#19 in my ranking of John Carpenter’s films.
Originally meant as the first three episodes of a Tales from the Crypt ripoff on Showtime, Body Bags was made into an anthology feature film ala The Twilight Zone: The Movie when Showtime passed on the show. It’s really not that hard to see why. None of this is the best work of either John Carpenter or Tobe Hooper, the directors of the three shorts, going from okay to kind of bad. If this was an effort to create a show, the material presented as the beginning really should be strong than this.
The three shorts are tied together with John Carpenter playing a part in a morgue, talking to the dead bodies and finding the ones in body bags (hence the anthology’s title), meaning those who died of unnatural causes, which leads us into each story. Carpenter plays the part with quite a good amount of frantic energy, but I can’t imagine that if the show had gone to series that he would have tolerated the makeup for too long of a shoot.
Anyway, the first short was directed by Carpenter and is titled “The Gas Station.” It’s about a young woman, Anne (Alex Datcher), who shows up to her first night of work at a remote gas station. She gets the quick rundown on the place from Bill (Robert Carradine), and she’s alone to study psychology (namely a bit about sociopathy) and deal with the oddballs who go to gas stations in the middle of the night. There’s a creepy older man (Wes Craven, actually) who buys cigarettes and says weird things to her. There’s a handsome guy in a sports car (David Naughton) who seems charming. There’s a boisterous man with a lady buying gas (Peter Jason and Molly Cheek). And finally there’s a bum (George Flower) who asks for the bathroom key and disappears. This short works best in the ever-creeping sense of unease as the night goes on. When Anne accidentally locks herself out of the booth, needing to go in the nearby garage for the extra set of keys, it’s actually a wonderfully tense moment that Carpenter rather expertly draws out. It kind of falls apart in the end, though. The psychopath is revealed, and Anne does everything she can to not run away until we get the splatter-filled ending that Carpenter pretty obviously was thinking of from the beginning. The buildup is better than the release, that is.
The second short is titled “Hair” (also directed by Carpenter), and it’s about an older man, Richard (Stacey Keach), who is consumed with thoughts of his increasing baldness. His attractive, young redhead of a girlfriend, Megan (Sheena Easton), has no concerns for it and likes him the way he is, but that does nothing for his confidence. He ends up going to a mysterious Doctor Lock (David Warner) who promises him great results, eventually gracing Richard with a long set of natural locks that extend down past his shoulders. He’s ecstatic, and everything goes his way. Megan, despite her protestations earlier, falls even more madly in love with Richard as a result of the hair, but something’s wrong. The hair won’t stop, and it starts growing out of weird places in his face and leaving sores. There’s a nefarious purpose for this, of course. This short works best when it’s funny, like Richard, depressed after a trip to a hairdresser, looking out and seeing women, men, and even dogs with glorious hair that he laments. The ending leaves us with one of those tired ironic twists that The Twilight Zone‘s original run barely managed to do well most of the time.
The final story, directed by Hooper, is titled “Eye”, and it’s the story of Brent (Mark Hamill), a minor league baseball player who loses an eye in a car crash. He gets a replacement in an untested procedure, and he and his wife Cathy (Twiggy) have to learn to live with what comes next. It’s pretty standard stuff where Brent starts seeing visions of the man who had the eye before and, of course, they’re all horrible things of murder. He eventually gets overcome by the visions and must do something drastic. It’s really a showcase for Hamill who’s pretty good in the role, but the story is really too predictable and rote. It doesn’t help that the short seems to want to imply that maybe Brent had these kind of violent tendencies within him all the time, but the opening of him seeing a potential shot at the majors before his car crash is too thinly nice to have planted that kind of seed. It’s the least of the three, and it doesn’t really do much.
Overall, it’s a very middle selection of shorts all from directors who had done much better work and written by Billy Brown and Dan Angel, a pair of minor television writers. The best of them comes first, but it’s still not all that good. It goes downhill from there, though.
The Gas Station: 2.5/4