31 by 31 Challenge #12: BODY BAGS (1993)

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When compiling a list of great horror anthologies, Body Bags is an oft yet criminally overlooked contender, which is mind boggling if you’ve ever seen it, or even if you just glance at the film’s roster. Directed by John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper for Showtime, and featuring a veritable who’s who of early 90’s celebrities and horror icons–including cameos by Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Tom Arnold–the film was meant to be a creepy-story-of-the-week TV show to compete with HBO’s massively successful Tales From the Crypt (1989-1996). After filming only three episodes, however, the show was canceled, and the segments were compiled into Body Bags, leaving us all to pine for what might have been.

John Carpenter plays The Coroner, a wise-cracking cross between the Crypt Keeper and Beetlejuice, who welcomes the viewer to the county morgue and introduces each of the three tales while drinking formaldehyde and searching for the most grisly and mangled bodies he can find. Despite only popping up between segments, Carpenter absolutely steals the show as The Coroner, and framing the stories as explanations for how these bodies ended up in the morgue is clever and fresh. Carpenter’s clearly having a blast in the role, and his energy translates well, making it just an absolute blast to kick back and enjoy Body Bags.

Carpenter directs the first two segments, “The Gas Station,” and “Hair.” In the first–which is set in Haddonfield, Illinois–a young woman (Alex Datcher) working the late shift at an isolated gas station/mechanics is plagued by strange visitors and unnerved by news of an active serial killer in the area. David Naughton, Wes Craven, and Robert Carradine all drop by at one point or another and the whole thing makes for a wonderfully tight and tense mini-Halloween. “Hair” is equally fun though more goofy; a body horror morality play featuring Stacy Keach as a middle-aged man obsessed with making sure he doesn’t go bald and willing to go to great lengths to keep a full head of hair. David Warner and Sheena Easton round out the players in this icky yet charming little terror fable.

Then there’s the fantastically nutso performance of Mark Hamill in “Eye,” the third and final segment directed by Tobe Hooper. As a baseball player that loses an eye and has it replaced with the eye of a deceased serial killer, Hamill goes all in and brings a few moments of genuine dread to the otherwise campy piece. There’s a twisted sense of glee in watching Luke Skywalker descend into madness in such an unsettling fashion, and the ending is appropriately bloody for a serial killer story.

Carpenter has stated that he never thought of himself as a talented actor, and so ceased casting himself in roles. Watching Body Bags, it’s a shame to think of what might have been if he had at least stuck with this particular character, and if Showtime had more faith in their Crypt-copycat. As with many things in life, and in the horror genre, fans must wonder what-if, but at the very least we have this taste of what should have been, a solid entry in the body of work of not one but two horror legends. Now, bag that up and take it with you.

Body Bags

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror

31 by 31 Challenge #9: THE MANGLER (1995)

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Adapting a Stephen King story is a tricky business. Despite the number of King’s tales that have been shifted from page to screen, Hollywood hasn’t quite pinned down a formula for how to make a successful King film. By and large, the general rule seems to be that if you want to tilt the scales in your favor, it’s best to stack the deck with horror royalty. Think Romero taking on Creepshow (1982) and The Dark Half (1993), or Carpenter with Christine (1983). Following that logic, a film directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Robert Englund and Ted Levine should be a complete blockbuster. But logic has failed us here.

The prize machine of the Blue Ribbon Laundry service is a monstrous device known as the mangler. It’s a dangerous press, but safety regulations seem to be the least concern of factory owner Bill Gartley (Englund). When an accident involving Gartley’s niece Sherry (Vanessa Pike) splashes blood onto the mangler, the sinister clunker appears to come to life, and it’s out for blood. Officer John Hunton (Levine) gets involved in the case when another worker dies, and he turns to his demonologist brother-in-law Mark (Daniel Matmor) when events at Blue Ribbon begin to defy earthly explanation.

There’s a decent amount to work with when it comes to The Mangler. As in the original short story, collected in Night Shift, there’s a commentary on American capitalism and gluttonous consumerism, specifically in how the working class is sacrificed in the name of dollar signs, and how the bodies of young women are exploited and abused with ease and encouragement in a patriarchal society. And then of course, a demonic laundry press comes to life and literally chases our heroes through an M.C. Escher hellscape because of some blood and a few antacids. It’s two completely different films. One half, the horror comedy headed by Englund in his droopy prosthetics and half-man/half-machine ensemble, is fun and goofy. The other half is a strange neo-noir tale with Levine moaning and groaning and carrying the weight of the cruel, unjust working world on his ever-so-broad shoulders.

What The Mangler gets wrong is trying to give equal weight to these two different stories being told. The safer bet would have been to embrace the inherent ridiculousness of the plot and go all in on the black comedy angle, much in the way that Carpenter does with Christine. In attempting to balance the humor with melodrama, Hooper creates a film that just doesn’t gel. It looks great–the sets are full of grime and slick muck and lazy steam and you can feel the woe and corruption practically pulsating in the walls–but visuals aren’t enough to save a disjointed narrative.

Short stories don’t always work when told in longer format, but there’s enough in The Mangler that could have made for an interesting feature. Small town elites sacrificing their virginal daughters could have been played up, as well as the more serious themes of corruption, greed, and misogyny. Perhaps Hooper didn’t want to strike out too far from King’s original work. The direction is often hesitant, as though he knew he had to choose between black comedy and melodrama but couldn’t commit. Unfortunately for him, and the viewer, neither half is strong enough to stand on its own and instead we’re left with something a bit more, well…mangled.

The Mangler

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror