After watching one of the bonus features on Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray release of Body Bags, I learned that John Carpenter and I both have something in common; we both hate horror anthologies. Well, okay, maybe hate is a strong word; it’s more of a general dislike. I mean, yeah, sure; there are a handful of anthologies I enjoy (Black Sabbath, Creepshow, Trilogy of Terror, the recent Little Deaths), but, for the most part, the bite-size scares of anthology films usually resort to rehashes of old clichés, deus ex machina conclusions, or campfire-tale silliness, and as a wise old woman once said, ain’t nobody got time for that.
It’s a combination of this general disinterest in anthology films, as well as the fact that, by the early 1990’s, Carpenter’s output had grown increasingly erratic in terms of quality, that I basically ignored the director’s stab at the genre - 1993’s Body Bags - for more than twenty years.
Originally developed for Showtime as something of a test run for a potential series, Body Bags is a triptych of tales, each meant to show a different “face” of horror (at least, according to producer, Sandy King), and tied together by a wraparound segment called “The Morgue”, with an occasionally clumsy-but-funny Carpenter doing his own version of The Crypt Keeper, playing an undead mortician who swigs formaldehyde and cracks wise at the expense of the recently deceased.
First up, we get “The Gas Station”, which opens with the beautiful Anne (Alex Datcher) being dropped off for her first night of work at a remote gas station by her friend as the radio tells the tale of a mad killer on the loose in Haddonfield (yes, that Haddonfield). Anne meets the genial Bill (Robert Carradine), who gives her a brief tour of the workplace before leaving her for the night, whereupon Anne has encounters with all manner of characters, including a lecherous lady’s man (Wes Craven), a bizarre bum (George ‘Buck’ Flower), a rowdy drunk couple (Peter Jason and Molly Cheek), and a handsome, seemingly sane Pete (David Naughton), with whom Anne gets so caught up in flirting that she forgets to give him his credit card.
Of course, all of these characters are introduced to muddy the waters with red herrings but, sadly, it’s all for naught as, when the first victim is discovered by Anne, so, too, is the identity of the killer, and, from there on out, Anne fights off her attacker in gory, semi-comical fashion. It’s fun in the aforementioned campfire tale way, but it’s also a letdown as the first half of this episode sees Carpenter generating a truly genuine sense of tension and unease, and, had he just been more judicious in the reveal of the killer’s identity, The Gas Station could have been a great piece of suspense filmmaking rather than merely serviceable filler. The Sam Raimi cameo is killer, though.
Carpenter returns to helm the film’s second tale, “Hair”, which takes us into comedic Creepshow-style territory, with Stacy Keach starring as Richard Coberts, a man obsessed with his thinning hair. Despite the assurances of his girlfriend, Megan (played by Scottish songstress, Sheena Easton), Richard is simply inconsolable, resorting to gimmicks like greasy scalp paint and obvious hair pieces until an advertisement for an experimental hair-replacement technique brings him into the care of Dr. Lock (David Warner) and his extremely…um…friendly nurse (Deborah Harry). Using Lock’s simple treatment, Richard awakens the next morning with a full head of long, lustrous hair that emboldens him and makes the ladies swoon, but his newfound confidence is shaken when he begins to experience the experimental treatment’s side effects.
“Hair” is definitely played for laughs, and it succeeds in its merging of humor, horror, and light sci-fi, but the real reason to watch this is for Keach and his batshit-insane performance. Outside of Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, I can’t recall seeing the once-ubiquitous actor more over-the-top and outrageous than he is here, and it’s a riot.
The last tale in the trio is “Eye”, directed by Tobe Hooper, and starring Mark Hamill as Brent Matthews; an aging triple-A baseball player whose recent spate of success has him in line for a shot in the big leagues. That is, until a car accident results in him losing his left eye, and, summarily, all hopes of ever playing baseball again. When a surgeon (John Agar) offers Brent the chance to take part in an experimental eye transplant, he and his wife, Cathy (Twiggy) are hopeful. When the operation proves to be a success, the Matthews family is jubilant, but it isn’t long before Brent begins to experience bizarre mood shifts and horrifying visions, made all the worse when the truth behind the man responsible for his donor eye is revealed.
Eye is easily the darkest and most vicious short in the collection, with buckets of gore and a squirm-inducing finale that recalls a particularly brutal sequence in Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Tonally, it seems a bit out of step with the first two installments, but, as a representative of “psychological horror” it does its job with gory aplomb, and Hamill is a delight as always. Also, watch for a hysterically monotone cameo by Roger Corman.
Depending on whom you believe, either Showtime opted not to take the concept to series, or Carpenter and King bowed out when the network offered to make the series under the condition that production be moved from Carpenter’s beloved (and star-packed) Southern California to cost-efficient Canada. In any event, Body Bags proved to be a little-seen one-shot that’s had a remarkably quiet life on video and DVD in the two decades since it aired.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release of the film presents Body Bags in a 1.78:1 transfer that is obviously not how the film was originally aired back in 1993 as, at that time, made-for-television programs were shot with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio in mind. That being said, I didn’t notice any scenes in which the image appeared “off”. In terms of quality, the image is quite nice, with a vibrant, and exceptionally detailed picture, with only a slight, omnipresent grain that actually lends the film a more cinematic quality.
The two audio options, a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track, as well as a 2.0 Master Audio track both sounded especially deep in terms of bass to me, and I felt like highs were really limited in both tracks. Dialogue sounded crisp and high in the mix, but the score and sound effects just didn’t have the fidelity I’m used to with Blu-ray.
While this is a Collector’s Edition release, this is one of the first Scream Factory offerings that I’ve felt somewhat skimps in terms of extras. We get a single commentary track broken into three segments, with Carpenter and Robert Carradine having a grand old time chatting it up during “The Gas Station, while Carpenter and Keach comment on “Hair”, and producer (and Carpenter’s wife), Sandy King is joined by Justin Beahm for “Eye”.
We also get a twenty minute featurette entitled Unzipping Body Bags (HD), which features interviews with Carpenter, King, Keach, and Carradine, and also offers some nice tidbits on the development process, as well as King and Carpenter’s take on Showtime’s offer to make the series, and why they opted not to take part. It’s worth watching for the bit where Carpenter struggles to recall a certain blockbuster director’s name.
Rounding out the extras is the film’s trailer (HD) and a DVD copy.
Body Bags is an uneven-yet-entertaining collection of somewhat pedestrian horror tales elevated by the talent assembled by King and Carpenter, as well as impressive production values that belie the film’s made-for-television origins. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release looks exceptional, but I found the audio to be a bit on the muddled side, and, I was also surprised by the lack of extras considering the company’s track record with their Collector’s Edition releases.