Wednesday, December 11, 2013

John Carpenter's Body Bags

John Carpenter’s Body Bags (1993)
Dir. John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper
Written by Dan Angel, Billy Brown
With … deep breath … JohnCarpenterTobeHooperTomArnoldAlexDatcherRobertCarradineDavidNaughtonSamRaimiWesCravenStaceyKeatchSheenaEastonDavidWarnerDebbieHarryMarkHamillTwiggyRogerCormanCharlesNapier

So, sometime in the 90’s, John Carpenter of “Being John Fucking Carpenter” fame decided to pitch Showtime network the idea for a horror anthology series, kind of his take on Tales From The Crypt. Each segment would begin with Carpenter himself (in full-on fright wig and teeth) as a morgue worker/crypt keeper who would make some jokes and tell the story of how his most recent “guests” came to end up at the business end of a body bag. Showtime thought that sounded a little too much like something that would lead to a happier world, but they did allow three episodes to be produced, which then got stitched together into a thoroughly entertaining horror anthology film. I was worried that the early-90s TV production credit would blunt Carpenter’s usual command of cinema, but no, this looks pretty good, maybe even more expensive-looking than your typical episodic anthology horror effort. Combined with a veritable who’s who list of actors you want to see in horror movies and an avalanche of amusing cameos, it seems completely inexplicable to me that this one isn’t better-remembered. Oh well, more for me to love.

The first segment here involves a young lady (Alex Datcher) working her first shift at her new job as a gas station attendant in killer-ridden Haddonfield, Illinois. It’s a night shift, and AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and SLEEPING CAR alumni David Naughton is a flirtatious customer, so it begins with kind of a low-key, slacker comedy vibe and a series of funny cameos (Wes Craven as “Pasty-faced Man”). But gradually, a quiet tension starts to build, as Carpenter (who directed the first two segments) allows the silent, isolated atmosphere of working in a tiny lighted box in the middle of a vast darkness to sink in. Also, there may be a killer loose, should have mentioned that before.

This segment feels like classic Carpenter, with a confident pace, subtly menacing cinematography, and murmuring electronic score. But I like it most because it has a distinct and unusual working-class charm that you don’t get to see in many movies. How many times does a (female!) gas-station attendant get to be the star? Too rarely, I think. It helps that Alex Datcher has a genuine charm to her that helps you forget that she’s way too pretty to be working this job. Guess she didn’t go on to many more good roles like this (she’s 11th-billed in JURY DUTY, after a chihuahua named “Gizmo”) but between Carpenter’s expert direction and her immensely likable performance, this segment really shines.

Datcher, suddenly coming to the horrible realization that she'll be in a Paulie Shore movie by the decade's end.

Another thing that shines? Stacy Keach’s noggin, through his thinning hairline. This is a problem for the insecure businessman played by Keach in the second segment, which starts out as mere annoyance and gradually becomes an obsession. Even though his girlfriend Megan (Sheena Easton, Scottish pop star and female vocalist for Prince’s “You U Got the Look”) isn’t concerned about his burgeoning testosterone-induced chrome dome, he decides to seek the assistance of sinister hair-transplant magnate David Warner and his creepy nurse, Debbie Harry. 

This is still Carpenter directing, but the broad comedy of this premise requires a different approach from the first segment, something with a cheekier tone and a more exotic hook. Fortunately, everyone is up to the task; Keach manages the rare feat of making an insecure character funny and appealing, Carpenter gives us stop-motion (SPOILER) miniature alien snakes that live in your hair, David Warner and Blondie are memorable villains, we get to find out how Stacy Keach would have looked if he’d been cast as Chewbacca, and the whole thing is cheerfully strange and funny. I was a little disappointed to find that it is not (as I first surmised) the genesis of the Simpson’s Halloween segment Hell Toupee, but oh well, maybe they can do a parody of this one some other year. Good stuff.

Wikipedia describes this as a "...stallion-style full set of hair"

Unfortunately, Tobe Hooper --significantly past his prime and just a few years away from unapologetic crap like THE MANGLER-- finishes things off with his underwhelming possessed-eyeball segment (hey, now that I think about it maybe Hell Toupee is based on this one!). It’s not a complete loss, though, and I’ll tell you why using only two words: Mark Hamill. Yes kids, Cocknocker from JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK is here, still under the mistaken impression that he’s an actor who could do something like play a mustachio’d baseball player with a thick Southern accent, which is, indeed, what he tries to do. I love Mark Hamill and would happily watch him play any part he desires, but wow, the ridiculousness of this performance is matched only by how hard he’s trying. His accent is reasonably consistent, but unfortunately it sounds like the only Southern accent he’s ever heard is Blanche Dubois. Meaning that at no time is he ever anything less than absolutely howlingly funny.

Still better than he got in THE GUYVER

That would be a good thing if this segment felt even a little intentionally campy and ironic, but unfortunately unlike the other two segments this one is depressingly cheerless about it’s aspirations to a dark, disturbing tone that just absolutely is not happening. Hamill is a minor league star scouted by the pros, but just as his dreams are coming true an auto accident costs him his eye, and, likely, his career. He falls into despair, until Dr. Roger Corman offers him a chance to implant a new eye -- one which came from a diabolical serial killer! Predictably, Hamill (who now has one brown eye) starts getting some decidedly Dark Jedi urges, starts to see dead people. You know the routine. In fact, you know it well enough that this segment feels pretty empty except for Hamill’s ludicrously intense gay Southern Mario Brother performance. They want you to take this seriously, but there’s just nothing to see; every single beat is exactly what you expect from the “possessed [blank] takes over your mind” genre. No new angles whatsoever, no new gimmicks, nothing even mildly imaginative. And because it’s so grim about everything there isn’t much else to be enjoyed in a non-ironic way. Then again, surely they had to know that casting Twiggy as Hamill’s wife is at least a little funny. Oh yeah, did I mention a sex scene? Full on Hamill ass? In my opinion, there are not too many movies where a fully naked Mark Hamill with different-colored eyes, a mustache, and a gay Southern drawl that would make Tennessee Williams blush gets possessed by a serial killer after Roger Corman gives him a new eye and makes violent, above-the-covers love to 60’s fashion icon Twiggy. So you gotta be greatful for that, at least.

OK, so the last segment’s a little clunky, but the surprising thing about this anthology is that the best part may be Carpenter’s interludes as the Coroner/Host. It’s by far the most acting I’ve ever seen the guy do, and you know, it turns out he’s really good. In contrast to his somewhat staid real-life persona, he’s all wild-eyed mania in this role, selling it with enough energy and character that you don’t mind its derivative nature and goofy puns. It really makes you wish this concept had gotten picked up as a series, and you could look forward to seeing John Carpenter with crazy eyes and bad teeth telling even worse jokes every week. I think it’s not unreasonable to suggest that had this happened, we could easily have generated sufficient goodwill among mankind to completely avoid the entire Bush presidency, and possibly even the Twilight sequels. So let’s not make that mistake again, America: go out and watch BODY BAGS, for the good of the future.


  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: No, you know it's coming though.
  • MORE (PETER) CUSHING FOR THE PUSHING? No, he died in 1994.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Mark Hamill, Debbie Harry, Twiggy
  • BOOBIES: No, don't think so.
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: Yes, a funny bit of severed heads, also an eye.
  • ENTRAILS? Yes, in the morgue
  • CURSES: No, no I guess not.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High, I think, out of print and seemingly little remembered.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: Came in halfway through, said "I puked in the neighbor's yard" and passed out. I think she saw Mark Hamill, though.

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