Sold on a Slab
John Carpenter masterminded many an oddity during his directorial heyday, but 1993's Body Bags is perhaps his strangest experiment. For one, it's the maestro's sole foray into anthology filmmaking, long after contemporaries like George Romero and Joe Dante tried their hands at it in the '80s. But above all, Body Bags stands out for Carpenter's rare acting appearance, as he serves as no less than emcee for this three-act milieu of murder. Though it suffers from a number of the shortcomings that usually plague portmanteau presentations, this flick has more spark than the norm, and fans are likely to get a kick out of its nifty new Blu-ray restoration, courtesy of the Scream Factory gang.
In a role that owes more than a little to a certain wisecracking cryptkeeper, Carpenter plays a ghoulish coroner presiding over a morgue fully-stocked with the dearly departed. But sick of his customers having perished due to natural causes, our host instead regales us with three stories of sorry souls who ended up on his slab through particularly nasty means. In "The Gas Station," a college student (Alex Datcher) on her first night manning the pumps alone finds herself targeted by a local serial killer. Mike Hammer's Stacy Keach headlines "Hair" as a self-conscious dude whose desire to restore his thinning locks leads to terrifying results. And the darkest segment of all has been saved for last, as "Eye" carries us out with Mark Hamill as a baseball player whose ocular transplant causes him to be possessed by a madman's spirit.
The reason why a lot of anthology horror movies fall short is because almost all of their stories have the exact same set-up. Let's face it, if you've seen one fake-out climax proceeded by an ironic twist ending, you've seen 'em all. Body Bags isn't completely immune from this ailment itself, but at least it makes an effort to ward off as many symptoms as it can. To start, there are only three segments (the first two directed by Carpenter, the third by Tobe Hooper), so there's more room to develop their conceits without having to blitz through cliches. It also helps that each story has a distinct flavor to help it stand out in the line-up; the first one is a classic stalk-and-slash scenario, the second focuses on satire with a sci-fi tinge, and the third brings a brutal supernatural edge to the table. Every vignette boasts something engaging about it, and should all else fail, the movie entertains you with a game of Horror Who's Who, featuring cameos from genre stalwarts like Wes Craven, Roger Corman, Sam Raimi, and more.
True, Body Bags isn't a completely hokiness-free zone. While it's a small miracle that you can tell the shorts apart, they're still a little on the silly side and relatively easy to call. The unpolished writing can also do quite a number on the actors sometimes; in particular, "Eye" has a static shot of Hamill stiffly reading from a computer screen for a solid minute or two. "The Gas Station" has the better luck of the bunch, being as short, sweet, and suspenseful in structure as it is, although its brothers have their high points. Keach is obviously having fun with his character's obsessive insecurity, and Hamill's performance reaches some rather frightening heights toward the end of his segment. But the movie's show-stealer award undoubtedly belongs to Carpenter's coroner, a veritable pun machine that the man behind Halloween plays with mischievous charisma. He's a hoot and a half, and had Showtime been willing to pony up the cash to expand this movie into a proper series, I would've had no problem with Carpenter assuming hosting duties.
I wouldn't go so far as to deem Body Bags a gem unjustly scorned by the moviegoing world at large, but it was a fun little ditty when trying to be. Imperfect as it is, this offering could be playful as easily as it could be unflinchingly vicious, appealing to both fans of corny, "Tales from the Crypt"-style thrills and those with a taste for the rough stuff. It isn't always alive and kicking, but Body Bags is far from dead on arrival.
-Unzipping Body Bags, a 20-minute making-of featurette. It's short, but it's neat that Scream Factory took the time to put together a behind-the-scenes piece on a semi-obscure title like this one. Plus, it's full of fun little stories, including Carpenter talking about the challenges of acting and what Keach had in common with his own character.
-Feature commentary, split into three main parts: Carpenter and actor Robert Carradine for "The Gas Station," Carpenter and Keach for "Hair," and producer Sandy King and Scream Factory's Justin Beahm for "Eye" (during which it's confirmed that this is indeed the movie's full, uncut version). Carpenter goes solo for the wraparound story's bookends.
-A trailer, which both outright spoils the "Hair" segment's twist and sells the film as something much darker than it ultimately is.
-A standard DVD copy of the film.
(Released by Shout! Factory and rated "R" by MPAA.)