The Film: 3/5
John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, once upon a time two of the most reliable directors of top shelf horror movies, pooled their talents twenty years ago to make an anthology feature for a pre-Dexter Showtime as a possible pilot for an ongoing series. Reactions were mixed and the final product didn't inspire enough confidence to make John Carpenter Presents Body Bags the network's answer to HBO's hit horror show Tales from the Crypt. Seven years later it was granted a throwaway DVD release from the long-defunct Artisan Entertainment that has been out of print for quite some time. Fans of this forgotten exercise in genre-hopping storytelling from two respected masters of cinematic fright can now rejoice as Shout! Factory has resurrected Body Bags for a new Blu-ray/DVD set. Watching it for the first time just recently I often found myself not wondering if it still held up after all these years, but if it ever held up at all.
Carpenter not only directed the first two of the three segments that comprise Body Bags, but he also plays our creepy host the Coroner in a series of wraparound skits where he makes lame jokes and introduces each story as if he were a middle-of-the-road emcee at a dirt mall comedy club.
In the first segment "The Gas Station", psychology student Anne (Alex Datcher) is beginning her first night running a local pay-and-pump in the town of Haddonfield (well played Mr. Carpenter) while a killer is on the loose, slaughtering women at random. Once Anne begins her night shift she begins encountering a series of increasingly weird characters, and before the night is done she'll have a date with a machete-wielding maniac. Filmmakers Wes Craven and Sam Raimi, actor David Naughton (An American Werewolf in London), and Carpenter regulars Peter Jason (Prince of Darkness) and George "Buck" Flower (They Live) all make cameos. In the second segment "Hair", middle-aged businessman Richard Coberts (Stacy Keach) can't stop obsessing over his thinning hairline. Even though his girlfriend Megan (80's pop diva Sheena Easton) loves him for who he is, Richard is compelled by persistent late night advertisements to take his case to the Roswell Hair Growth Clinic owned and operated by Dr. Lock (David Warner) and his gorgeous nurse (Deborah Harry). Their mysterious treatment gives Richard the magnificent mane of flowing hair he has wanted for years, but the morning after he notices that his hair has grown another six inches. Even stranger, each strand of hair screams when Richard cuts it off and tends to get angry and bite when the opportunity arises. Special effects make-up giant Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead) cameos as a man walking his dog.
In the final segment "Eye", directed by Hooper, Mark Hamill plays Brent Matthews, a minor league baseball player and top prospect for ascension to the majors until he gets into a car accident trying to avoid hitting a deer one dark and rainy evening and loses his left eye. His baseball career looks to be over until he is offered the chance to recover his full sight through an experimental medical procedure devised by Dr. Lang (50's B-movie stalwart John Agar). The surgery is a success and Brent looks to make a full recovery. When he returns home to his wife Cathy (Iconic British supermodel Twiggy) and a bright future Brent starts to experience intense headaches. If that wasn't bad enough he also has disturbing visions of dead bodies in his backyard, and much worse. The hallucinations even make their way into the Matthews' sex life. Looking for answers behind these visions Brent discovers that the eye used in his transplant was donated by a deceased serial killer. Pretty soon his new eye is driving him to the brink of murderous insanity, and Cathy is right in his crosshairs. Look for Roger Corman as Brent's skeptical doctor and the late character actor Charles Napier (The Blues Brothers, Silence of the Lambs) as his baseball coach.
Initially the brainchild of Billy Brown (a former staff writer for Saturday Night Live who wrote for the show during its tumultuous sixth season) and Dan Angel, Body Bags strived to recapture the ghastly spirit of its directors' early big screen triumphs and the mainstream success of classic horror anthology features such as Trilogy of Terror and the original Creepshow (the latter another union of two giants in the terror tale kingdom - George Romero and Stephen King), but it only manages to get halfway there. At its best it is merely passable entertainment, nothing exceptional. With the talent assembled this could have really been something. Body Bags looks and feels like it was thrown together in a matter of weeks out of boredom, with little attention paid to building up thrills and strong characters. Carpenter and Hooper got themselves a dandy cast including a few names you might not ordinarily find in this kind of enterprise, scraped together a few interesting stories with the potential for generating terror and excitement, and then just let the whole thing collapse on itself even before a frame of film could be shot. Only one of the stories, the Hooper-directed "Eye", has a solid three-act structure and delivers on its promise within the confines of its limited budget. The first two, both directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, barely come close to what Hooper accomplished.
Let's start at the very beginning. As I said before, John Carpenter is one of my all-time favorite directors. At least up until the early 90's the man had a directorial resume that was hard to beat by even the most seasoned professional in the industry: Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, and They Live are all terrific and entertaining features made with intelligence, class, and originality. He may have hit his creative peak towards the end of George H.W. Bush's first and only presidential term, but few directors in their term had the kind of hot streak as Carpenter. But he's not much of an actor. Playing the Coroner he tries to inject some energy and humor in his performance and yet he comes off acting like he's just playing the part as a stand-in for auditioning actors. The Coroner is no Crypt Keeper, boys and ghouls, but at least his emaciated make-up was done by the ever-awesome Rick Baker and is the best part about these wraparound beats. Which takes us into the first segment "The Gas Station". Despite Alex Datcher (Passenger 57) making for an effective and competent heroine she can't help but try to endure a highly derivative stalk-and-slash tale that Carpenter did so much better in Halloween. The endless string of cameos from the director's colleagues and frequent collaborators often had me wondering if I was watching one of John Landis' late period comedies.
"Hair" takes Body Bags briefly into broadly comedic territory, anchored by a characteristically solid lead performance from the great Stacy Keach. Keach can play level-headed as well as he can play borderline insane, and for proof he can balance the two with relative ease check out William Peter Blatty's sorely underrated The Ninth Configuration. "Hair" calls upon Keach to play an insecure man whose vanity leads him to make a decision that will haunt him for all time, and the actor really comes through by making the character seem somewhat justified in his decision. He's not a egotistical prick but rather a typical middle-aged dude struggling to keep the effects of getting old at bay and remain attractive at the same time. Keach's performance is really all that this particular segment has to offer because Carpenter and the writers spend too much on the set-up and not enough on the pay-off. The final twist feels like the punch line to a lousy joke, and when it comes all it lacks is a rim shot. Hooper's story "Eye" has many virtues and is a tense and occasionally depraved little treat. Mark Hamill gives ample evidence that he could have had a great dramatic career far outside the Star Wars universe with a convincing (yet often heavy-handed) portrayal of a man slowly losing his mind for reasons he can't quite understand. Twiggy is surprisingly poignant and sympathetic as his concerned wife, and Hooper milks the tale's potential for maximum shock value with a string of increasingly horrific set pieces. Let's just say that you will never want to see Hamill's bare ass ever again....but then again, why would you?
The graphic gore effects are sparse but well-designed and executed by KNB EFX. They really shine in the final segment though. Carpenter brought to Body Bags his then-current cinematographer of choice Gary B. Kibbe (replacing Dean Cundey, who had photographed Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China among other projects with the director's involvement). Kibbe's sterling work gives Body Bags a bigger look than its modest budget would otherwise indicate. Carpenter teamed up to compose an original music score with Jim Lang, his future partner on the soundtrack to In the Mouth of Madness, and though their efforts hew closer to more rock-driven cues the duo do provide some creepy cues with brooding low tones for the scarier moments of Body Bags.
Body Bags may have been a low-budget production but it was shot on 35mm film so at least the picture was destined to look good in the hands of Shout! Factory. Once more the company didn't disappoint. Despite being shot in the 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio (which must have been rough for Carpenter, who positively swears by the 2.35:1 widescreen A.R.) that is common for television productions back in the day, Body Bags has been resized to 1.78:1 widescreen and digitally scanned in 1080p HD resolution for its Blu-ray debut for reasons unbeknownst to me. The earlier Artisan DVD preserved the movie in its original intended ratio. But the picture here looks pretty damn good. Grain content is high but never to the point of being a distraction. It works if you accept the made-for-TV nature of the project. Colors are bright and the visuals feature some improved detail and texture. Shout! backs up the fine video with a pair of 24-bit English DTS-HD Master Audio tracks in 5.1 and 2.0. Body Bags has never been made available on home video with a 5.1 track so it must have been created especially for this release. Not sure why though, because I could not detect any audible differences in the two audio channels. Music and sound effects come through with decent clarity, but the dialogue often sounds muffled and scratchy. I can forgive that oversight in the sound mix since Carpenter and Hooper didn't have a ton of money and guaranteed theatrical distribution when they made this film. Still, it's a distracting flaw. English subtitles have also been provided.
The bonus features kick off with a new audio commentary divided into three parts. For "The Gas Station" Carpenter is joined by actor Robert Carradine, who has a supporting role in the segment. The director is then joined by leading man Stacy Keach for "Hair". Finally producer Sandy King teams up with moderator Justin Beahm to talk about "Eye". Shame that Tobe Hooper couldn't join them for that last section of the track. Even with the star power in play this commentary is pretty lackluster if you're looking for an in-depth look into the making of Body Bags. King has a good memory of the production and shares plenty of factual information fans will dig on, while Carpenter and his cohorts struggle to remember making the movie while dredging up some fun stories and fond remembrances every so often. If you get bored while watching Body Bags the commentary is good to switch on to raise your interest enough to make it through to the finale.
The all-new documentary featurette "Unzipping Body Bags" (20 minutes) brings back the same participants from the commentary (save for Beahm) to talk about making the film in somewhat greater detail. Though there is occasional overlap in information with the chat track "Unzipping" is a breezy little doc that moves at a decent pace and covers a fair amount of ground. Once again we hear nothing from Hooper about making "Eye", but King and Carpenter remember enough to almost make up for his absence. The featurette mostly covers the casting, production, and the concerns from Showtime executives over its violent content, but stops short of going into the music scoring and creation of the gore effects (some input from the KNB boys would have been very welcome). Between this and the commentary you might learn everything you ever wanted to know about Body Bags, and a few things you never even considered.
A vintage trailer rounds out the disc-based extras. Shout! has also included a DVD copy complete with an anamorphic widescreen presentation of the movie in standard definition and all of the accompanying bonus features.
Being a fan of John Carpenter's movies I was surprised that my low expectations for Body Bags were mostly met. In the pecking order of horror anthology features it's more Tales from the Hood than Tales from the Crypt, but at least it ain't Tales from the Quadead Zone. Better than most of the director's later efforts, Body Bags gets a nice and shiny Blu-ray with a better presentation and extras than it probably deserves. My hat's off to Scream Factory for showing that even the most unloved titles from our great genre directors can still get some decent attention in the right hands