “John Carpenter presents Body Bags,” I was even unaware that Carpenter had served as director for the majority of the piece (two segments and the wraparound). Blame it on Wes Craven, whose stream of similarly branded straight-to-video awfulness (Dracula 2000, They, the 1998 Carnival of Souls remake) left me more than a little gun shy. And, in addition to the fact that it was made for Showtime long before its original programming was the stuff of ACE awards, no one within my horror crew ever talked about it. Like, at all. Even when the conversation would turn toward Carpenter and his output, people seemed to go out of their way to ignore this little gem, skipping straight from 1988’s They Live to 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness (with completists throwing in a cursory nod to Memoirs of an Invisible Man from 1992) without so much as a good, bad, or otherwise. Which is a darn shame, because this is horror charm on the cheap, a slice of low-budget cheese that should delight any fan of Tales from the Crypt or the short-lived syndicated series, Monsters.
As Carpenter recounts on the commentary track, Showtime was interested in turning Body Bags into a series, but the iconoclast director wasn’t interested in shooting a show up in Vancouver for the (low) amount of money the network was willing/able to throw at it. So, a one-off it stayed, and maybe that’s for the best, since it allowed his creative team to be peopled by an eclectic and talented bunch. In front of the camera, we have such notables as Robert Carradine, Stacy Keach, and Mark Hamill as key players of each of their segments, with cameos from genre players such as David Naughton (American Werewolf in London), Sam Raimi, Roger Corman, John Agar (Tarantula), Greg Nicotero, Peter Jason (Prince of Darkness), Charles Napier (Silence of the Lambs), George “Buck” Flower (The Fog), David Warner (Time Bandits), and, er, Twiggy. Musicians Sheena Easton and Deborah Harry also put in memorable screen time, both in the same segment, but not at the same time.
Behind-the-scenes, effects heavyweights Rick Baker, Jim Danforth, and KNB fx marshal the magic, while longtime Carpenter collaborators such as Garry Kibbe (cinematographer), Edward A. Warschilka (editor), and Sandy King (producer and, well, spouse) pull their respective weight.
The script by Billy Brown and Dan Angel proves a mélange of different types of terror, bound by the freewheeling daffiness of the wraparound segments. Carpenter, in addition to providing some of the musical cues, plays our de facto Crypt Keeper host, “The Coroner,” a cadaverous-looking gent in dire need of Oil of Olay and a visit to the local dentist.
Guzzling formaldehyde and spouting one-liners, he scours the morgue for grisly mayhem to fuel his storytelling. It’s clear that Carpenter is enjoying himself under Baker’s latex and his enthusiasm is infectious, setting a tone – both as performer and director – of anticipation and enthusiasm.
The first story, “The Gas Station,” is a straightforward thriller, following college student Anne’s (Alex Datcher) first night on the graveyard shift...the same night that a serial killer is announced to be continuing his rampage in the area. She relieves her co-worker Bill (Carradine), who leaves his number just in case anything should happen to go amiss. Well, naturally, amiss things do go, complete with Anne locking herself out of the service booth, dealing with homeless drifters and joyriding couples, and fending off a machete-wielding maniac.
Carpenter does a marvelous job keeping the camera close to his performers, adding to the sense of claustrophobia – as Datcher moves towards the main station in search of the second set of keys, Kibbe follows tightly behind her such that we feel tied to her, but also can’t see what else might be entering the frame. It’s a terrific technique, one of many numerous framing instances and tracking shots which remind us that Ol’ JC still had some gallons in the tank at that point.
There’s no overt comedy, but the cameos (Craven’s is especially delightful) and heightened quality result in a perfect blend of scary fun.
The hijinks continue in the second segment, “Hair,” as Keach’s successful but follicle-challenged businessman finds himself increasingly obsessed with the ever-thinning mop on top. Despite assurances from his girlfriend (Easton) that he is no less a man, hundreds of dollars are spent on various stimulants, hairstylist appointments, and paraphernalia, trying in vain to keep his vanity intact.
Our hapless hero eventually seeks out a certain Dr. Lock (Warner), whose television commercials promise a successful return of the waxen flaxen salad days of youth. As you can imagine, there are unfortunate side effects that come (or is that comb?) with the treatment.
The real joy here is Keach, dancing the fine line between situational comedy and farce like the seasoned pro he is with Danforth’s stop-motion creatures the icing on the dual-projected cake.
Tobe Hooper takes the helm for the final segment, “Eye,” an interesting creative decision considering how different is the tone. One wonders if it was just that Carpenter didn’t feel like covering such grim territory (at least not at that point in time – his later Masters of Horror episodes go far darker), and so enlisted his Texas pal to carry the ball over the proverbial goal line.
Whatever the reason, Hooper does a capable enough job telling the tale of a minor-league ballplayer (Hamill) who loses an eye in an auto accident, then later undergoing a transplant from a mysterious donor. In addition to the mismatched coloring, the new eye appears to see visions from its former owner’s life...and he wasn’t such a nice guy.
Soon, the slugger’s expectant wife (Twiggy) is afraid to make love to him, his darker side becoming more and more prevalent. While lacking the buoyant feel of the first two installments with a correspondingly higher gore quotient, the performances are all uniformly strong, especially Hamill who makes you forget all about Luke SkyWhatshisname. With a bristly mustache and a southern accent, his tightly coiled turn is a marvel to behold. The guy’s got chops, no question about it.
Shout! Factory’s special features, as per usual, are well-produced and plentiful. In addition to the original trailer, Carpenter shares the microphone on the alternate audio track with Carradine and Keach for their segments, while esteemed horror journalist Justin Beahm chats with King during Hooper’s story. Carpenter's contributions are laid-back, to say the least, mostly echoing the onscreen action (“Oh, and now she’s going in the door...”) or querying his co-stars about when they first got into acting. Carradine is fairly reserved and dry, while Keach offers a few gems about how he struggled with his own early onset of baldness in his 20s and how his parents would chastise him to “Wear your hairpiece!”
Beahm’s discussion with King is certainly more informative, although they do wander fairly far afield from the film and end up discussing Carpenter’s career as a whole, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and King is an engaging subject in her own right. There’s also a behind-the-scenes piece, "Unzipping Body Bags," produced and directed by Beahm that delivers more tidbits and insight in its compact 20-minute running time than the full-length audio track, so that might be the first place to stop post-viewing. Perhaps by choice, no one spends a lot of time discussing the fact that we see an awful lot of Mark Hamill’s bottom, and or the fact that Twiggy offers us a Sharon Stone Basic Instinct moment around the 1:20:10 mark.
Body Bags is available November 12, 2013 from Scream Factory, and can be pre-ordered HERE.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine