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On the Set : Carpenter's Little Bag of Horrors

August 08, 1993|JOE RHODES | Joe Rhodes is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

There they were in the midst of this nice little suburban Newhall neighborhood, all green-grass lawns and look-alike shrubbery, the kind of place where the big news most days is which kid sprained an ankle playing driveway basketball and what time the ice cream truck had gone by. But things had been different for the last couple of days. There was, for instance, the naked dead girl in the Matthews' back yard.

She wasn't really dead, of course, but she was definitely naked, covered with peat moss and screaming at the top of her lungs. Later on one of her arms showed up in the garbage disposal, all spinning and bloody and making a horrible mess. They're not used to that sort of thing in Newhall. Which is why a lot of the neighbors were standing by the curb, with their dogs and their kids, staring at the strangers who'd taken over their street with lights and cameras and really big trucks, filming an episode of "Body Bags," frightmeister John Carpenter's new horror trilogy premiering Sunday on the Showtime cable network.

They were staring, in particular, at Martine LeBlanc, whose right arm was still all purple-colored and gruesome, because it was the one that had been sticking out of the garbage disposal earlier. She had also been the naked undead corpse.

"They started off with some blotching and they gave me sutures and lots of blood," she was explaining, while the neighborhood kids sneaked closer for a better look.

It hadn't been that bad, really, except that she had to lie naked in a shallow grave for a while, breathing through a tube until the director, (Tobe Hooper who, because he directed "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," knows how to do these kinds of scenes) told her to sit up and start yelling. She'd known she'd be naked. They'd explained that to her before she took the part. But she figured that doing a topless scene wouldn't be so bad as long as she was playing a corpse. She hadn't counted on the peat moss, though.

"I'm really itchy right now," LeBlanc was saying. "I think I'm having an allergic reaction."

They'd paid her $500, just to scream with her shirt off in the Matthews' backyard. And they'd been impressed enough with her performance to offer her the part of the disembodied arm. "I don't know what they'll pay me for that," she says. "I don't know what the arm rate is."

*

"This isn't what people are used to seeing on television," John Carpenter acknowledges. "This isn't like 'Tales From the Crypt,' where it's all tongue-in cheek. This is a dead serious deal. I mean we're talking about a story where Mark Hamill turns into a monster who abuses his wife (played by Twiggy), is a necrophiliac and grinds up bodies in a garbage disposal. No, this isn't for kids. I'm gonna put a warning on this one, a big ol' warning."

For Carpenter, whose feature films (including last year's "Memoirs of an Invisible Man") have been considerably less gory in recent years, "Body Bags" represents a return to the scare tactics that first made him famous, the "Halloween" world of dark shadows, spooky music and blade-wielding maniacs galore. Besides directing two of the three stories, Carpenter is "Body Bags' " executive producer and also its ghoulish on-screen host, a not-quite-right coroner who rummages through the morgue looking for victims of violent deaths, the ones in body bags, "the ones with the best stories."

Those stories in the series include "Eye," the episode filmed in Newhall, starring Hamill as a minor league baseball player who becomes the recipient of a transplanted eye that once belonged to a mass murderer. Then there's "Hair," starring Stacey Keach and Sheena Easton, which is all about male pattern baldness and brain-eating creatures from outer space. And "The Gas Station," starring Alex Datcher and Robert Carradine as all-night mini-mart attendants in an isolated desert town where there's a psycho killer on the loose. Go ahead. Guess where the killer turns up.

Carpenter also sprinkled the cast with faces familiar to horror-movie fans, if no one else. Besides horror-movie directors Sam Raimi, Wes Craven and Roger Corman, Carpenter gave a substantial part to 1950s B-movie icon John Agar, star of such drive-in classics as "Return of the Creature" and "The Mole People."

Carpenter says he chose to do "Body Bags" for television instead of as a feature film partly because Showtime allowed him complete creative control. But, more than that, Carpenter says getting straight-ahead horror made for the big screen is nearly impossible these days.

"A lot of directors are going into television for the same reasons I am," he says, "because we are able to treat certain subjects in a certain way that you can't do in a movie screen. You can take more risks and there's a lot less interference. It used to be exactly the opposite, but now it's flipped around.

"It used to be, particularly in the 1950s, that there were B movies that could tackle those subjects and those themes that the A movies were afraid to do. But there aren't any B movies anymore. Let's be frank, the independents are dwindling. The studios control everything. It's all big pictures with stars and huge budgets. So if you want to do subversive filmmaking, you have to go someplace else. And right now television is that place."

"Body Bags" premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

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