John Carpenter gives the HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT a run for his money with the Showtime terror anthology BODY BAGS, out on Blu-ray/DVD combo (uncut for the first time stateside) as part of Shout! Factory’s “Scream Factory” line.
Director Carpenter himself appears onscreen in wraparound segments as “The Coroner” – made up by Rick Baker (KING KONG) – spouting groaners (“What a bunch of stiffs!”) and swinging viscera at the camera (Tom Arnold and Tobe Hooper make cameo appearances during the closing segment). It’s a sort of sub-“Crypt Keeper” spiel, but the meat of the film is its grislier takes on black-humored TALES FROM THE CRYPT/TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE-esque stories. The first of the two Carpenter-directed episodes is “The Gas Station”, which chronicles psychology student Anne’s (Alex Datcher, NETHERWORLD) first night on the graveyard shift at a remote filling station while the nearby town of Haddonfield (presumably Illinois) is being terrorized by a serial killer of young women. It’s a minimalistic yet tense mini-slasher film that’s heavier on jump scares – which certainly work – than gore effects. The short is stuffed with quirky if ineffective cameos by directors Wes Craven and Sam Raimi, Carpenter-regulars Peter Jason (PRINCE OF DARKNESS) and George “Buck” Flower (VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED), while Robert Carradine (MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH) and David Naughton (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) are almost unrecognizable in their larger roles.
Carpenter also directed the more farcical sci-fi-oriented “Hair” in which Stacey Keach (SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD) plays bachelor Richard Coberts – presumably a reference to CHRISTINE producer Richard Kobritz (who already had a character directly named after him in THE FOG) – subconscious of his thinning hair (during a sad period in American life where there were lots of guys walking around with “Fabio” hair). After unsuccessfully trying all manner of products (including “Extract of Lamb Fetus”) as well as his girlfriend’s stylist (who levels with him, telling him “You’re heading for Egg City, in Chrome Dome County, in the state of Cue Ball!”), Richard decides to look into the infomercial of Dr. Lock (David Warner, TIME AFTER TIME) – it doesn’t seem any different than some of the hair restoration commercials on TV now, but maybe they weren’t so prevalent then (or perhaps it’s a commentary on all of these miracle cures) whose treatment really gets under the skin. Richard goes with the “stallion” profile and wakes up the next morning with a glorious head of hair (and a tickle in his throat). His increased confidence and virility just might be psychological (in this case), but they are short-lived since his hair keeps growing (and not in the right places) and seems to have a life of its own. After all: what can one expect from a place called “Roswell Hair Laboratories”? “Hair” would pretty much be a waste of time if not for Keach’s central performance (the usually dependable Warner is sleepwalking through his dialogue, and Blondie singer Deborah Harry’s casting is just as curious as that of Sheena Easton for Richard’s girlfriend); indeed, Carpenter mentions on the commentary track that the performance-driven nature of the story made his job easier. Besides KNB’s prosthetic effects appliances – effects artist Greg Nicotero (DAY OF THE DEAD) also has a cameo – Jim Danforth (EQUINOX) contributes some stop motion animation that’s better than some of the CGI seen in films of this period and budget. Model Kim Alexis also pops up to whip her hair around for an envious Richard.
Tobe Hooper (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) helmed the final tale “Eye”, and it is predictable if you already seen any variation on “The Hands of Orlac” but it’s also the film’s grisliest story and a quite fitting closing act. Aging ball player Brett Matthews (Mark Hamill, BLACK MAGIC WOMAN) loses his pitching eye in a road accident on a rainy night. He is approached by Dr. Lang (John Agar, TARANTULA) who has successfully transplanted eyes from one human to another. Brett agrees to the treatment which is a seeming success, but – as expected in any horror movie with a transplant theme – he becomes prey to nightmarish visions of abuse and violent death, and his own bizarre behavior begins to frighten his pregnant wife (model Twiggy, THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS). Dr. Lang reluctantly tells him the identity of the eye donor (and his fate), and Brett discovers that his visions are very real and the donor’s personality is taking him over. “Eye” is not remotely original, but Hooper takes it in some very disturbing directions – especially for television, even for Showtime in the 1990s – with a sexual bent that is even more unpleasant. The heavy use of Biblical quotations and the protagonist’s religious background (not quite as fanatical as Hamill’s character in Carpenter’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED) should also have the viewer correctly anticipating the ending (“And if thine eye offend thee…”). Roger Corman briefly Brett’s regular physician, Charles Napier (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) plays his team’s coach, and Sean McClory (THE QUIET MAN) is his minister.
BODY BAGS isn’t one of Carpenter’s better works (although it’s certainly one of Hooper’s better ones from this period), but watching it twenty years or so after first seeing it in heavily cut form on network television has the same effect of recently revisiting its contemporaries TALES FROM THE CRYPT and TALES FROM THE DARK SIDE on DVD: horror meant to scare rather than serve as the backdrop to the soap opera antics of a bunch of CW actors. The stories all have a ring of over familiarity to them that leaves the viewer feeling like it was more of an opportunity for the directors to stretch their directorial muscles (on the commentary track, Carpenter describes “The Gas Station” as giving him the opportunity to play with dolly and point of view shots) rather than unleashing something on their audience. Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS was in production at the time and BODY BAGS featured several of the same collaborators including director of photography Gary Kibbe (THEY LIVE), editor Edward A. Warschilka (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA), co-composer Jim Lang, as well as producer Sandy King (also Carpenter’s wife who first worked with him as script supervisor on STARMAN), while production designer Daniel Lomino had worked with Carpenter on CHRISTINE, STARMAN, PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE.
BODY BAGS was released on tape and laserdisc by Republic Pictures – VHS distributor of other Showtime product like RED SHOE DIARIES – and on DVD in 2000 by Artisan Entertainment. These releases presented the film in its fullscreen television framing, but also in its 91 minute R-rated edit (even in this form, the film was deemed too violent to play on cable). The 94 minute uncut version has been available on import releases for years, and Scream Factory’s 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC widescreen Blu-ray (and 16:9 DVD) mark the stateside debut of the full-strength edition. The production seems to have allowed for theatrical projection abroad, with the 1.78:1 framing ideal for the most part (although the receding hairlines of Keach and Carpenter do graze the top of the frame); and comparison with the fullscreen version reveals the expected loss at the top and bottom of the frame as well as slight addition to the periphery suggesting that the fullscreen transfers were slightly zoomed in. Both the Blu-ray and the 16:9 DVD are more vividly colored than the older master and of course more detailed (although a spray of blood at the end of “The Gas Station” looks a bit pink, although the shot is missing in its entirety in the R-rated version). The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 upmix and original 2.0 stereo tracks are well-detailed (starting with the revving of Carpenter’s chainsaw during the opening logo, Jim Lang’s guitar, and the buzzing of the gas station’s fluorescent lights). Optional English SDH subtitles are also included.
The film can also be viewed with an audio commentary by director John Carpenter, producer Sandy King, and actors Stacy Keach and Robert Carradine. Carpenter takes on the host segments alone, but is joined by Carradine on “The Gas Station”. Carpenter discusses the challenge of working out as many camera setups as possible inside the cramped location to vary the look. Carpenter does misremember Naughton’s memorable horror role (or “fame to claim”) as AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS. Carpenter becomes most engaged while discussing Carradine’s earlier work with John Wayne (as well as Jason’s work with The Duke). Carpenter is joined by Keach on “Hair” (actually Keach joins him during the morgue intro in which Carpenter reveals that the big-bosomed corpse in one of the morgue drawers was not a prosthetic creation but a model provided to the production by Ron Jeremy). Keach – who lost his hair at an early age – recalls his parents urging him to wear his hairpiece all the time or he wouldn’t get hired (he mentions that his comb-over look on the sitcom TITUS was based on his “styled” look here). Both musicians, Carpenter and Keach even talk about getting together and jamming sometime. Carpenter bows out of the “Eye” discussion, which is carried on by Sandy King (who worked hard to get a reticent Hooper to take on the material) and moderator Justin Beahm (director of some of Scream Factory’s John Carpenter-related extras). This is the most informative discussion not only for the episode itself but for the whole film since Beahm asks some questions about “The Gas Station” and “Hair”. Carpenter visited the set occasionally but stayed out of Hooper’s way while King was on the set the entire time. King reveals that they passed on doing BODY BAGS as a series because it would have to be shot in Canada, making it difficult to fly in actors and filmmakers for cameo appearances (Carpenter also says earlier that Showtime wasn’t willing to spend a sufficient amount of money). Beahm also asks about the R-rated and unrated versions and the intended aspect ratio (King says that they shot for widescreen and protected for fullscreen because of secondary viewing mediums like theatrical in other countries). Beahm also points out that Carpenter returned Corman’s favor of a cameo with an appearance in SILENCE OF THE HAMS (1994).
Also included is the featurette "Unzipping Body Bags" (20:06) which includes contributions from Carpenter, King (who says writers’ agents tend to bring scripts to her first if they think Carpenter might hate them), Carradine, and Keach. Carpenter and King felt that anthologies were not doing well as films but might work for television, and Carpenter was prepared to reprise his role as “The Coroner” if it spun off into a series. Carpenter also mentions that Hooper wanted to do “Hair” originally, but he felt that Hooper was capable of bringing the right ferocity to “Eye”. King talks about meeting Carpenter who had his own regular crew going back to HALLOWEEN, while she had previously worked with Carradine, Keach, and Peter Jason, and reflects on the film’s “back seat casting”. Carpenter also recalls being made up by a caffeinated Rick Baker, and felt that the make-up helped him feel less inhibited as an actor while simultaneously avoiding going into BEETLEJUICE mode (besides the filmmakers doing cameos in the film, he also asked Clive Barker who was busy working on CANDYMAN). Carradine recalls the night shoots in the desolate location for “The Gas Station” (and mentions that Carpenter and cinematographer Kibbe were constantly wetting down the pavement to reflect as much ambient light as possible), recalls working with Datcher, and being apprehensive about some of the stunts. There’s some overlap from the commentary with Keach, who was also brought on by King (who describes him as “a secret loon”), talks about his real-life concerns about his hair and falling asleep during the make-up sessions. Carpenter and King also discuss some of the other cameo actors (including Tom Arnold who was excited to do a scene with Hooper). A trailer for the film (1:19) is also included as well. (Eric Cotenas)
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