By their very nature, portmanteau films are often messy, unfocussed pieces that prove to be more interesting in theory than they do in practice. But there are exceptions to this rule, the most notable being 1993’s ridiculously enjoyable Body Bags. Whether the film’s success comes from the talent involved – John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper direct segments – or whether it works because of the unforced manner in which it was produced, (it was initially designed to be a television series in the vein of Tales of The Crypt and only became a film by accident) either way, the results remain the same: it’s a grimly comic masterpiece, a harkening back to the stridently moral, deliciously twisted stories contained within the pages of EC Comics.
Playing the role of The Coroner, John Carpenter sets the proceedings in motion, doing a good job in a Crypt Keeper/Emcee role which becomes increasingly enjoyable the longer Carpenter struts about on screen. He’s a surprisingly good actor, and he mixes a diabolical knowing and cheesy one-liners with energy and aplomb. Best of all, the wrap around section in which he stars feels less like a stalling of the action, and more like a twisty narrative in its own right, complete with a sting in the tale at the finale that genuinely delights, albeit in a ghoulish way.
Of all the film’s three sections, the first, ‘The Gas Station’ is the most polished. Genuinely tense, it’s typical ‘stories around the campfire’ stuff about a young woman stuck working at a gas station while a killer lurks about the shadows. But despite the potential predictability of the plot, the piece really works, thanks largely due to the classy, restrained direction and cameos from Wes Craven – playing the world’s most kindly-looking sleaze – and Sam Raimi.
But although ‘The Gas Station’ might technically be the best made segment, the most enjoyable is the one dead in the film’s centre: ‘Hair.’ A deliciously comic, brilliantly paced piece about a man who will go to any lengths to get a full head of hair, it has one of the most memorably unhinged payoffs in recent memory, and the yicky finale is powerful, gruesome stuff.
The final segment, “Eye”, is great too, as baseball player Brent Matthews (Mark Hamill) receives an eye transplant and inherits a legacy of pain and murder with the body part. Again, it’s plot is familiar, but the gusto and genuine love that is poured into every aspect of the production means the segment reaches dizzying heights of grand Guignol madness.
Ultimately and most importantly, Body Bags is fun. It’s fun in a way that so few films are. It’s unpretentious; it’s direct; it knows what it wants and it goes for it. It never tries to be anything that it isn’t, and by accepting the delicious ramifications of its own ludicrousness, it becomes genuinely great.