Monday, June 3, 2013

John Carpenter: Body Bags


Just as he did after the deflating experience working for the studio on Big Trouble in Little China (not to mention the equally deflating returns at the box office), John Carpenter would once again, this time after the disaster that was Memoirs of an Invisible Man, return to the safety of low budget, independent horror. In 1987, this return to small horror resulted in one of the American auteurs best films, Prince of Darkness. In 1993, however, things were a tad different in regards to theatrical horror films. Unless you had Freddy, Jason, or Michael Myers, it was unlikely that a horror film in the early ‘90s was going to have a lot of success with audiences. It was a dying genre (and even returns for those films were dwindling with each unnecessary sequel). So, Carpenter, returned to television for his next project, which was never intended to be a Portmanteau horror film but rather a television series made for Showtime in order to rival HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt.” However, the series didn’t get picked up after Showtime backed away from their initial plans to turn it into a series, and the final product turned into Body Bags — an extremely entertaining horror anthology in the vein of the EC Comics that inspired Carpenter as a kid and the Amicus productions of the ‘70s. Body Bags showcases a great horror director riffing and having fun with the genre, free from the shackles of the studio system.

From the onset we can see the sarcastic Carpenter at play as the film opens with a riff on the MGM opening; however, instead of the iconic Leo the Lion roaring we have Carpenter wielding a chainsaw and laughing maniacally. And instead of the classic Latin phrase “Ars Gratia Artis” (art for art’s sake) surrounding the logo, here we have the Latin phrase, “Sanguis Gratia Artis” (blood for the sake of art). We’re introduced to The Coroner (played by an extremely hammy Carpenter) who is clearly modeled after The Cryptkeeper and other EC Comics “hosts” that introduced their readers to all kinds of horror stories.

The Coroner kicks things off by telling the viewer, “I love stories about our national pastime — violent death.” This leads into our first of three stories (and first of two directed by Carpenter), “The Gas Station,” a typical stalk-and-slash set up with a helluva a lot of tension—it’s a grimy return to form for Carpenter, and, in all honestly, it’s one of the most taut and tense things he’s ever directed. The second story we’re introduced to is “Hair,” (also directed by Carpenter) about a vain man (wonderfully played by Stacey Keach who is having a lot of fun with this role) who really, really wants long, flowing, Fabio-esque hair. “Hair” is more of a comical entry in the anthology in the vein of the Stephen King segment from Creepshow. The third and final entry (directed by Hooper, so we won’t really discuss this one) is “Eye,” a story about a baseball player (Mark Hamill) on the comeback trail who gets in a car accident, loses his eye, gets an eye transplant, and…well you know the rest.

The Hooper entry is the least interesting of the three. It’s your basic transplant-gone-wrong horror story where the new eye that Hamill’s character receives belonged to a psychopath in a prior life and is now taking over the mind of the Hamill character. But since it was directed by Hooper and not Carpenter, we won’t go into depth about that one. The two Carpenter entries, however, are a lot of fun. In “The Gas Station,” Carpenter gets a lot of mileage out of his one location and singular motive. I think it’s to Carpenter’s benefit that he’s working with such a short runtime for these segments. Any fan of the genre knows where the stories are going in these anthology films. When one watches Creepshow, for example, one can see the ironic twists and horrifying moments coming a mile away. So it’s never the story that really makes these kind of anthology horror films interesting, it’s in the execution of tone.

And, man, there is nothing special on paper about “The Gas Station,” but it’s one of the most finely executed things Carpenter has ever done. There’s something refreshingly familiar about the slasher vibe “The Gas Station” emits — the antithesis of his “work” on Memoirs of an Invisible Man — showing a director that’s comfortable in the subgenre but never ceasing to have a lot of damn fun with it in the process. A college student  named Anne (Alex Datcher) takes a job at a 24-hour gas station. Working the graveyard so that she can study for school, Anne soon finds herself in the crosshairs of a serial killer on the loose. The beats of the story and the identity of the serial killer are pretty obvious to genre vets; however, the segment is still extremely well crafted. Carpenter sets up false scares galore with all kinds of characters that pop up late at night at the gas station (the best being played by Wes Craven) in order to get us thinking that they’re the killer.

But that’s all part of the fun. As Anne looks out of her self-locking booth onto the gas station, we feel a sense of dread because we just know that she’s going to step outside of that booth to investigate things. Once she does that, Carpenter throws every slasher trope at us, but, again, even though the segment is derivative of a subgenre well past its prime in 1993, Carpenter really delivers with a fantastically well-made little horror film, squeezing every ounce of tension out of his one location . And he seems to be having a lot of fun doing it.

Even more fun than “The Gas Station,” is “Hair.” This is your classic “Twilight Zone” or “Tales from the Crypt” type of horror story where the incredibly vain Richard Coberts (Keach) pays more attention to his receding hairline than he does his young girlfriend. The social commentary is a bit on-the-nose here, but, like the familiarity of “The Gas Station,” the obviousness at play here doesn’t equate to something that’s uninteresting. Again, Carpenter is having a lot of fun with this — as is Keach who is just fantastic throughout the segment — especially when Richard goes to see a new doctor on the scene of hair restoration, Dr. Lock (David Warner). When Richard — still dealing with the hard truth that his hairline continues to ebb — steps out of a hair salon with the hopes of covering up his thinning hair, he longingly looks at passers by who are seen in slow motion flipping their hair in the wind. It’s a hilariously goofy scene (there’s a shot of a long-haired dog that Richard seems to envy) that gets the appropriate tone of ridiculousness across.

It should come as no surprise that when Lock continually asks Richard if he’s ready for this life change and really, really wants it, that there’s a damning caveat to the arrangement: alien life forms take over Richard’s brain…but at least he’s got hair. The lead up to Richard’s decision is the best part of “Hair,” and it proves that Carpenter could have successfully directed his own comedy feature if he wanted to.  Once the hair starts to overtake Richard, the segment loses a bit of steam, but there are some fantastically icky moments: if, like me, you hate the idea of hair being in your mouth, then the scene where the hair begins to grow in Richard’s throat will have you squirming (and clearing your throat just to be safe).

Horror fans’ mileage varies with these kind of anthology films; I’ve always liked their goofy nature. I have fond memories of watching “Tales from the Crypt” and Creepshow when I was a kid, and I think that Body Bags succeeds in evoking a similar tone. It’s too bad that Showtime abandoned the idea so quickly because I really think — had Carpenter stayed on to direct or consult — that they could have had something with this premise, and it could have acted as a ratings adversary to HBO’s popular horror show. It’s certainly gorier than a lot of what Carpenter had done to that point, and even though he doesn’t go over-the-top with it, there’s a lot of blood and the effects in the morgue scenes by make-up maven Rick Baker that perhaps scared Showtime enough to just kind of ditch the idea altogether. Whatever the reason for Showtime dropping the idea for the show, I’m glad they packaged the three segments that they did film into Body Bags because it’s a lot of fun.

Seemingly energized by this return to television and to the horror genre, Carpenter returned to the genre theatrically to direct hotshot New Line Cinema producer Michael de Luca’s screenplay In the Mouth of Madness — the supposed final film to his “Apocalypse” trilogy (which started with The Thing and continued with Prince of Darkness) and a film many consider his last great movie (though I strongly disagree).


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