Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1993) Part 2

13. Body Bags  
Co-directed with John Carpenter

I think I’ve told this story before. In fact, I know I have because I already reviewed “Body Bags” back in 2013. During my John Carpenter Director Report Card, I watched the film and reviewed the two segments Carpenter directed, as well as the wrap-around sequences he appeared in. I excluded the one segment Tobe Hooper directed because I knew, some day, that I would cover Hooper’s career. That day has come but there’s no way I’m just going to talk about the one story Hooper directed. That’s not like me. So get ready for Zack’s Review of “Body Bags:” Take Two, in which I once again dissect Showtime’s failed attempt to replicate the success of “Tales from the Crypt.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that “Body Bags” was created by Showtime to cash in on the success HBO had with “Tales from the Crypt.” Lacking the library of grisly EC Comics to draw from, the would-be series instead invented another gimmick. The show attracted top-tier horror talent. John Carpenter would host as the Coroner and directed two parts of the pilot movie. Even though Tobe Hooper’s career defining hits of “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “Poltergeist” seemed eons away at this point, he was still a name horror fans knew. The show would also feature well known horror directors in front of the camera. Aside from Carpenter’s main role and Hooper’s cameo, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Roger Corman also had bit parts in the pilot movie. (Years later, “Masters of Horror” would lead a similar concept to slightly more success.) For whatever reason though, Showtime didn’t pick “Body Bags” up for series, leaving this tri-segmented movie as the sole reminder of the potential show’s existence.

The clear debt “Body Bags” owed “Tales from the Crypt” is most obvious in its framing device. Instead of an animatronic Crypt Keeper cracking lame puns and performing goofy skits, we have John Carpenter’s Coroner doing a similar shtick. Instead of drawing his stories from a tome filled with grisly comic book pages, the Coroner relates the cause of death of recent arrivals to the morgue. Each body bag contains a different victim with a different story behind it, guaranteeing that each story will include at least one violent death. That’s a solid premise for an anthology series. Carpenter, though not accustomed to being in front of the camera, happily hams it up as the Coroner. His goofball antics tickle the same part of my brain that finds John Kassir’s Crypt Keeper so amusing. Except for that joke devoted to ogling female corpses, one of which has giant jiggling breasts. That’s kind of uncomfortable.

The first segment in “Body Bags” is directed by Carpenter. “The Gas Station” takes place in a particularly creepy example of the titular location. Anne has recently accepted a job as the night clerk at a filling station. That the cashier is behind bullet proof glass unnerves her slightly, though she doesn’t show it. The stories of grisly murders and a serial killer being out and about unnerves her too. As the night goes on, she has encounters with more creepy customers. It’s all build-up to that serial killer targeting her, littering the filling stations with bodies and chasing after Anne with a machete.

“The Gas Station” is littered with in-jokes. Craven and Raimi’s cameos are only the most obvious. The eponymous business is a few miles outside Haddonfield, Illinois. As in, the setting of “Halloween.” After the story’s serial killer is knocked down, he slowly rises back up in the background of a shot. This, of course, mirrors a similar shot in Carpenter’s most well-known masterpiece. In many ways, “The Gas Station” almost plays like a parody of the slasher movie, the genre Carpenter popularized. The encounters Anna has with spooky customers are so blatantly creepy that it borders on silly. Two peek-a-boo corpses appear in quick succession. As with Dr. Loomis and Laurie, a man arrives at the last minute to save the shrieking woman’s life. Instead of a masked spectre of death, the killer in “The Gas Station” is a grinning, glad-handing store manager. Despite clearly going for laughs, the segment still generates some okay suspense, such as when the killer smashes through a window, the heroine trying to escape.

Despite the silly script, “The Gas Station” features an above average cast. Alex Datcher’s Anna does need a man to save her life. Before that, she’s a reasonably resourceful, amusing horror heroine. It’s clear that the night’s increasing frights undue her composure. Robert Carradine, David’s brother best known for “Revenge of the Nerds,” plays Bill, the murderer. Contrasting Carradine’s unassuming appearance with the character’s murderous antics is a cute visual gag. Carradine proves surprisingly adapt at being a killer too, playing Bill with an ever-lasting psychotic grin. David Naughton is underutilized as the guy who saves Anna, not doing much more then showing up when appropriate. Wes Craven’s cameo, for which he’s credited as “Pasty-Faced Man,” is funny and Carpenter regular George "Buck" Flower appears as a creepy bum.

If “The Gas Station” is partially comedic, Carpenter’s second story goes for full-blown laughs. The unimaginatively entitled “Hair” stars Stacy Keach as Richard, a man going bald. This turn of events upsets him greatly, even though his girlfriend says she doesn’t mind. All his attempts to cure this condition, which include a moldy hair piece and viscous spray-on hair in a can, prove unpopular. A late night TV advertisement leads him to Dr. Lock. Lock and his nurse implant new hair on Richard’s head, a flowing mane that is irresistible to woman. Though overjoyed with this development at first, Richard is startled by the rapid growth of the hair. He develops a sore throat. Soon, he discovers his new hair is actually worm-like creatures, eating his body from the inside out.

“Hair” is an especially ridiculous goof about the fragility of the male ego. Loosing your hair has no effect on your health or age. Richard, however, thinks of it as the end of the world. It’s a sign that he’s getting older, that his masculine vitality is fading, and that’s what really bothers him. Though that’s a premise with potential, “Hair” doesn’t go for deep-cutting gags about macho entitlement. Instead, its jokes are of a rather broad variety. Richard has a quasi-gay hairdresser cut his hair. After having his toupee discarded, we’re treated to a slow motion montage of other people with streaming, flaxen, waxen hair. The eventual reveal that the hair implants are actually worm like monsters is silly. However, the stop-motion effects that create them are fairly charming.

Stacy Keach is not an actor especially well-known for comedy. However, in “Hair,” he acquaints himself with the script’s silliness quite amicably. His exaggerated dismay at his thinning hairline is worth a few laughs. He’s a good sport, such as when he’s covered in strands of long hair. Also appearing in the segment is David Warner as Dr. Lock. Warner brings his usual level of professionalism to the part, even when he’s reduced to delivering flat exposition. Weirdly, pop singers are cast in the female leads. Shenna Easton plays Keach’s girlfriend, doing okay but not convincing us she’s a great actress. Debbie Harry plays Lock’s nurse. Harry mugs it up to entertaining levels, delivering enthusiastic dialogue.

The final story in “Body Bags” is directed by Tobe Hooper, the subject of this report card. The also unimaginatively entitled “Eye” concerns Brent Matthews. A star baseball player, Brent looses his right eye in a car accident. Brent is despondent, convinced that his career is over. However, his doctor tells him surgery is possible, transporting a fresh eye into Brent’s empty socket. His life appears to be looking up, especially after his wife informs him she’s pregnant. However, Brent is haunted by macabre visions of dead bodies. His behavior soon turns moody and violent. He discovers that his eye was taken from an executed serial killer and it appears the dead murderer’s spirit is seizing control of Matthew’s body.

“Eye” is a fairly unimaginative affair, being more-or-less another variation on the old “Hands of Orlac” story. If you’re looking for Tobe Hooper trademarks, you’ll have to search deep. There’s no detailed production design and little in the way of expressive camera movement. The visions of dead bodies appearing to Brent are stock parts horror stuff. How he discovers his eyeball’s murderous origins is especially ludicrous, being told by a librarian how to look stuff up on a computer.  The script’s preoccupation with Bible verses seems out of place with the rest of the plot. The story’s descent into last act melodrama might speak to Hooper’s kooky side. By the time you’ve got Mark Hamil tying Twiggy to a table leg by her hair and threatening to murder her with scissors, “Eye” has escalated to an amusingly pulpy location. I also like the flashbacks to the killer’s childhood, which is the sole moment of interesting camerawork in the film.

As mentioned above, “Eye” stars the once and future Luke Skywalker. Mark Hamil’s performance could have used some more of that “Midnight Ride”-style manic villainy. As he goes more nuts, “Eye” becomes more entertaining. For most of the story, Hamil sports an unconvincing Southern accent and a truly dad-worthy mustache. Yes, the original supermodel Twiggy plays his wife. She brings an alright motherly warmth to the part even if the script doesn’t ask her to do much. John Agar has a bit role as the doctor who performs Hamil’s surgery. It would’ve been nice to see the genre legend do more then nonchalantly tell Hamil his eye is from a serial killer. That’s still more then Roger Corman, who has a similar cameo, does.

None of the stories in “Body Bags” are mind-blowing or ground-breaking. Yet none of them are terrible either. There all simple horror snacks, satisfying if lacking in meaningful calories. I don’t know if “Body Bags” could’ve worked as a series, as all three of the film’s stories never quite raise to the level of some of the better “Tales from the Crypt” episodes. But would I have watched an on-going “Body Bags?” Almost assuredly, if only to see what morbid puns Carpenter’s Coroner cooked up each week. And, hey, the flick does feature a pretty good theme song, naturally provided by John. I promise I won’t review this movie again. [Grade: B]

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