Calling Out Why BODY BAGS Withstands The Test Of Time

Wow, so John Carpenter turns 70 today. Seems like only yesterday he was a 30-year-old kid directing the hell out of Halloween. What a journeyman this guy is. And of course, a John Carpenter birthday is an excuse to discuss his work. The choices are endless. Do we talk about how great he is at Stephen King adaptations? (Christine still holds up.) Do we take a couple of handfuls of psychotropics and have a trippy discussion about Ghosts of Mars? Ah, what the hell, I say we burn some Jiffy Pop and talk about John Carpenter’s Body Bags.

It was the late 80s when Showtime really got jealous. Televised horror anthologies were riding a crest of popularity. Tales from the Darkside (1984), Friday the 13th: The Series (1987), Freddy’s Nightmares (1988), and Monsters (1988) were thriving in syndication, but this was PG-rated stuff, and it wasn’t until HBO’s highly successful, R-rated Tales from the Crypt launched to raves and almost immediate cult status that Showtime realized it has somehow been left out of the party. The cable network turned to John Carpenter to produce and direct a horror anthology of its own. The result is John Carpenter’s Body Bags (1993), a trio of stories that serve as a sobering reminder of what might have been.

Much like HBO’s Crypt Keeper introduced each slightly twisted horror tale, Carpenter introduces each story as a formaldehyde-swilling coroner in a dank, body-sheeted mortuary (although, to be honest, Carpenter has taken on the natural physical appearance of an undead coroner since around 1980). Carpenter directs the first two segments, with buddy Tobe Hooper helming the third story. The series wasn’t picked up, and as a result, Tales from the Crypt had an essential monopoly on the horror anthology format all through the 1990s. It makes you wonder what other horror greats might have taken on an episode had Body Bags continued.

The first story, ‘The Gas Station’, introduces a scatter-brained gas station employee working her first overnight shift, alone, on the same night a serial killer is on the loose (of course). A bevy of mildly threatening men are introduced one-by-one, forcing the audience into an unintentional game of ‘Clue’ as we try to figure out who the killer might be. Is it super-friendly gas station boss Robert Carradine? Is it the disheveled bum who wants to use the restroom to squeeze in a power nap? Is it David Naughton from An American Werewolf in London? Is it Employee of the Month Sam Raimi? Carpenter applies the stalk-and-kill template he perfected in Halloween to ‘The Gas Station’, with some scenes seeming to move in a nightmarish slow-motion. My personal favorite of the three stories.

The second story, ‘Hair’, is horror that’s been sieved through John Carpenter’s decidedly eccentric sense of humor. Stacy Keach, in between the ‘Mike Hammer’ series and the ‘Mike Hammer’ reboot and in a really strange place career-wise, stars as a man so desperate not to go bald, he signs up for an experimental protein procedure at Roswell Hair Growth. Perhaps a bit too aggressively, he decides to go with ‘The Stallion’, awakening to a glorious brunette Fabio mane that cascades over his shoulders like melted tar. But, as is the case with most experimental cosmetic procedures in horror anthologies, it doesn’t take long for Keach’s face to get all hairy and gnarly and shit. And for his new hair to turn into tiny little snakes? Weird.

Tobe Hooper directs ‘Eye’, and for those who are saying the new Star Wars movies represent Mark Hamill’s big comeback…well, I guess those supernerds didn’t see Hamill act the shit out of Body Bags. After he loses his eye in a car accident (in a gruesome R-rated money shot…Showtime was really trying to compete here), baseball player Hamill goes all-in for one of those Hands of Orloc eye transplants. Predictably, it doesn’t take long for the new eye to start kicking Hamill some strange, traumatic visions. Oh sure, it’s easy to be impressed by his vacillating Southern accent and tough-guy mustache, but it’s not until Hamill starts screaming ‘John Randall!’ and waving a pair of rubber hedge trimmers around that you realize you’re in the presence of dramatic greatness.

So what is about John Carpenter’s Body Bags that manages to retain a legitimate cult status after all this time? Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), Tales from the Hood (1995), and Trilogy of Terror II (1996) are all arguably better horror anthologies than Body Bags…but horror fans will not let this one go. It can partially be attributed to the hipness of pay cable stations like HBO and Showtime (we were still a few years from that damned V-chip, so if you had pay cable and absentee parents in 1993, you had instant friends). But it really comes down to the involvement of John Carpenter, one of the most beloved and influential figures in the horror community. His warped sense of tone permeates Body Bags, stories told in that intangible Carpenter way. He’s the reason it retains its status among horror fans.

You know, nobody ever needs an excuse to fire up a little bit of John Carpenter, but it’s always nice to have one. So happy birthday, J.C.