Throughout his film career, John Carpenter was always ahead of the curve; whether finalizing the blueprint for the modern slasher or offering an ever prescient political take on alien invasions, Carpenter always seemed to be ahead of what the next big thing would be, often to decreased box office receipts. So it came as a surprise to many (myself included) that he started up Body Bags (1993), a would-be anthology series ala Tales from the Crypt for Showtime. The bigger surprise though is that it didn’t fly, because this one off is terrific entertainment.
Originally televised on Showtime on August 8th, Body Bags was met with critical approval and fans of the genre enjoyed it. However, the brass had already decided that this would be a one and done, hence the truncated anthology film format for the three segments already filmed. What a shame, because while Carpenter in front of the camera is usually none too enticing, his turn as the Cryptkeeper-like Coroner is a blast. It would have been great to check in with him on a weekly basis.
Open up your phoney TV GUIDE to the cable section to see what was in store:
BODY BAGS (Sunday, Showtime)
Director John Carpenter introduces each segment of this discarded anthology series as The Coroner, a wisecracking stiff with a quip for every cadaver. Robert Carradine, Stacy Keach, and Mark Hamill star.
Let’s recap each tale, shall we?
THE GAS STATION: It’s college student Anne (Alex Datcher – Passenger 57)’s first night working the overnight kiosk at the local gas station. There’s a killer on the loose and the worker she’s relieved (Robert Carradine – Revenge of the Nerds) is none too helpful.
HAIR: Richard Coberts (Stacy Keach – The Ninth Configuration) is a follically challenged man with a loving girlfriend (Sheena Easton – Miami Vice), who grows impatient with his obsession. Desperate, he turns to Dr. Lock (David Warner – Time after Time) who offers a unique hair growth treatment – with no surgery required.
EYE: Minor league ball player Brent Matthews (Mark Hamill – Star Wars) is being groomed for the Big Show when a tragic car accident robs him of one of his eyes. After a radical transplant, he can see again - except his donor had a dark past, one that threatens to destroy his idyllic life with his pregnant wife (Twiggy – Club Paradise).
Body Bags is a missed opportunity that ultimately becomes a blessing in disguise. It’s very hard to maintain quality with a series; as many great episodes of Tales from the Crypt as there are, it was on for several seasons, and there are more than a few misses. So this anthology works as the best, most truncated version of a kick ass show that’s all killer, and zero filler. Every segment works, each with a distinct tone even though the first two are directed by Carpenter himself, with the third helmed by the late Tobe Hooper.
The Gas Station puts Carpenter right back in Halloween territory; not only does it show that he still possesses his mastery of suspense but displays a sly sense of humour by having his antagonist verbally engage his victim(s) – he certainly has no issue expressing himself unlike Mr. Myers. Unlike his 1978 classic, Carpenter only has 25 minutes to get in and out and he executes flawlessly, with strong performances from the leads and a host of terrific cameos. Hair is where Carpenter switches gears; this one is played strictly for laughs, and all the tension of the previous segment gives way to a vanity play with a wonderful turn by Keach, who is so blind with desire to be (what he defines as) virile that his drastic measures turn up drastic results. Warner, is of course, magnificent. And magnificently weird. The anthology takes a sharp turn with Hooper’s Eye, a very dark, rough tale with a chilling performance by Hamill. Hooper’s direction is hard and sharp, mounting tension with a precision that ends the anthology on a strong note.
One of the biggest delights of Body Bags is the cavalcade of friends that Carpenter enlists. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t even look them up. Go in cold, and just know that Carpenter has all the right friends to help put a smile on your face. The effects work holds up too; but you wouldn’t expect any less, would you?
On a personal note, I started this piece before the sudden death of Tobe Hooper at the age of 74. It felt very unsettling to come back to it after his passing, but necessary. Any words I would have said were he still with us have not changed now; he was simply a masterful director and once again proves it here. Only now they are filled with sadness and regret. Sadness that he is gone and will never fill the screen with potent images of the misbegotten and misunderstood; and regret that he was not recognized by many in his lifetime for his unique genius. But we’ll always have the pictures, and shows like this, to remember him by. So celebrate Body Bags; not only for what could have been, but also what should be – a world with Tobe Hooper still in it. It already feels a lot smaller without.Next: It Came From The Tube: LOOK WHAT’S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY’S BABY (1976)