Nothing is as intended. Body Bags was originally conceived as a television horror anthology series for Showtime Network, but when Showtime pulled the plug part way through production, the three completed segments were combined, to create a feature film anthology.
The first two segments of Body Bags, Gas Station and Hair were directed by John Carpenter, whilst the concluding segment Eye is credited to Tobe Hooper. If everything had gone to plan, Body Bags would have been Carpenter’s introduction to television. Considering the quality of each of these three segments, Showtime’s withdrawal that denied Body Bags the opportunity to grow into a fully-fledged horror anthology series, may seem frustrating, rather than the blessing in disguise it was.
Unlike any other film in his repertoire, Body Bags shone a spotlight on John Carpenter the performer. We may have heard him perform with his band the Coup de Villes on the Big Trouble In Little China soundtrack, but for any Carpenter fan his turn as a Morgue attendant in Body Bags was a wonderful and humorous one. It permitted Carpenter the opportunity to have a little fun with his “Master of Horror” image, and boy does he have some fun.
He takes the expression of “what’s your poison?” a little too literally, humorously pouring Formaldehyde into his cocktail glass. He gives us a tour of the morgue, and he renames the stiffs the “arriving departed.” Natural death bores him, “… Give me a big old stab wound to keep me happy.” Now I don’t know about any other Carpenter fans out there, but morgue attendants in Haddonfield coincidentally where Gas Station is set, would find it hard to complain about the lack of stiffs with big old stab wounds.
If any of you think that famous quote from Bogart to Bergman, “Here’s looking at you kid” is just too sentimental, then Carpenter gives it a comedic spin: his props to include eyeball and cocktail glass. Seeing him having so much fun; I think I’ll have what he’s drinking. Carpenter’s humorous narration steals the film. We have seen horror stories from both Carpenter and Hooper before, but what we have never seen is John Carpenter in a rip roaring comedic tour de force that we see here.
If Show Time had not pulled the plug, and forced Carpenter and Hooper to edit Body Bags as an anthology feature film, then would we have been gifted Carpenter’s narration? Possibly not, and that would have been a lost, albeit unknown tragedy, as well as Carpenter wielding a chainsaw in the centrepiece of the 187 Corp logo; possibly a play on MGM’s roaring lion? Let the debate begin, for I am nominating the 187 Corp production logo the most memorable.
Carpenter’s Gas Station and Hair complement each other, as very different horror stories. Gas Station is a postmodern entry in his canon, the acknowledging nods to the genre: cameo roles for Wes Craven and Sam Raimi, to the self-referencing of Haddonfield. In some ways Gas Station predates Wes Craven’s Scream that would pre-dominantly reference Carpenter’s seminal slasher Halloween, and whilst a lesser entry in his canon, it is an example of Carpenter having a little more fun with his persona and material at this stage of his career.
Hair meanwhile was a surreal comedy, in which alien parasites feed off human brains through hair transplants. The traditional horror narrative of Gas Station and the alien parasites antagonists of Hair look back to any number of John Carpenter horror films, whilst exhibiting his affection for both horror and comedy.
In the Mouth of Madness is a significant entry in Carpenter’s filmography, for two reasons. It is the final film of his ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’, and just so happens to be a Lovecraftian horror movie. If Lovecraft’s influence is evident throughout Carpenter’s horror films, and I’m thinking specifically of Halloween, The Fog and Prince of Darkness, then In the Mouth of Madness is the point when Carpenter and Lovecraft’s fiction are at their closest proximity to one another.
Not dissimilar to the fate of the preceding films of the Apocalypse Trilogy, The Thing and Prince of Darkness, it was a commercial and critical failure. In fact it is a strange group of films; each poorly received on release, but over time attaining cult status. An example of the thematic trilogy rather than the continuation trilogy, which sees alternative protagonists and cast from film to film, some would find it disconcerting to group it with Bergman’s Faith trilogy, Antonioni’s famous art house trilogy, and Kieślowski’s The Three Colours trilogy. I would label it at the very least as one of cinemas defining thematic trilogies.
At the heart of In the Mouth of Madness is an intriguing premise pertaining to the fiction of author Sutter Cane and how it drives his readers to acts of madness. Through Sutter Cane’s work human civilisation will encounter its apocalypse, orchestrated by an ambiguous cosmic force never put into context; just shown as slime and tentacles.
One of the key features of Lovecraftian horror is the close proximity of our own world to a foreign reality, and so Lovecraft’s fiction sits as an example of the literary philosophy known as ‘Cosmicism.’ Halloween, The Fog and Prince of Darkness are all intrigued by this concept of close proximity to the foreign.
Whilst Halloween and The Fog are pre-occupied with the collision of reality and the supernatural, Prince of Darkness’ Professor Birack theorises how mankind’s concept of classical reality breaks down on a sub-atomic level, in the world of ghosts and shadows.
Halloween’s Michael Myer’s bridges the divide between reality and the paranormal, through supernatural overtones of Myers’ invincibility, and that iconic expositional speech by Loomis as he contextualises Myer’s as a supernatural force. Meanwhile the residents of Antonio Bay in The Fog encounter vengeful spirits carried by the mystical fog. Prince of Darkness more directly than its predecessors introduces the concept of anti-reality to our own where absolute evil is trapped: the thin divide between the world’s mirrors.
The conclusion of both Halloween and Prince of Darkness is one of pessimism, Loomis understands that Myer’s may have been thwarted but as his expression recounts his earlier expression following Myers’ escape from the institution, “The evil is gone.” Meanwhile Birack in Prince of Darkness issues an ominous warning that the evil waits on the other side. The Fog is even more cynical, Father Malone’s death occurs after the apparent defeat of the fog and its spirits. In The Thing, two survivors are left; waiting it out, both lost in the hopeless realisation that the other could be The Thing.
Both Carpenter’s cinema and Lovecraft’s fiction embraces the futility of confronting evil, and both are interested in the vulnerability of human characters when faced with the foreign threat. As such Carpenter’s cinema and Lovecraft’s fiction are forever connected, whether coincidental or not.
Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness goes beyond the supernatural of his previous horror films to encounter the cosmic forces that Lovecraft’s expansive collection of fiction explores. In this sense whilst its predecessors hinted at a Lovecraftian connection, In the Mouth of Madness is a fully realised Lovecraftian horror film.
It was always fitting that Carpenter should direct such a Lovecraftian horror film. The influence of Lovecraft’s literary horror on Carpenter’s cinema may just be coincidental; after all the supernatural is innate to the horror genre, and Carpenter’s passion for horror would have most likely led to his encounter with the supernatural, and ultimately its confrontation with our reality. So even if it is coincidental a connection prior to In the Mouth of Madness does exist. After all, how can any individual attest to just how much their inspirations impact them on a sub-conscious level, navigating their careers and creative choices?
Lovecraft’s fiction always lacked shock tactics, blood and gore. Rather it was subtle horror, a fiction where there is something not quite right, an eeriness, something to make you the reader and characters feel disconcerted. Halloween’s lack of blood and gore, its subtle and simmering tension, could be seen to be not far removed from a horror master who pre-dated Carpenter: H.P. Lovecraft.