Thursday, December 3, 2015

John Carpenter, part XXI: Do you like EC Comics? Well, I know someone who does


Hey, it's not like Tales From the Crypt was all that great, either.

Directed by John Carpenter ("The Gas Station," "Hair"), Tobe Hooper ("The Eye"), and Larry Sulkis (something, apparently)
Written by Billy Brown and Dan Angel
"The Gas Station": Alex Datcher (Anne) and Robert Carradine (Bill)
"Hair": Stacey Keach (Richard Coberts), Sheena Easton (Megan), and David Warner (Dr. Lock)
"The Eye": Mark Hamill (Brent Matthews), Twiggy (Cathy Matthews), and John Agar (Dr. Lang)
...along with your host, John Carpenter (The Coroner)

Spoiler alert: mild

Disregarding a couple of screenplays, John Carpenter had kept his nose out of television for almost fifteen years by the time 1993 rolled around.  His last directorial foray across the American airwaves had been with Elvis, a piece of barely-watchable super-garbage that I hate more and more every time I'm forced to think about it.  Anyway, following the Third Impact to his big-budget feature film career—also known as Memoirs of an Invisible Man—'93 must have seen him willing to entertain the notion of steadier, less risky work for the small screen.  That's how he came to team up with Showtime, who—coveting HBO's success with Tales From the Crypt—were looking to make their own crummy horror anthology series, and needed somebody with a reputation, who could class up the bandwagon they were getting ready to ride.  The result was Body Bags, which is so outrageously similar to Crypt that it would be borderline-actionable, if only the EC Comics format established in the 1950s hadn't been bled so completely dry by so many other imitators in the four decades intervening.  Not that it could have mattered very much to HBO anyway, given that Showtime abandoned their knock-off after finishing the first three episodes, packaging them up instead as an orphaned TV movie.  You can see that we're dealing with an utterly transitory little thing here, and yet we can still find Body Bags, just lurking around in the back of the pop cultural mind, presumably solely because of the two directors who contributed segments to it: JC himself and old Tobe Hooper.  With all due respect to you Hooper fans out there, I'm pretty sure it's mainly Carpenter, and for one pretty great reason, which we'll return to at the end.

In the meantime, let's consider this ungainly, film-like product.  Body Bags faces the choice that all horror anthologies do: either to be wildly uneven in terms of quality and tone; or, to be kind of stupid and sucky, but in a uniform manner.  Body Bags opts for the latter, and not a single one of its three segments, taken on their own merits, suggest a reason to think that Showtime didn't make the right call when they pulled the plug.

The first short is "The Gas Station," directed by John Carpenter, and revolving around a gas station in Haddonfield (presumably, that Haddonfield, although the story takes advantage of this in no macroscopic way).  Anne is the new hire, arriving for her first day on the job, or rather first evening, and an unpleasant evening it shall turn out to be.  Besides the usual assortment of nightcrawling creeps making sexual advances and homeless men tricking her into letting them use the bathroom as a urine-scented hobo hotel, we have Haddonfield's KPLOT Radio, Home of Exposition and the Butt, letting us know upfront that there's a serial killer on the loose.  (Well, it is Haddonfield, after all—the cops probably took the night off knowing it's just a human agent of evil out there this time.)

"Gas Station" amounts to a challenge Carpenter poses to himself: make a horror film out of almost literally nothing at all.  A lone woman, accosted by anonymous men of varying degrees of grossness, one of whom will turn out to be righteous, and one of whom will turn out to be a throat-slashing murderer?  Please, stop me if you've heard this one before.  People like to talk about Halloween's simplicity, but it's not nearly as no-nonsense as its reputation suggests—any line uttered by Donald Pleasence belies those claims pretty much immediately.  "The Gas Station," meanwhile, is the barest-boned horror narrative you'll find outside of the story about that guy with a hook.  (And, hell, even that had some skin in it.)  The pleasant surprise of "Gas Station," then, is that Carpenter completely fulfills his meager ambitions: while there's a very hard limit on how good it can be, with its prosaic killer, mostly-indifferent murders, and a premise that is totally unexamined in its banal silliness—you left your new employee unsupervised?—it's just about every inch as good as its foundation permits.  Of course, that's still not terribly good; but it's as clearly Carpenter as anything in his whole career, with its looming, portentous shot design, subtle pace, and fun twist ending.  Plus, at least one image of the gas station, rendered as a fluorescent outpost in outer space, is frankly good enough that, later, you'll wonder what the hell it was ever doing here, in Body Bags.  You won't wonder that in the moment, though, because this short is so immaculately-crafted in general.  However, while Gary Kibbe is the credited cinematographer for the whole thing, "Gas Station" is the only one where that is remotely apparent.

John Carpenter directs Douglas Adams' Service Station at the End of the Universe.

And speaking of suspicious credits, let's move right along to the second short, "Hair."  This one's attributed to Carpenter as well, and holy cow, if you would recognize "Gas Station" as JC instantly, "Hair" is such flatly-lit anonymity that I honestly don't believe it is his—especially when there's the bothersome issue of IMDB and a bunch of other sources asserting that some director named Larry Sulkis went uncredited, without anyone ever clarifying whatever the hell he went uncredited for.  Though it's probably the interstitial host segments, I prefer to assume it's "Hair," because "Hair" looks dumb.  "Hair" is dumb, of course, so maybe it's a case of form following function; nevertheless, as a narrative, "Hair" is dumb in a pleasant, easy-going kind of way, which is rather more than you can say about its aesthetic.

"Hair" tells the story of Richard Coberts, an aging man with a fading mane.  He's seemingly incapable of reconciling his inner insecurities with the demonstrable fact that he's in a wicked hot age-inappropriate relationship with an incredibly attractive redhead, who only seems to find him unappealing when he's whining like a baby about being bald.

Theoretically, then, I should find a lot to relate to in this short.

Richard, apparently being stalked by an advertisement, finally gives up on conventional, bullshit treatments, and makes an appointment with famed hair-specialist Dr. Lock.  (Get it?  In case I didn't mention it, this is a rip-off of Tales From the Crypt, with all the extremely cleverish punnery that implies.)  Lock and his handsy, unprofessional nurse give Richard a special "protein treatment": a technology indistinguishable from magic that shall restore his lost hair literally overnight—and to Fabio-length, no less.  Richard doesn't ask too many questions; Lock doesn't tell him too many lies; and that's how Richard is taken by surprise when the hair starts sprouting through his face, out of the very back of his throat (!), and, finally, comes to life (with little mouths and fangs and everything).  The final denouement is pretty neat, particularly as David Warner, admirably committed to the bit, walks us through it with gentle yet sinister authority.  Still, although this segment, like the next one, benefits from having minor-but-recognizable stars—and no, Robert Carradine is not a "recognizable star"—Stacey Keach isn't nearly as fun as you'd hope, nor even as interesting as you'd frankly expect.  Without even the saving grace of some especially good gore make-up to visualize Richard's hirsute degradation, "Hair" winds up scraping by as a marginally entertaining but completely undistinguished effort at horror-satire.

Last but not quite least, we arrive at Tobe Hooper's "The Eye"—and I'm not sure I even need to tell you what it's about, since the title basically says it all.  Yet another riff on the territory staked out by The Hands of Orlac, Mad Love, etc., "Eye" trafficks in organ transplant horror, and though I can't prove offhand that it isn't the first motion picture to deal with a transplanted eye, I find it entirely impossible that it could be, so I'm certain it has to be directly ripping off something.  Well, anyway, this one's about Brent Matthews, a minor league baseball player who's just had the best game of his life.  He'll no doubt be pulled up into the majors any day now—assuming, that is, he doesn't get into a car accident on the way home, jamming a piece of metal straight through his eye.

...Well, what were the fucking odds?

And it's on the night his wife Cathy was going to tell him she was pregnant, too!  Some lousy God he must believe in.  (Much is made of Brent's Christianity.)  Assuming his career is finished, along with his binocular vision, Brent spies a ray of hope in the form of Dr. Lang (hey, it's John Agar, everybody!).  As with Richard in the previous segment, Brent asks no questions, so Lang puts a new eye in his skull, harvested from a cadaver.  Like clockwork, Brent begins to experience mysterious, gruesome visions at odds with his mild-mannered persona, notably the sight of intercourse with a corpse.  As we already guessed and as Brent eventually finds out, the eye came from a notorious sex murderer.  Brent soon finds himself caught in the killer's pathology—and, of course, replicating his awful crimes.

Now, "The Eye" isn't too shabby, and while it barely appears to be the work of a professional feature film director, or even Tobe Hooper (zing!), it also doesn't feel half as small-scale and "TV" as "Hair."  Instead, the big problem here is pacing.  Inasmuch as "The Eye" is blisteringly schematic, twenty-five minutes is probably about all it actually deserves; and yet it's clear that it still would have benefited from at least a little more time.  The issues with this badly-compressed possession tale manifest at their most forceful when Brent scours the library's newspaper archives, learning quite a bit about the former owner of his new eye—whereupon Hooper plunges right ahead to him going crazy in his house, since apparently the whole bit was staged for our benefit alone, whereas Brent himself didn't bother even trying to do anything with all this new, highly-important information.  It's too bad, since both the concept and the gore are the best in show (for whatever that's worth, anyway).  In other regards, it's not like it's a serious wasted opportunity: Mark Hamill, whom I've always liked, is here completely imprisoned within a southern accent; meanwhile, Twiggy, though she evidently felt no need to attempt any accent but her own, is terrible anyway.  I'll say this, however: "The Eye" ends very well, with the exact kind of juvenile poetic justice that you'd always prefer to find in your EC Comics-inspired horror anthology.

But of course, what you want more than anything from your EC Comics-inspired horror anthology is a wacky and macabre host—and in this regard, Body Bags has got your number.  Much as the Cryptkeeper is self-evidently the best thing about Tales From the Crypt—to the extent that the only thing I can even remember twenty years later is that puppet making his lame quips and cackling—the best thing about Body Bags is its host.  He's an unnamed "coroner," but, let's be clear: it's John fucking Carpenter.  Carpenter had acted in his movies before (he was the janitor with unresolved labor issues in The Fog; he utilized his pilot skills behind the stick of a helicopter in Memoirs), but here's the thing: he's not very good at acting, and he hated watching himself try.  Luckily, the duties of a horror anthology host don't include "acting" in any conventional sense, and Carpenter proves to be shockingly ideal as our formaldehyde-swilling guide through this morgue full of stories, digging deeply into his impossibly broad caricature while selling the living shit out of every last one of his amusingly awful jokes.  It's therefore thanks to JC, not as a director, but in the flesh—so to speak (ha, ha, ha)—that Body Bags' collection of inoffensive ephemera winds up even as memorable as it does.

Score, "The Gas Station": 6/10
Score, "Hair":  5/10
Score, "The Eye": 5.01/10
Score, host segments:  7/10
Score, Body Bags: 6/10

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