In 2005 (the day I moved to Los Angeles, in fact), Masters of Horror premiered on Showtime for the first of its two seasons (a third season of sorts was reworked into Fear Itself, airing on NBC). The concept was incredible for genre fans: every week we'd get a new mini-movie (just under an hour) from one of our genre heavyweights: Don Coscarelli, John Landis, Joe Dante, Tom Holland... the lineup was truly incredible. Among their number was John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper, who were probably the biggest horror icons in the bunch thanks to Halloween and Texas Chainsaw - but they were also sort of the "experts" on the crew, as they had already gone down the anthology route with Showtime twelve years earlier.
That film was called Body Bags, and it had two segments from Carpenter ("The Gas Station" and "Hair") and one from Hooper ("The Eye"), with wraparound segments featuring Carpenter himself, buried under Rick Baker makeup and playing a very Betelgeuse-y coroner. According to the IMDb trivia, the idea was to make a full series, but Showtime pulled the plug and released it as a one-off feature, denying us more of The Coroner's hilariously bad puns. But according to Carpenter and producer Sandy King on Scream Factory's new special edition Blu-ray of the film, the real reason it never continued was because Showtime wanted to cut costs by producing the series in Canada, and Carpenter/King both walked away, feeling that what made the movie special was the ability to call up friends in LA and have them come by for quick cameos, something they'd never be able to do in Canada.
Indeed, even in 1993, nearly a decade before Spider-Man, it was otherwise sort of beneath Sam Raimi to come in to play a corpse - he's the real employee in "The Gas Station" that is killed by our villain before the episode begins, and thus showed up to play a dead guy stuffed into a locker. You also have Wes Craven (surprisingly decent) as a drunk, Tom Arnold as one of the morgue attendants (partnered with Hooper), Carpenter regulars like Buck Flower and Peter Jason, and at least a half dozen other recognizable faces popping up for roles that last less than 90 seconds (the late Charles Napier's role is so quick it wasn't even enough time to recognize him, since he's partially obscured by his baseball cap). Plus the leads themselves: Robert Carradine and Stacy Keach ("The Gas Station" and "Hair", respectively) were friends of King's from The Long Riders, and thus she was able to secure their performances by calling them directly and convince them to have a little fun on a cable movie (don't forget, this is 1993 - Dexter and what not had not yet made Showtime a big deal).
Of the three, "The Gas Station" is probably my favorite, not counting Carpenter's wraparound sequences (seriously, he's playing a dead guy but it's the most lively I've ever seen him). It seemingly takes place in the same universe as the Halloween movies (it's in Haddonfield anyway), which would be enough to please me, but it also finds Carpenter in his most comfortable zone: isolation. The Body Bags crew purposely found a gas station that didn't have city lights anywhere near it, allowing him to pull out a bit and show how remote it was and thus how easy it would be for its clerk (Alex Datcher) to be terrorized by a killer without anyone noticing (but still close enough to LA for Craven, Raimi, etc to show up). As with Halloween, he wrings the most potential out of a threadbare concept, getting a few good scares (fake and real) out of the deal - he even re-stages the classic "she thinks he's dead so she sits down to regroup as he sits up behind her" shot. And (spoiler) Carradine is clearly enjoying playing a character that's nothing like Lewis Skolnick; its his casting that makes the twist a relatively decent surprise, not the writing.
The other two stories are fine, though their similarity works against them a touch (probably why "Gas Station" shines). Both of them are about guys who undergo a radical medical procedure and deal with deadly consequences, though at least tonally they're pretty different. Carpenter's "Hair" has him exploring a bit of satire that wouldn't feel out of place in the They Live universe (the villains are aliens who need access to human brains and find that appealing to their egos is the best way to get them), while Hooper's segment is more psychological and disturbing in nature. After losing an eye in an auto accident, a minor league baseball player (Hamill) gets a new one thanks to doctor John Agar (against the wishes of his personal doctor, Roger Corman!), the first eye transplant of its kind. At first he just has headaches and such, but then he starts having visions and experiencing mood swings, so he does some research and discovers the eye belonged to an executed serial killer.
It's the same sort of story we've seen a bunch (the 1991 film Body Parts, for example), and the fact that it's the only one that isn't "fun" makes it stick out a bit (plus, Hooper is no slouch, but he's no Carpenter, either). But while it maybe doesn't "fit" the movie as a whole, it just reinforces why it's a shame that we didn't get a full series out of this concept - as with Tales from the Crypt or any other anthology show, doing something different every week is part of the appeal, and if one week's episode is silly and surreal, the next one can be disturbing without anyone thinking much of it. In a film, it just feels grafted on (yes, considering its plot, the irony is not lost), especially when you have an hour of Carpenter and then suddenly it's another guy - perhaps if a third director had helmed one of the two Carpenter entries (and/or the order was swapped, with "Eye" in the middle) it'd be less noticeable. Indeed, "Hair" would have been a great one to end on, as it's got the most memorable ending (with David Warner having a grand old time as the alien villain, despite the underwritten role) and tonally fits with Carpenter's wraparounds.
Hooper is nowhere to be found on the new bonus features, for this first proper presentation of the movie on US disc (the previous Artisan DVD is cut; you can catch a frame or two of what may be Luke Skywalker's balls in this uncut one). A 20 minute featurette features Carpenter, King, Carradine, and Keach, and covers the usual basics of how it came together, how the actors approached their roles, and why the series never took off - standard stuff, though it's got a pretty hilarious outtake of Carpenter getting his coffee order. The commentary is a bit unusual; Carpenter is solo for his wraparounds, joined by the aforementioned actors for their segments, and then disappears entirely for "The Eye", where King takes over and is moderated by Justin Beahm, who seemingly just wants to talk about Carpenter even though he had little to do with that segment. There's also a theatrical trailer, for some reason (it's got the green MPAA "This preview was approved..." screen at the top, but ends with "Only on Showtime" - did they advertise this movie theatrically?). Transfer is up to usual Shout/Scream standards, though it does NOT have the original artwork on the reverse side of the sleeve, which is a bummer and hopefully not a trend.
The Masters of Horror episodes were hit or miss (Hooper's first season entry, "Dance of the Dead", is one of the worst goddamn things I've ever seen, in fact), and thus it's safe to assume that a Body Bags series would have followed suit. However, it certainly would have gotten off on a good start, and with Carpenter as the series' Cryptkeeper and the same sort of "let's have fun" approach on both sides of the camera, I think it might have been more memorable either way. MoH's lack of any sort of unifying thread made it easy to skip episodes if you didn't think much of that director, but with a host as entertaining as this, maybe I would have tuned in more often just for his bits and stuck around to see what the episode offered. Oh, and just an FYI - Showtime got their way - Masters of Horror was shot in Canada, and as predicted, wasn't nearly as fun. Hell, Craven didn't even do an episode, let alone play around in someone else's.