*. The original idea was that Showtime was going to create a series out of the concept here, along the lines of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt. For whatever reason that didn’t work out, and so all we have is this horror anthology consisting of three stories and a frame set in a morgue.
*. As far as framing narratives go, it’s actually a pretty good one. I could have imagined this turning into a horror-comic Six Feet Under. But it was not to be.
*. Things get off to a decent start with the parody of the MGM roaring-lion logo, only this time with John Carpenter playing The Coroner wielding a roaring chainsaw above the motto Sanguis Gratia Artis.
*. From there we enter the morgue, with Carpenter done up in make-up recalling The Phantom of the Opera. There are a lot of groaner puns that come with the territory. They might have been delivered by the Crypt Keeper. Carpenter isn’t that great as an actor though and doesn’t ham the part up enough.
*. Body Bags is, however, Carpenter’s baby. There are a bunch of cameos made by other horror directors (Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Tobe Hooper), but they’re just walk-ons (or fall-ons, in the case of Raimi). Carpenter directed the first two segments and Tobe Hooper the third.
*. I thought something more interesting might have been done with the first story. The isolated gas station has the look of the fishbowl under siege that was later used in Splinter and ATM. But things settle down into a routine pretty quickly. There’s a slasher killer. There are comic interruptions. There are bodies to be discovered. The villain is “killed” only to come back to life, rising up behind the last girl in a shot right out of Halloween. Can you rip off your own earlier work? Maybe not, but this is all uninspired, routine stuff, and aside from Craven’s creepy appearance I can’t think of any reason to recommend it.
*. The third story is disappointing as well. The innocent guy (Mark Hamill) is in an accident and receives a transplant. In this case it’s an eye. Before you can think of such classic riffs on the theme as The Hands or Orlac or Mad Love, he’s having violent visions. It seems this eye came from an executed serial killer! Who would have ever guessed.
*. The visions might also make us think of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which, perhaps coincidentally, Carpenter wrote. In any event, things work out predictably, to the point where we even get the Bible verses about what to do if your eye offends you thrown into the mix. It’s a shame to end on such a tired note.
*. The saving grace here is the middle story, which has Stacy Keach as a balding man who is desperate to get his hair back. He goes to a clinic which, through some unstated procedure, infects him with an alien life form that uses him as a host. His “hair” is actually a nest of writhing worms, like tiny serpents, that feed on his brain.
*. Such a story is pure Stephen King, with its Everyman faced with a problem that is easy to relate to ending up on a sidetrack to hell. The set-up reminded me a lot of the story “Quitters, Inc.” in Cat’s Eye, with a main character who should have been more careful about what he wished for.
*. But what really makes it work, and makes it so memorable, is the unnervingly real quality of the infection. Basically the alien parasites are just another kind of worm, of the sort that millions of people get every day, either in their guts or just under their skin (tapeworm, ringworm, etc.).
*. Body Bags is a much better film than its origin as a failed TV pilot would lead you to believe. The morgue frame is good, and comes with a nice twist at the end. There are several interesting cameos. And at least one of the stories, the second, is great. The rest of it is pedestrian and uninspired genre stuff, but this is a genre (the anthology horror) that isn’t known for a lot of memorable moments. Twenty-five years later, I think it holds up better than a lot of similar films that were released on a bigger screen.