Despite the Scream Factory collector’s edition Blu-ray for Body Bags, it’s still easily one of the most overlooked titles John Carpenter has directed. It’s far from the classic status of Halloween or The Thing, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t warrant discussion. In many ways, Body Bags is as much as the director has ever strayed from his trademark style. Which, whether he succeeded or not, is always interesting and warrants discussion.
Body Bags is an anthology film, but it didn’t start out that way. It started out as a TV series for Showtime. The idea was basically Carpenter trying to do in the 1990s what Masters of Horror would do in the 2000s—on the same network, no less. He wanted to reign in great horror directors to have fun and make episodes of a really dark, very ‘90s take on Twilight Zone.
In fact, that’s exactly what it is: a TV series. Even though it’s also a movie. See, when Showtime became interested in picking up the series, they tasked Carpenter with producing three episodes. He directed the first two himself and drafted fellow horror legend Tobe Hooper to direct the third. Carpenter himself elected to play the show’s Crypt Keeper-ish, punning undead host.
If Body Bags feels cheaper or more rushed than some of your favorite anthologies, that’s because it is. The feature is simply those three episodes edited together after Showtime elected not to pick up the series. That’s definitely something that’s tough not to think about when watching, because you can clearly feel the ending of each segment as a fully-fledged episode, but it almost doesn’t matter because of the casting. There’s an amazing amount of talent in Body Bags that the movie does not get credit for. You’ve got Stacy Keach, Mark Hamill, David Naughton, Robert Carradine, David Warner, Debbie Harry and Carpenter staple Peter Jason.
That’s not a cast to be dismissed lightly. As for the vignettes themselves, they have their strengths and weaknesses, just like any other anthology film. The first might be my favorite even though it’s probably the worst of the three. This one is about a woman working at a gas station in the middle of the night, watching people come and go, fending off an attack from a killer. It’s extremely simple. In some ways, it’s the same kind of simplicity that worked so well for Carpenter in Halloween. “The Gas Station” is no Halloween, but it is fun. And honestly, it works. You really feel the isolation when you just see this little gas station set against the darkness. It’s the middle of nowhere and you have no idea what might be out there. Plus, it has a great cameo by Wes Craven.
“Hair” is the shining achievement of Body Bags. This is where you clearly see that everyone was having fun. Stacy Keach completely hams it up as a man unable to cope with hair loss. He volunteers for an experimental program that of course causes him to grow hair to the extreme, eventually revealing that each strand is an alien being growing directly into his brain. The appeal of the segment is normally straight-laced Keach going completely bonkers, getting more and more absurd with each minute.
“The Eye” is absolutely the darkest of the segments. In fact, it basically reads like “Hair” without the humor because it’s essentially the same story, except that this time it’s a baseball player getting an eye transplant that goes awry. It’s actually pretty impactful and genuinely unsettling at times, so it really only suffers from the fact that it has the same basic setup as the segment immediately preceding it.
One of the most important things in an anthology is balance. The segments have to both stand on their own and compliment one another. Something is off about Body Bags in that regard. “Hair” is a perfect mid-section but either “The Gas Station” or “The Eye” does not belong. Without “The Gas Station” you could have a really neat body horror anthology of people trying to better themselves and their own bodies with disastrous results. Without “The Eye” you could just have another very different kind of piece that wouldn’t feel so similar to what you’d just seen.
But all of that almost doesn’t matter because Body Bags was made with one goal in mind: to have fun. On the part of both the creators and the audience, that’s all they wanted. We so rarely get to see Carpenter have the kind of fun we get here. All of his films have moments of levity, but many of them are incredibly bleak. It’s so refreshing and just genuinely interesting as a fan of the man and his work to watch him let loose. That’s what he does with “Hair” and that’s what he does in general as the ham-fisted host of all three segments. He’s a terrible actor and he’s well aware of that, but he doesn’t care.
That’s a side of Carpenter that no other film in his career has given us: his goofy side. He’s a director who has always spoken his mind and not really cared what anyone thinks but it’s a wonderful thing to see him retool that personality trait into putting on some Lon Chaney makeup, looking into the camera and making a complete ass of himself. There’s no better reason to watch Body Bags than to watch Carpenter’s painfully punny performance, and there’s no better reason to make sure it is always remembered as a point of good humor in his incredible career.