Thursday, October 10, 2013

Body Parts

(R, Paramount Pictures, 88 mins., release date: August 2, 1991)

Bleeding heart criminal psychologist Bill Crushank has been tasked with rehabilitating a 20-year Death Row inmate, but confides to his loving wife Karen that he's become disillusioned with his profession. With his career in doubt but his family life in perfect stability, Bill drives to work one snow-capped morning only to dodge a swerving car with a popped wheelie on the freeway. A Mack truck fails to brake in time, and Bill is rushed to the hospital with a stump where his right arm used to be. Enter radical, reserved Dr. Agatha Webb, who persuades Karen into signing a waiver which will allow Bill to receive an immediate replacement limb. The last thing the unfortunate shrink sees before he's anaesthetized, in an operating room under armed security, is Dr. Webb severing the head of his donor with a bone saw...

It was inevitable that during the current horrorthon which has kept me productive, I would decide to focus on a movie by one Eric Red, the enigmatic writer of two seminal desert-based shockers in The Hitcher (1986) and Near Dark (1987), the latter a collaboration with future Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow and one of my all-time personal favorite films. Based on the novel Choice Cuts by the French fiction duo of Boileau-Narcejac, who inspired the suspense classics Diabolique and Vertigo (as well as scripted the immortal Eyes Without a Face from 1960, a nightmarish alternative to the Nouvelle Vague), the noirish Frankenstein riff Body Parts is equal parts psychological descent and medical paranoia in which an inquisitive scholar of violent impulses becomes his own worst case scenario through the miracles of modern science. Eventually, the movie implodes after an hour's worth of brooding, inquisitive self-doubt and relies upon a batty, bloody showdown between Bill and his benefactors. If Red's hands-own approach were not so assured, this conflict transplant would be harder to take than any stitched-on appendage. But still, you might want to buckle up, which is good advice Bill Crushank (Jeff Fahey) himself apparently forgot to heed.

Bill's new arm proves more than serviceable, demonstrating reflexes and stamina that make him a better father and husband than ever before. But this is truly a "devil in the flesh" situation, and frequent images of grotesque violence begin to overcome his mind. During a session with jittery convict Kolberg (Paul Ben-Victor), Bill learns that the tattoo on his wrist denotes "helplessly homicidal" and descends into further research. A thumbprint scan reveals that his arm once belonged to Charley Fletcher, a proud psychopath who butchered women and cops for kicks. As mild-mannered Bill continues to endure aggressive mood swings and physically terrorizes Karen (Kim Delaney) and their children, Bill seeks out two more of Dr. Webb’s (Lindsay Duncan) patients, the formerly wheelchair-bound Mark Draper (Peter Murniek) and the recipient of Fletcher's left arm, Remo Lacey (Brad Dourif), a self-professed hack painter who translates Fletcher’s murderous memories into grisly gold.

Eventually, Bill’s animus side becomes too consuming and he has to isolate himself from those he loves, going into self-imposed exile and impotent rage as he demands Dr. Webb take back the arm. Inevitably, he's reduced to drinking to his despair with the company of Mark and Remo, who echo the consolations of anima figureheads Karen and Dr. Webb ("That arm can’t do anything you don’t want it to"). But he still can't fully control himself, and Bill finds himself under the custody of Detective Sawchuck (Zakes Mokae). The stakes have to get higher, so the head of Charley Fletcher is recycled to further haunt Bill and instigate a particularly tense car chase which eventually stirs Bill into reconciling the darkness within.

Jeff Fahey was a rising star in the early 1990s, having made his big splash in movies directed by former partners Clint Eastwood (White Hunter, Black Heart) and Sondra Locke (Impulse). This 1991 mainstream horror effort from Friday the 13th series producer Frank Mancuso Jr. was a non-starter, though, infamously gaining controversy after the Jeffrey Dahmer killings stalled any promotion in Wisconsin. The mediocre if moderately-lucrative The Lawnmower Man followed before Fahey's enduring prolificacy in direct-to-cable and direct-to-video fare. Nowadays, he has gained some popular traction thanks to TV's Lost and Robert Rodriguez casting him in both Planet Terror and Machete. The blue-eyed thespian with the drawling, disturbed voice does some understated if ferocious character acting in Body Parts, preserving Bill's intelligence and compassion even in the face of mounting dread and self-preserving madness.

The film's most puckish element is in the ever-reliable presence of Brad Dourif as Remo, whose childish pretension and flashes of wit liven up his encounters with Bill and establish him as more offbeat than off-kilter. The performances as a whole are top-notch, from a smoldering Kim Delaney to the icy determination of Lindsay Duncan and Zakes Mokae, best known as voodoo gangster Peytraud from Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, as the reasonable officer who aids Bill even when he’s forced to drive him downtown. And Eric Red matches his careful attention to actors in terms of composition, fashioning some legitimately unnerving moments with a lurid efficiency comparable to Brian De Palma, chiefly in the hospital sequence where Bill prepares to be operated on and in that aforementioned chase scene, which works like gangbusters despite a familiarity to Maniac Cop 2.

Another component of surprising elegance is the cinematography of Theo van de Sande, perhaps best remembered previously for lensing the apocalyptic love story Miracle Mile (1988) but soon to become a mainstream cameraman currently over-saturating dreadful Adam Sandler comedies. The movie’s lighting scheme almost seems to follow the deterioration of Bill's firmness, getting grittier and darker as it goes along, reaching a clinically creepy peak when Bill returns to the operating room looking for resolution and discovers a grisly literalization of the film's title.

Body Parts is one of those films whose inherent ludicrousness (think of the killer toupees and eyeballs seen in both The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror IX and John Carpenter Presents Body Bags) is kept at bay thanks to assured style and skill from those involved. The build-up is consistently intense, thanks to Jeff Fahey's grounded, guilt-addled charisma as Bill Crushank as well as Eric Red's undervalued sense of economy. And though sum of its parts might not be all that amazing taken as a whole, with the finale indeed sticking out like a severed thumb, it's just as much engrossing as it is just gross. The best way to watch this movie is through Paramount's unfortunately OOP DVD edition, a bare-bones affair which nevertheless presented a stellar remaster of the movie in its intended 2.35:1 aspect ratio and a solid Dolby 5.1 surround mix.

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