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Body Bags

Shout Factory // R // November 12, 2013
List Price: $29.93 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 29, 2013 | E-mail the Author
The most frustrating thing about Body Bags -- a made-for-cable horror anthology from the class of 1993 -- is that it's almost good. The wraparounds with John Carpenter as a ghoulish mortician are shamelessly ripping off the
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Crypt Keeper's schtick with that same morbid, campy, overly punny sense of humor, but they're still a lot of fun and easily the most memorable thing about the flick. (I say that from first-hand experience too: I rented Body Bags on VHS fifteen years and change ago, and I remembered absolutely nothing about it except the mortician bits with Carpenter.)

The first full segment, "The Gas Station", has all the right ingredients. A college student (Alex Datcher) does what she can to scare up a little extra money by working the graveyard shift at some hopelessly remote gas station. Anne tries to pass the time by cramming for a Psych 402 final, but instead of just reading about psychopathic behavior in an overpriced textbook, she gets an opportunity to witness it firsthand. This sleepy little service station is in the Haddonfield city limits, after all, and Michael Myers isn't the only unhinged serial killer to call it home. "The Gas Station" invests so much time establishing its isolated the service station is, how it's the absolute dead of night, and how easily Anne can get herself locked out of her fortified little station. This segment never really bothers with the claustrophobic horror setpieces it teases at, though, instead devoting the overwhelming majority of its runtime to setup and then rushing through a couple minutes' worth of routine stalk-and-slash to close it all out. The casting of the serial killer is very inspired, and cameos by the likes of Sam Raimi, Wes Craven, and David Naughton are a welcomed distraction, but the pacing is way too uneven.

Carpenter steps up to the plate a second time to helm "Hair", an almost unrecognizably different segment that still suffers from some of the same missteps. Where "The Gas Station" is a cold slasher, "Hair" is a goofy, over-the-top comedy. Stacy Keach -- the once and future Mike Hammer! -- plays against type as a schlub who thinks his rapidly thinning hairline makes him less of a man. His desperation to look as if he has a full head of hair winds up ::sniffles!:: alienating the woman he loves (a way-too-foxy Sheena Easton) too. There's gotta be an answer out there, and Richard finds it exactly where you'd expect it to be: late night TV. That new hair rejuvenation treatment that Doc Lock (David Warner) is shilling does the trick too, and
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Richard has the long, luxurious locks to prove it. But, y'know, be careful what you wish for... Stacy Keach is clearly having a blast hamming it up as a vain, insecure worrywart, but again, the problem with this segment is that it lingers far too long on the wrong stuff. Instead of looking on helplessly as Richard's transformation ravages his life...prevents him from performing even the most basic functions...causes him to devolve into something almost unrecognizable as human...he just turns in early, drives to the doctor's office the next morning with some extraterrestrial acne, and is then witness to a shocking revelation. I mean, there's a little more to it than that, but still: no! You're fast-forwarding through the best parts.

The most effective of the three segments is the one that Carpenter didn't direct. Tobe Hooper closes out the trilogy by taking the reins of "Eye", the story of a promising minor league hitter (Mark Hamill) who's blinded in a car wreck. Whatever hopes Brent had of clawing his way into the majors are dead and buried now. A surgeon (John Agar, in one of his last performances) fills him in on an experimental procedure -- one that's never even been attempted before, but Brent is a perfect candidate, and he just so happens to have gotten his hands on the perfect donor eye. The transplant is a success too! Well, I guess there's one complication. You wanna know what Brent spies with his newly-implanted eye...? He sees dead people. "Eye" is by far the most brutal and visceral segment in this anthology, and there's no performance in Body Bags that approaches the intensity of Mark Hamill's here. A feral sex scene is genuinely disturbing, and although the Shining-inspired sequence near the end is far too short, it's wildly effective while it lasts. I also can't help but smirk at the presence of Roger Corman as one of Brent's doctors, mostly because the ending of "Eye" owes so much to his own X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.

Body Bags is an okay way to kill an hour and a half. None of its segments are disasters, and it gets enough right -- especially with its inspired casting -- to make even the patchier stretches seem worthwhile. Still, there's only one really good vignette here, and even it isn't enough to salvage an otherwise mediocre anthology. Watchable but not exactly recommended. Rent It.

Making its first-ever appearance in widescreen on home video, Body Bags looks pretty solid on Blu-ray. Definition and detail can vary somewhat from shot to shot, but they're generally right where they oughtta be, to the point that you don't have to grade on a curve for this being a twenty year old made-for-cable horror anthology and all. Its colors are nicely saturated, there really isn't any wear or speckling to get in the way, and there's
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no heavy handed filtering or digital manipulation to muck up the works either. The visuals aren't startlingly stylish or cinematic, so keep your expectations in check, but I'm not left with a lot to complain about here. Nice work.

Body Bags' AVC encode spans both layers of this BD-50 disc.

Body Bags piles on a pair of 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: one in stereo and the other in 5.1. I'm not sure if it's a shiny, sparklingly new remix or not, but this is the first home video release of Body Bags in 5.1, anyway. I wouldn't exactly rank this up there with Scream Factory's best sounding discs. The film's dialogue sounds really strained and sibilant, and fidelity across the board is pretty underwhelming. I didn't notice much of anything other than music in the surround channels, and bass response tends to be dull and rumbly. Very few effects pack much of a wallop, even a serial killer relentlessly pounding on safety glass with a sledgehammer. Only "Eye" gets a chokehold on the subwoofer to reinforce the thunder and a couple of colossal stings in the score. It's pretty bland, boxy, and lifeless all around.

No dubs. Subtitles are limited to English (SDH).

  • Unzipping Body Bags (20 min.; HD): The featured extra on Body Bags is this twenty minute retrospective, featuring newly-conducted interviews with John Carpenter, producer Sandy King, and actors Robert Carradine and Stacy Keach. It's really comprehensive, tackling how the project came together, lining up the scores of celebrity cameos, Carpenter toiling away on both sides of the camera, Rick Baker contributing the mortician's ghoulish makeup, Carradine fielding many of his own stunts, and how close to home the hair loss story hit for Keach.

    This is a terrific featurette, and I especially appreciate how it clears up some of the misinformation about the film that's been floating around. Quite a few sites online, Wikipedia among them, claim that Body Bags was a
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    failed series at Showtime that was repurposed into a movie. Others say that Body Bags was produced as a pilot for a prospective weekly horror anthology. That's not the case, at least as it's explained here. This was always intended to be a TV movie, and though there were discussions about turning Body Bags into a series, it was Carpenter who turned down the underfunded, runaway production that was proposed, not Showtime. So, yeah, don't believe everything you read online.

  • Audio Commentary: Everyone from that list above -- Carpenter, King, Carradine, and Keach -- return for Body Bags' commentary, although the line-up understandably varies by segment. Carpenter is a fixture throughout the wraparounds and the first two segments, joined by Carradine in "The Gas Station" and Keach in "Hair". It's a pretty relaxed conversation, just sort of shooting the breeze and catching up. I mean, Carpenter speaks at length with Carradine about his early work in The Cowboys, for instance, and he asks Keach about his favorite Shakespearean roles. The three of them do chat about what's happening on-screen, but I don't even know if I'd say that's the dominant topic of conversation. Scream Factory did try to wrangle Tobe Hooper to record commentary for his segment, "The Eye", but the scheduling didn't work out. Instead, producer King speaks about that vignette, the film as a whole, the course of Carpenter's career from here, and even philosophically explores the nature of horror. It's a really enjoyable set of conversations but not what I'd call an essential listen.

  • Trailer (1 min.; SD): Rounding out the extras is a pretty lousy looking trailer.

This combo pack also serves up an anamorphic widescreen DVD. I really love the cover art by Justin Osbourne -- I always confused the original VHS cover with Rumpelstiltskin, for some reason -- and it looks even better on the slipcover.

The Final Word
I'm a sucker for horror anthologies, and I especially appreciate what Body Bags is aiming for, trying to tackle everything that John Carpenter loves so much about horror in three very different vignettes. Hardly any of it works. The first two stories have promise but are far too poorly paced, Carpenter's ghoulish mortician comes across as a second-rate Crypt Keeper, and no matter how effective Tobe Hooper's "Eye" is that closes out the anthology, the damage has pretty much already been done. I had a lot of fun with the onslaught of cameos and the casting of familiar faces in unexpected roles, but the whole thing is a little too mediocre to warrant more than a rental. Rent It.
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