Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Director Report Card: John Carpenter (1993)

15. Body Bags (with Tobe Hooper)

In the early nineties, HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” made horror anthologies kind of a big thing. It’s not surprising that Showtime, one of HBO’s pay-cable rivals, would conceptualize their own horror anthology series. In perhaps a bid to rival the big name talent of Robert Zemeckis and Walter Hill that the Crypt Keeper had in his corner, Showtime reeled in John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, two of the most influential names in modern horror.

Comparing “Body Bags” to “Tales from the Crypt” is apt in several ways. Both featured a cheeky, pun-spewing horror host. While in “Tales,” the episodes are framed around stories in a book, “Body Bags” frames each of their stories around a morgue locker. One way you can’t compare the two is that “Tales from the Crypt” went on for seven seasons, three movies, a Saturday morning cartoon show, a kid's game show, and remains a well-remembered bit of nineties pop culture. “Body Bags” spawned a single pilot movie that isn’t even available on DVD anymore.

The movie isn’t all that well liked but fans with low expectations might find some enjoyment here. John Carpenter fans have an interesting reason to check it out. On a rare occasion, the director himself steps in front of the camera. Carpenter hams it up as the unnamed Coroner, an undead ghoul who regales the audience with the stories of how each body ended up in the proverbial bag. I’ve always found the horror host atmosphere kind of cozy, just out of the nature of a character speaking directly to the audience. Carpenter, who has always kept a low profile as far as on-screen appearances go, really chews the scenery. Even if John’s lack of classical acting training is fairly evident, the framing devices are still fun. If you enjoy the brutal punning of the Crypt Keeper, you’ll probably get some laughs or groans out of the dead body related wisecrack delivered here. However, it’s hard to imagine Carpenter’s enthusiasm sustaining itself for a series run. Especially considering the way the framing device ends, it’s a little hard to see a continuing show. Was the Coroner going to be dissected at the end of every episode? (I’m fairly certain the morgue sequences were directed by an uncredited Larry Sulkis.)

Carpenter directed the first two sequences, which I’ll talk about here. I’ll save the third Tobe Hooper directed sequence for that director’s inevitable report card.

The first sequence, “The Gas Station,” is easily the best. Carpenter seems to be spoofing his own “Halloween” a little bit here and it’s notable that this is the director’s only return to the slasher sub-genre after that seminal film. The story resembles an urban legend, which might explain how much I liked it. A young girl works her first night as the night shift attendant at a spooky, out of the way gas station. Despite being a young woman in an isolated location, she ignores the warning of a serial killer being on the loose. Throughout the night, she has a series of increasingly disquieting run-ins before the threat reveals itself from a some-what unexpected place.

Considering the half-hour runtime and abundance of horror clichés, “The Gas Station” raises a surprising amount of tension. Carpenter uses the isolated location well, filling the limited space with blue and grey shadows. Seems like every guy who knocks on the glass is creepy, a surprisingly effective tactic. The segment has no fear of jump-scares, deploying them regularly. This just adds to the disquieting mood. When the killer is revealed, the show actually creates some tension. It gets good mileage out of the tried and true tactic of the girl stumbling away from the killer as he slowly moves in on her. The sudden story development that ends up saving her life is easy to anticipate but I can’t help but find the killer’s dispatchment to be especially nasty and amusing. There’s a darkly comedic tone running under the whole thing.

I wonder, if “Body Bags” had been picked up for series, if it would have been “Masters of Horror” a decade earlier. Aside from Carpenter directing, he sneaks in cameos from Wes Craven and Sam Raimi. (Both well cast as a dirty old man and a dead body, respectively.) Genre favorites like David Naughton and “Buck” Flowers have roles, while Alex Datcher makes a decent final girl. Robert Carradine ends up playing against type and is both amusing and kind of legitimately threatening. The in-jokey tone really becomes evident with the several shout-outs to “Halloween.” The entire story is set just outside of Haddonfield and Carpenter recreates the killer raising up from the ground shot. It’s not horror prime rib but “The Gas Station” does make for a decent horror fast food hamburger.

The second Carpenter lensed story, “Hair,” is a lot less successful. The premise is hokey in the highest degree. While the idea of a man’s insecurity about loosing his hair has some ripe opportunity to commit on aging, the show instead goes for easy gags. This is meant to be a comedy but the laughs rarely come. The set-up is long-winded and the lead character’s obsession with his lack of hair just seems overly exaggerated. The montage of waxing, flaxing, long hair blowing in the wind set to Crosby, Still, and Nash really goes on too long. The sci-fi/horror elements come with a thud. Stanley Keach does okay in the lead but seems strangulated by the material. David Warner and Debby Harry have little to do in their small roles. It seems odd that talented, known names like them would be cast in roles that don’t amount to much. The ending is inconclusive and lifeless. The only thing I really liked about “Hair” were the little stop-motion hair monsters. The movie even overdoes that. The first time we see the cut hairs slithering off on their own, it’s clever. The amusement factor goes down with each additional shot.

I probably would have watched and enjoyed a full run of “Body Bags.” The first story is quite good, the second is super lame, and the third is about half-and-half. As far as horror anthology records out, one-and-a-half out of three isn’t too bad. “Body Bags” is probably a little better then it’s reputation suggests.  
[The Gas Station: B] [Hair: C-] [Film overall: B-]

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