**½/**** Image A- Sound C- Extras B
starring Robert Carradine, Stacy Keach, Mark Hamill, Twiggy
written by Billy Brown & Dan Angel
directed by John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper
by Bryant Frazer In 1989, HBO debuted a horror anthology show, "Tales from the Crypt", based on stories from the disreputable EC comic books of the early 1950s. Jump-started by a stable of Hollywood big shots like Richard Donner, Joel Silver, and Robert Zemeckis, the show was a hit, and the wisecracking "Crypt Keeper" who introduced each episode quickly became a pop-culture icon. HBO's rival Showtime, known primarily for its softcore anthology "Red Shoe Diaries", was presumably aiming to duplicate that success when it backed Body Bags, an anthology project led by co-executive producers John Carpenter and his wife, Sandy King. Despite that genre pedigree, the series never got off the ground, but a pilot was completed: three half-hour segments with a goofy framing story involving Carpenter himself doing a deadpan Betelgeuse impression among the stiffs in a city morgue. The finished omnibus aired on Showtime as a one-off in the summer of '93.
While I don't remember Body Bags stirring much interest at the time, its reputation has grown over the years, mainly among horror buffs who fondly remember the first segment, "The Gas Station." Directed by Carpenter himself, it has Robert Carradine in a pivotal role, features wink-and-a-nod appearances by Sam Raimi and Wes Craven, and offers a little more than a cameo by An American Werewolf in London's David Naughton. The set-up is low-budget simple--a girl, a night shift at an isolated gas station, and a serial killer on the loose--and Carpenter shoots the hell out of it. He and his then-regular cinematographer, Gary Kibbe, combine wide shots, close-ups, and gliding camera moves to set up the geography of the situation, which has actress Alex Datcher sealed up in a protective cashier's booth at a remote open-all-night service station as various patrons demanding her attention and apprehension materialize out of the surrounding blackness. Once she heads for real danger, and the camera suddenly goes handheld, you really feel it. "The Gas Station" isn't an especially meaningful piece of work, but it feels like a John Carpenter movie, and in this case the lack of seriousness is part of the fun. It's also the goriest thing in Body Bags, with a blood-spurting climax that closes the segment with a satisfying exclamation point.
Unfortunately, the next two stories can't live up to that promising example. "Hair," again directed by Carpenter himself, gets by mainly on a self-deprecating performance from Stacy Keach as a middle-aged master of the universe for whom male pattern baldness constitutes a kind of existential crisis, despite his luxurious apartment and what looks like a healthy relationship with girlfriend Sheena Easton. The casting is, again, lots of fun--David Warner plays a cutting-edge hair-restoration doctor and Deborah Harry his sycophantic head nurse--but this one pretty much plods along towards the protagonist's inevitable, vanity-driven downfall. The extensive make-up effects hold up pretty well, and though Carpenter deploys some stop-motion animation (by the Oscar-winning Jim Danforth, who is uncredited for some reason) that's not exactly convincing, it's appealing in its old-school way.
Tobe Hooper gets called in to throw a change-up with "Eye," which is recognizably more lurid and less classical than the two Carpenter segments. Mark Hamill stars as a baseball player whose ambitions are crushed when a car accident leaves him blind in his hitting eye. Naturally he's on board when a doctor suggests an experimental eye transplant; nobody bothers to mention that the eye in question belonged to an executed murderer of women. The horror-movie twist--the new eye has a mind of its own, with murderous implications--dates to Robert Wiene's The Hands of Orlac (1924), and the accompanying serial-killer visions are a little tired. Where "The Gas Station" showcases Carpenter's confident, unfussy camerawork, "Eye" gets its energy from putting an anguished look on Hamill's face and smashing images together in the editing room to convey his psychotic visions. The story and performances don't quite work, yet the bloody "Eye" is easily the most horrific of the three segments, escalating to employ the explicit threat of sexual violence. Because the piece feels deranged enough that you worry, for at least a moment, about where it might take you, I give Hooper credit for sending the film out with a kick.
Body Bags will always feel like a missed opportunity to fans, suggesting a horror series that would take a more genre-devotional approach than the campier "Tales from the Crypt". But as a standalone piece, it's not especially satisfying. Today, it plays as a last gasp of the golden age of the American horror film. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday night, but this one is mainly of interest to genre fans--and a must-see, of course, for Carpenter devotees.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Body Bags may be a TV movie, but since it was originally photographed on 35mm, it can have a beautiful second life in high-definition and widescreen. The film was shot for 4x3 television but protected for theatrical exhibition, presumably at 1.85:1. The new Blu-ray Disc from Shout! Factory imprint Scream Factory splits the difference, opting for a BD-native 1.78:1 aspect ratio that clips a bit of image from the top and bottom of the picture compared to the original cable broadcast, while expanding it on both sides. The wider image is of most benefit to "The Gas Station," the setting of which easily expands to fill the new canvas. (You can feel Carpenter, a 'scope adherent, straining against the constraints of the narrower frame.) It looks really good, too--basically like a feature film of similar vintage, with a light layer of film grain, solid colour rendition, and wide dynamic range, with plenty of shadow detail and no noticeable clipping in the highlights.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the audio. The soundtrack has gotten the requisite remastering in 5.1 DTS-HD MA (although the BD box claims, oddly, that this is a "stereo" track, it definitely contains six discrete channels), but it's clipped on the high end of both the 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital variants. This manifests itself mainly as a sort of static-y sound that's easily noticed in dialogue sibilance, though it's also there in the very high end of louder sound effects. And while it's most noticeable by far during the first segment of the film, I heard it throughout. A quick search of YouTube reveals a PAL-sourced, 4x3 upload of Body Bags in which high-frequency sounds that are clipped or simply obscured by static on the BD are clearly audible (despite the 4% higher pitch of PAL audio), indicating that the static is not simply a flaw of the original source material. Different viewers may tolerate this, more or less--I barely noticed the problem when double-checking the disc on my desktop computer with two decent Klipsch speakers. But it was quite clearly audible--and distracting--when played via the eight-speaker set-up I use for critical viewing and listening. That's a big disappointment.
Special features are entertaining and informative, if not plentiful. Carpenter commentary tracks are fun to listen to, even though he tends to speak in general terms about camera set-ups and the filmmaking process rather than going into specifics about what he's trying to achieve creatively or artistically. I figure it's his self-effacing streak, and since that's more becoming than pretension, I can live with it. There's a lot of fun off-the-cuff shop talk on the newly-recorded Body Bags yakker, as Carpenter shares the studio with both Robert Carradine and Stacy Keach. Carpenter feints towards some insight on technique in observing the first handheld shot in "The Gas Station," then shrugs it off: "I think it was because we were rushing."
In conversation with Stacy Keach, he lauds the actors on this show, noting that he'd had bad experiences with actors who aren't "ready to go" and "want to cause a little trouble." Carpenter doesn't name names, but I'm going to assume he's talking about Chevy Chase, who he had just directed in Memoirs of an Invisible Man before cranking out Body Bags. Hooper was unavailable to yak about "Eye" since he was busy elsewhere, so in his place is executive producer Sandy King, who takes questions from interviewer Justin Beahm in the film's latter third. Although Carpenter flatly describes Body Bags as "an anthology pilot that we did for Showtime," King claims that the script wasn't intended to kick off a TV show. Both agree that a subsequent series offer was turned down because Showtime wanted to shoot it on the cheap in Canada, and neither King nor Carpenter felt the talent they needed to make the show worthwhile would be accessible on a shoestring budget. King does note that Carpenter is currently working on a new project, a "PG-13 dark fantasy" called Dark Child, so we'll see what happens there.
"Unzipping Body Bags" is a 20-minute featurette in the Scream Factory house style that mixes film clips with talking-heads interviews featuring Carpenter, King, Keach, and Carradine. If you don't want to sit through the full audio commentary, this is a way to hit all its major points quickly (and to see what all the different players look like these days). Carradine, for what it's worth, overreaches when he tries to credit Carpenter and Kibbe with the whole spray-down-the-pavement-before-a-night-shoot cinematographer's trick, and it's just too bad that neither Hooper nor Hamill showed up. Also included is a curious animal, what appears to be an MPAA-approved theatrical trailer, 1:20 in length, for the "Only on Showtime" Body Bags.
The supplements aren't extensive, and they might not live up to the disc's "collector's edition" moniker, but they're about as much "extra" as this title needs. The only major flaw here is the distorted audio--and that's a pretty serious one. Otherwise, a typically fine effort from Scream Factory.