‘Body Bags’ Gives Us John Carpenter at His Funniest

[12 November 2013]

By J.C. Macek III

Tales from the Carpenter Side

In the early ‘90s the Showtime Network sought out a property that might replicate (or, at least, cash in on) the successes of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt (1989 – 1996). While the HBO series had a veritable pantheon of big-name producer, guest stars and directors, Showtime had the idea of tapping a bona-fide horror master (or two) for their proposed series and thus John Carpenter presents Body Bags was greenlit.

Unfortunately, the series itself never came to be. With both Showtime and John Carpenter himself uncertain of whether to proceed with a full-fledged TV show, the three half-hour episodes (two directed by Carpenter, one by Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper) were reformatted into one feature length film (à la 1990’s Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) with wraparound host segments starring Carpenter himself. Could a series have worked?

In truth, Tales from the Crypt is written all over this anthology film and comparisons between the two would have been both fair and inevitable. Instead of the anamatronic puppet host known as “The Crypt Keeper”, Carpenter stars as “The Coroner”, an almost equally sardonic and punning humorously creepy master of ceremonies who introduces each story by opening a body bag or morgue drawer to reveal the terror tale’s victim. This wraparound segment (appropriately entitled “The Morgue”) also features cameo appearances by Tobe Hooper and Tom Arnold as morgue workers (already competing with The Crypt’ celebrity guest star quotient).

The episodes themselves similarly follow the other show’s balance between humor and horror, starting with the very first entry, “The Gas Station”. Alex Datcher plays a young college student who takes a night job at a gas station in Haddonfield, Illinois, the setting for Carpenter’s own Halloween. Also like Halloween, a serial killer has recently escaped a mental institution and may be headed back home to roost.

While the premise may sound serious enough, the execution reveals Carpenter at his most playful. Before the inevitable serial killer reveals himself (if he wasn’t heading to the gas station, obviously the segment wouldn’t be called “The Gas Station”) we see the faces of directors Wes Craven and Sam Raimi as well as actors George Buck Flower and David Naughton. While Carpenter embraces his silly side for “The Gas Station” (and, in fact, Body Bags on the whole), that isn’t to say that he doesn’t take his job as director seriously.

Every frame, from the bloodiest to the most quiet is handled skillfully and with every detail attended to by Carpenter’s skilled eye. The pavement is soaking wet, the station’s booth in just the right amount of disarray, the visual clues handled with just the right humorous subtlety. Nor is “The Gas Station” a straight comedy. This installment is both suspenseful and startling as it leads to its gory final act.

Richard Coberts grows out his

Richard Coberts grows out his “hair”

After another funny-cum-creepy narration interlude, Carpenter returns as the director of “Hair”, featuring a balding Stacy Keach as Richard Coberts, a man who is remarkably horrified to be, in fact, Stacy Keach while he’s balding. Richard’s girlfriend (played by Sheena Easton) seems remarkably unperturbed by her beau’s receding hairline, but Richard is determined to try anything to not be bald. Thus, he answers an ad for a miracle hair transplant operation to be performed by the appropriately named Doctor Lock (David Warner).  The results are predictably weird and Richard’s new “do” is less “Fabio” than it is “Medusa”.

Carpenter’s attention to detail (as both director and musical composer) is still seen in “Hair”, but this second story closely resembles the “Quitters, Inc.” installment of Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye and the tongue-in-cheek performances make for a much more silly than scary installment. On the other hand, the premise itself is as creepy as it gets and the CGI follicles are very good for the day (especially considering this episode’s creation a mere two years after Terminator 2: Judgement Day dragged computer animation into the mainstream).

Mark Hamill's character shows off his new

Mark Hamill’s character shows off his new “eye”

The final installment in the anthology film is “Eye” featuring an incongruously Southern Accented Mark Hamill as a professional baseball player who loses an eye in a serious car accident. Much as in the previous installment, our protagonist jumps at the chance for a surgical transplant to replace his lost glory (and hopefully save is career). While the new eye works well, it is soon revealed to be the donor organ of a serial killer whose demented visions soon invade the thoughts and actions of the erstwhile Luke Skywalker himself, much to the chagrin of his lovely wife (played by model Twiggy).

While “Eye” is fun to watch (no pun intended), this final installment bears far too many similarities to “Hair”, which it immediately follows, right on down to the farcical performance of a cameo actor as the transplanting doctor (this time fellow horror master Roger Corman picks up the scalpel). That said, this is a rare and weird performance by Mark Hamill, looking and sounding like you’ve never seen him before. Had the Body Bags series been picked up and “Eye” placed somewhere less proximate to John Carpenter’s “Hair”, the similarities might not be so very obvious, however, taken for all with all, “Eye” is a fun (and funny) final entry into this horrific anthology.

The closing scenes from “The Morgue” both reveal the potential of a Carpenter (as Coroner) hosted series and further illustrate the similarities to Tales from the Crypt. To be sure, this is another fun moment from a fun (and bloodily violent) TV movie, but one can easily see the exact same scene acted out by the Crypt Keeper.

The Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray’s bonus features include commentary by Carpenter on both “The Gas Station” and “Hair” (with Robert Carradine and Stacy Keach, respectively) and a producer’s commentary on “Eye” (without Hooper’s contribution). The disc also includes the original trailer and a new featurette-length documentary entitled Unzipping Body Bags which provides an in-depth history of the show that never was with actor interviews as well as revelations by producers Sandy King and John Carpenter himself.

Most Carpenter fans can tell you that the director has had his ups and downs throughout his career and while this fun film may not be Carpenter’s absolute best, the anthology debuted in between his films Memoirs of an Invisible Man and In the Mouth of Madness (prior to his later misfires like Escape from L.A. and Ghosts of Mars). Over a decade later, Carpenter marked his career upswing with two entries into a later Showtime series called Masters of Horror (which also featured a single contribution by Tobe Hooper).

Stretching back to the series that could have been, it’s easy to see why Body Bags was something of a clone of Tales from the Crypt. But as a standalone film, Body Bags is Carpenter at his funniest, as director, composer and in his rare appearance as a lead actor.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/176203-body-bags-collectors-edition/