Sunday, October 21, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 21: Body Bags

October 21st: Body Bags (1993)

Like the Romero/Argento effort Two Evil Eyes, Body Bags is an early 90s horror anthology largely forgotten by genre fans. John Carpenter directs the first two segments ("The Gas Station", "Hair"), while Tobe Hooper takes care of the final section, "Eye." Body Bags was originally conceived as a Showtime original series. When the network bailed, a longer edit of the pilot was released as Body Bags the feature film. More than ten years later, Showtime gave the fright anthology a chance with Mick Garris' Masters of Horror/Fear Itself series, which failed to live up to its potential in three seasons.

Carpenter is featured here also as an actor, playing a kind of zombie coroner who introduces each segment. In these brief wrap-around moments, Carpenter lazily plays the Crypt-keeperesque "Coroner" while Tom Arnold and Hooper appear as assistants. The gags in these scenes fall flat; it's hard to imagine this set-up working in an ongoing television series.

The look of Body Bags is similar to every workmanlike, homogenized Stephen King television adaptation or Sci-Fi channel original movie. I have nothing against this stock style; actually there's something nostalgic and disorienting about the look of this type of television. The uniform and dressed-down sets and camera set-ups wouldn't be out of place in a sitcom or Lifetime movie, and perhaps that's why this style is inexplicably frightening in its seeming displacement.

This lends a lonely, depopulated feel to the segments, particularly the first, "The Gas Station." College student Anne (Alex Datcher) faces a serial killer while working her first-ever shift at an all-night pay-and-pump. While accomplished in mood and pacing, this segment suffers from a poor performance by Datcher and a distracting series of cameos. In a row Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Carpenter favorite "Buck" Flower drop by. The entire film is full of cameos, in fact, from Arnold to Roger Corman to Debbie Harry and beyond. While the comedic second half benefits from its crowd-pleasing cameos, here they serve only to take the audience out of a segment which relies on the immersive rhythm of a taut thriller narrative.

Stacy Keach chews it up as Richard Coberts in "Hair", the film's best section. Coberts is a balding man who'll do anything to grow his hair back, equating his receding hair with receding vitality. Coberts, desperate to gain his self-confidence back, signs up for an experimental program in which intelligent hair follicle-monsters are grafted onto his scalp. In what plays like an adult version of The Peanut Butter Solution, Coberts wakes up the next morning with a ridiculously long, flowing mane of Fabio hair. The hair won't stop growing, and the killer micro-organisms seem to be eating him alive. While gruesome, "Hair" takes full advantage of its comic premise. Many of the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny. By allowing the segment to play for laughs at the expense of scares, Carpenter makes the film's smartest decision.

In the section which is the closest to the EC Comics/Creepshow aesthetic, Hooper directs "Eye" as a gory shocker, only subtracting the black comedy altogether. "Eye" is the weakest of the three segments, especially due to Mark Hamill's typically awful performance as Brent Matthews, a rising major league baseball star who loses his right eye in an auto accident. You guessed it-- the eye is cursed, transplanted from the dead body of a serial murderer (Ala yesterday's flick Body Parts). Hamill is just terrible, and sports a gnarly 'stache I found difficult to look at. Twiggy plays his wife. Weird.

While Body Bags may have been something of a throwaway gig for many involved, it actually remains interesting, despite the obvious and dated elements. I much prefer Body Bags to Masters of Horror, honestly. Who doesn't dig a good anthology film? While this may not be a classic, at least Carpenter's contributions are fully worthwhile. With Halloween fast approaching, now would be the best time to check this one out.

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