Friday, February 15, 2013

John Carpenter's TV work: Body Bags (1993)

After the commercial and critical flop of Memoirs of An Invisible Man in 1992 (see The Flops of Chevy Chase) John Carpenter signed a deal with US TV network Showtime to produce a horror anthology series. It was quite a cynical idea on the part of Showtime and they were clearly hoping to replicate (and maybe even overtake) the success that, rival network, HBO were having with their show "Tales from the Crypt". So Carpenter set out and directed the first two episodes and roped in Tobe Hooper (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) to direct the third. However during shooting Showtime got cold feet about committing to a full series and put the show into turn around before any episodes had aired. The decision was made to salvage the footage by editing them into one 90 TV movie called Body Bags.

So the first installment is called 'The Gas Station' which tells the story of Anne (Alex Datcher), a college student who takes a job as a night shift cashier at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. Locked in her glass booth she thinks she's safe but as the night drags on things get creepy and customer start turning up dead. The second episode is called 'Hair' which sees Stacy Keach play a businessman who is obsessively worried about his receding hair line. He goes to see a doctor (played by David Warner) who offers him a new and experimental treatment which at first seems like a success but soon becomes deadly! And the final segment is called 'Eye' which sees Mark Hamill play a baseball player who is injured in a car accident and has to have an eye transplant. Not long after he starts getting murderous urges and is forced to look into who the eye originally belonged to. Each segment is bookended by an appearance by John Carpenter who plays a ghoulish morgue attendant who enjoys cutting up dead bodies.

Any anthology movie is tough to review because you're always going to get varying quality between all the segments. Even the best examples of the genre like Creepshow have weak parts. It certainly doesn't help that Body Bags also falls in between being a TV show and a movie. As a TV show it's slightly above average but as a movie it's pretty cheap looking and not very satisfying. I'd probably say that the first installment - 'The Gas Station' - is the best of the bunch. I think what makes it work is that it's a simple story all told in one location and Carpenter throws in a ton of red herrings and misdirection to keep your interest held throughout. You know from the moment that a radio newscaster mentions an escaped mental patient is on the loose that one of the gas patrons is going to turn out to be him but you never know if it's going to be the obvious hobo-looking guy or the unassuming businessman.

 'Hair' isn't too bad but it suffers from the fact that it's played mostly for laughs. The only real horror comes in the last two minutes of the episode when Keach realises what exactly the hair treatment entails and even then it's pretty silly. Keach gives a really good performance though as the balding businessman. You really feel his frustration and impotence. 'Eye' is probably the least of the three. The problem is the story is really weak. It's obvious from the outset that Hamill's replacement eye is (spoiler) going to turn out to have been donated by a convicted murderer. So it's kinda of dull waiting 30 minutes for the lead character to come to this conclusion too. That said Hamill does do a good job when his character turns psycho. People forget he's actually a very versatile actor.

The real reason you should watch this is for Carpenter's segments inbetween each episode where he plays the morgue attendant. These are a really fun and playful. Carpenter's performance reminded me a lot of Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice. It's got that same live-wire atmosphere. The attendant is a really twisted guy and there's good 'reveal' about him at the very end of the film that I didn't see coming. Also, it's quite fun to catch all the famous cameos and in-jokes dotted around the episodes - Sam Raimi, Wes Craven, Twiggy, Debbie Harry, Tom Arnold all pop up in tiny roles. Another strong point is the gore used in the films. It's not frequent but when people do die it goes way over-the-top. In one bit a guy gets crushed by a car and rivers of blood come pouring out. It's insane!

Overall, Body Bags isn't a great TV movie but it's a fun way of wasting an hour and half. The major problem is that it's too focused on setting up a last minute twist to all its stories that it forgets to actually be scary. I'm glad Carpenter got back to doing theatrical films after this because TV (especially a 30 minute TV show) really doesn't suit his style. If you're going to track it down make sure you avoid the region 1 DVD from Artisan. They cut a lot of the gore which makes the film far less enjoyable. The VHS in the UK is completely uncut.



  1. This is one of those Carpenter films that slipped through the cracks...I never got around to watching it, but I've always had a curiosity for it. Sounds fun, kind of like Carpenter playing the Crypt Keeper...ha ha, what if the show had hit it off and become a hit? Would Carpenter have played the mortician on every episode?

  2. I guess he would have had to carry on playing the role of the mortician because I think Showtime were counting on keeping his name in the title - "John Carpenter presents Body Bags".

    It's worth one watch if you're a fan of Carpenter. Just go in expecting a half decent TV show rather than a big budget film and I think you'll dig it.

  3. I've heard of this before but still haven't seen it. It would've been interesting if Body Bags got made into a show, I wonder if it would've given Tales from a Crypt a run for its money or quickly faded away. And yeah, it would've been cool if Carpenter did the host segments as that mortician!

  4. Honestly Carpenter's bits are awesome. I would have been happy to see more of him in the role but they would have had to seriously improve the quality of the writing if they wanted to last for any more episodes.

  5. This is one of those lightweight movies that are more fun in retrospect than when you're actually watching it. I have fond memories of seeing it when it first premiered and have seen it many times since. Definitely far from Carpenter's best, but a pleasant diversion.

    Great review! Keep 'em coming!

  6. Thanks Mitch. Yeah, I feel the same. I originally caught it back in the mid-90s on TV by chance and loved it but watching it again recently it's a bit of slog. Still more fun than Ghost of Mars.

  7. Great review!
    Looks like I'm not the only one who never got around to watching this. lol. I don't know, it just didn't look very interesting to me so I never gave it a second thought. I doubt I'll ever make a solid effort to actually seek this one out, but should it be playing on tv or streaming somewhere, I'll definitely give it a shot.

  8. Thanks Jason. Again (like seemingly everything Carpenter's done) someone has uploaded this to a certain 'tube' if you're curious but it's pretty non-essential. Maybe just check out the first segment - The Gas Station - and skip the rest.

  9. Nice review! Always wanted to see this. Will try to track down the uncut version.

  10. Cheers Ty. As far as I know the uncut version is only available on UK VHS. It's never been officially released on DVD. I'm hoping some publisher like Shout Factory might give it a re-release some day.

    Until then, have a look on youtube. I think there's an uncut copy floating about.