Body Bags (1993)

The cinematic equivalent of a short story collection, horror anthologies are great because they bottle midnight-genre thrills into compact running times, cutting out the filler. Body Bags is a Tales from the Crypt-esque affair – John Carpenter, who also directs the first two of three episodes, plays our comically macabre host, telling bad joke after bad joke in the best way possible. This acts as the wraparound, and we briefly jump back to the morgue after each episode has finished.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Body Bags is its emphasis on character, something I’ve not seen from any horror anthology ever. The first is a character driven slasher, and a confident formal exercise from Carpenter, proving that he’s as masterful as ever even late in his directorial career. Alex Datchner plays Anne, a college student who picks up a night shift as a gas station clerk. Carpenter’s clever use of spacing and isolation, as well as the way he uses camera movement brings a pretty interesting level of tension, and Anne’s character is built quickly and effectively – I cared about her and about what happened to her. It’s also an effective look at perception and expectations, as well as a brief examination of the male gaze (the way in which Carpenter uses the camera brilliantly places us in Anne’s point of view, and the customers that approach the service booth all appear potentially dangerous, even the handsome fellow Anne smiles at). “The Gas Station” is top tier slasher bravura without an ounce of fat.

Carpenter also directs “Hair,” which is more of an absurd comedy than anything resembling horror – Stacy Keach, who looks a lot like Powers Boothe, is obsessed with his quickly thinning hair. His self absorption drives his girlfriend away and leaves him desperate enough to try a “get hair quick” process. It is really, really funny, and gets progressively more ridiculous as the episode continues (Keach’s Richard grows flowing hair that falls just above his butt). It’s also a comical skewering of our obsession with youthfulness and materialism, both in Richard’s ridiculous need for hair and the way his girlfriend goes crazy once she sees his outrageous mane. It ends up somewhere in Twilight Zone territory, and Carpenter’s one-two punch of straight laced slasher and absurdist comedy is brilliant. Some might dislike the tonal whiplash, I loved it.

Lastly, the legendary Tobe Hooper directs “Eye,” starring Mark Hamill as Brent, a baseball player who loses his eye in a serious car crash and receives a replacement. Hooper conjures up some pretty disturbing and compelling images here, making the most of the horrific visions that befall Brent due to his new eye – the duality of his nature is brought to the fore, exemplified by a rough sex scene in which the image of Brent’s blonde wife (Twiggy) flashes violently to that of a bloody, dead blonde woman. Although formally the most audacious and stylized of the three, Hooper’s one-off does feel slightly out of place, particularly in its relative lack of playfulness. He aims to disturb and disgust and horrify, but Hamill’s acting doesn’t quite jive. That said, its final image of a Bible verse covered in blood spatters is one for the ages.

Body Bags is streaming free on Shout Factory TV.

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