Halloween Retro 101: Body Bags

In 1993, director John Carpenter attempted to duplicate the success of HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” by creating his own anthology series for Showtime, entitled Body Bags. The first three segments were filmed, before Showtime passed on the project altogether. John Carpenter took the footage and turned it into the anthology film that we have today.

Body Bags tells three morbid tales, each one of them introduced by a character named The Coroner – played by John Carpenter himself – who is nothing more than Body Bags’ answer to The Cryptkeeper. The Coroner is a sinfully ugly piece of work, with greasy hair, bad teeth, and a fondness for swilling down formaldehyde in martini glasses. The Coroner will remind many people of Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice, and this is because John Carpenter drew inspiration from this particular performance. The Coroner roams around the morgue, slicing up bodies and desecrating their remains for fun. He isn’t particularly concerned about the bodies that have turned up as a result of natural death. No, he’s interested in the gritty stuff – the mangled remains inside of the body bags, and the gory details of how they came to be that way. As each bag is unzipped, a new story unfolds.

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The first story, entitled “The Gas Station”, concerns a young woman, Anne, who is dropped off at a remote gas station by her best friend in the middle of the night. It is her first night on the job, and she is quite nervous. However, her fears are put to rest when she is introduced to the seemingly friendly gas station attendant, a socially awkward little man named Bill (Robert Carradine). His shift is up, but before he leaves, he makes sure that Anne is familiar with the territory. Afterwards, he drives off, leaving her by herself in the lone station.

The radio informs listeners that there is a serial killer on the loose, and that several victims have been found horribly mangled. Of course, Anne is creeped out, but she tends to her job as if she is going to be just fine. A few creepy customers come by to fill up their tanks, including a pervy drunkard played by none other than Wes Craven. Later that night, Anne allows a homeless man to use one of the public restrooms. After several moments, Anne becomes worried when the man doesn’t return with the key. She searches the premises, only to find his dead body.

It soon becomes apparent that the killer is on the loose, and that Anne may be his next victim.

This is definitely one of the strongest segments. John Carpenter directs, and there are several nods to Halloween throughout. Carpenter has a gift at capturing the perfect atmosphere for a horror film, and he sets the proper mood early on. Robert Carradine and Alex Datcher are both superb in their roles as Anne and Bill.

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The next segment is entitled “Hair”, and is directed by John Carpenter. It is about a man named Richard, played by Stacy Keach, who has become obsessed with the fact that his hair is thinning. His girlfriend, Megan (Sheena Easton), insists that she loves him just the way that she is. She doesn’t care about the fact that he is nearly bald. However, vanity gets the best of Richard, and he ultimately seeks help and finds it in the office of Dr. Lock (David Warner) who gives him an overnight cure for his problem. The next morning, Richard wakes up with a head full of long, silky black hair. He rejoices and immediately runs home to show his girlfriend. Inexplicably turned on, Megan insists that they have sex right then and there.

The next morning, Richard finds that he doesn’t feel so well, and that his hair has grown six inches. He goes to the barber to get a touch up, but it is no use, as the hair grows right back. Later, he goes home to find that the hair has grown all over his face. When he grabs a pair of scissors and cuts it, he hears a faint scream, and the clippings of hair fall to the ground and scurry away like little baby snakes. He returns to the office of Dr. Lock and demands an explanation.

The inevitable twist ending will leave you going, “Eh.”

It goes without saying that “Hair” is the weakest of the three segments, although both Stacy Keach and David Warner are clearly having a blast. Their performances make the whole thing worthwhile, so please, do not skip over this one.

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The third and final – and best – segment is entitled “Eye”. It is directed by Tobe Hooper, and is about a successful baseball player named Brent (played by Mark Hamill, a.k.a Luke Skywalker) who loses his right eye after a car accident. Brent is a Christian who places his faith in God, hoping that a cure will be found. As luck would have it, a doctor arrives on the scene, who explains that there is a solution to Brent’s problem. It is an experimental surgery involving an eye transplant. Brent accepts immediately, as he wants to play ball again.

Brent never inquires about the previous owner of the eye. This is a decision that he will live to regret.

When the surgery proves to be successful and Brent regains his sight, he is dismissed from the hospital. All seems well, except for the fact that Brent’s wife refuses to make love to him now that he has the new eye. She needs some time to get used to it. Sexually frustrated and suffering from severe migraines, Brent begins to have wild hallucinations involving dead bodies rising out of the ground. He has a flashback of a mother burning her child with a cigarette butt, and another of a bloody arm sticking out of the garbage disposal. Later, when his wife finally agrees to make love to him, he becomes violent and bites her in the shoulder. His temperament becomes increasingly sour. He goes back to the hospital, and asks the doctor where the eye came from. The doctor gives him a name.

Brent takes off to the library to do some research, and finds that the eye belonged to a convicted serial killer who was executed in the gas chamber. The material that he finds serves to explain the disturbing visions. All is not well with Brent. Aside from inheriting the killer’s eye, he seems to have taken on his personality as well.

The finale of “Eye” is intense and squirm inducing. Mark Hamill does an excellent job as Brent, jumping into the dark role with complete fearlessness. I haven’t seen much of Tobe Hooper’s work, but this is by far one of his greatest achievements as a director.  Also, it is worth nothing that the great Roger Corman makes a special guest appearance as a doctor!

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As per usual, John Carpenter brings his multiple talents to the forefront in Body Bags. Not only does he act and direct two whole segments, but he composes and conducts the synth-happy score as well, and yes, it is awesome. It is a shame that Body Bags managed to slip through the cracks at Showtime. At least we have this film to give us a glimpse of what could have been, and it’s not all that bad. I can assure you that if you give in to it, you’ll have a great time – especially those of us who love horror anthologies. I know that I do!

Shout Factory will release Body Bags in a Blu-ray/DVD combo package on November 12, 2013. I’ve only seen the film once, but I can tell you that the transfer looks fantastic. Shout Factory is well-known for using the best source materials available, and this Blu-ray serves as further proof of that. The audio sounds great, too. Dialogue comes in loud and clear, and John Carpenter’s score gets a chance to shine. Special features include three commentaries, a retrospective entitled “Unzipping Body Bags”, and a theatrical trailer.

You can purchase a copy of Body Bags here at Amazon.com.

 

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