Summer Shocks 1991: Body Parts

ON

Eric Red’s film starring Jeff Fahey

No one trick or treats on the last day of school, no one carves jack o’ lanterns on July 4th, or goes on haunted hayrides in August.

When it comes to beloved macabre traditions, the fall is the season that gets all the attention. Thanks to the celebration of Halloween, the autumn months have always been indelibly associated with all things frightful. Summer, on the other hand, is ostensibly all that horror isn’t about – a golden time of warm weather, trips to the beach, fireworks, road trips and family picnics.

For those movie buffs that prefer the inside of their neighborhood cinemas (or, for some, the nighttime chill of drive-in theaters) to the blistering heat, however, the summer is the real witching season. Some believe that horror vacations in summer, waiting for fall to arrive, but box office history tells a different story.

Starting in 1975 when Jaws invented the modern blockbuster by teaching a generation to be afraid of the ocean, summer has been the best time of year to be scared. The fall can keep Halloween. It can keep the costumes, the candy, the Great Pumpkin, all of it – because summer has always had the better movies.

So this is the movie where The Lawnmower Man loses an arm and gets the limb of an executed killer sewn on in its place. Back in 1991, this didn’t take off in theaters and, really, it’s never had a sizable following develop on video or cable, either. You might say that Body Parts just didn’t have legs, heh-heh. It definitely had some impressive talent going for it in the form of Eric Red on directing duty, a man who will always be horror royalty thanks to writing the scripts to The Hitcher and Near Dark. Also, Frank Mancuso Jr. of the Friday the 13th series was producing and this was clearly an attempt on his part to ditch the body counts and venture into a more psychological type of genre film.

Based on the novel Choice Cuts, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac – the French duo responsible for the 1952 novel “The Woman Who Was No More” that Diabolique (1955) was based on as well as the 1954 novel “The Living and the Dead” that Vertigo (1958) was based on – Body Parts had a notable pedigree to start with. Red wrote the adaptation (based on a screen story developed by Patricia Herskovic and Joyce Taylor), along with Norman Snider and while the resulting film isn’t anywhere near the caliber of Diabolique or Vertigo, it ain’t so bad, either.

Jeff Fahey plays Bill Chrushank, a criminal psychologist, who finds himself in a horrendous traffic accident that severs his right arm. Until the spectacular multi-car pile-up that opened Final Destination 2 (2003), this devastating wreck was the gnarliest car crash ever put on film. It wasn’t the biggest – for that you’d have to turn to the likes of The Blues Brothers or The Cannonball Run – but this scene best captured the butt-clenching terror of being behind the wheel as an accident is unfolding and being unable to steer your way to safety. When a truck rear ends Bill’s car and sends him flying through his windshield, it’s enough to make you unconsciously reach for your seat belt, even if you’re sitting on your couch with a bowl of popcorn in your lap.

After Bill is rushed to the hospital, his distraught wife Karen (Kim Delaney) is approached by Dr. Agatha Webb (Lindsay Duncan) who says that she has a donor arm ready to attach to Bill as long as Karen consents to the operation. Not wanting to condemn her husband to a one-armed – and worse, left-handed – future, Karen signs the release forms and soon Dr. Webb is working her medical magic on Bill. Afterwards, the operation appears to have gone so well that Bill should be using his new hand to applaud Dr. Webb’s genius. Of course, there’s always a “but” behind every apparent triumph in a horror film, as in “…but they got the arm from a serial killer.” What this means for Bill is that his new miracle limb is bad news – all the way from its sinister shoulder, to its evil elbow, down to the end of its fiendish fingertips. Thanks to Dr. Webb, this formerly mild-mannered psychologist is now (wait for it) armed and dangerous. This operation has not done a body good.

Before long, Bill is smacking the shit out of his kids and choking his wife – neither of which makes for a happy home. Bill knows his arm is tainted goods but is having little luck getting anyone to believe him. Least of all Dr. Webb, who just isn’t having it. This transplant was headline news, making her a new god of the medical world and to admit that it hasn’t been a success would be a professional disgrace. Desperate to get somewhere in proving that his concerns are legit, Bill takes his case to two other recipients of the executed killer’s body parts – sports-minded twentysomething Mark Draper (Peter Murnik) and artist/painter Remo Lacey (Brad Dourif, who also starred in Child’s Play 3 that summer). Mark’s legs are 100% killer as is Remo’s left arm.

Both men regard Bill’s claims that his new limb is exerting an evil influence as being ridiculous. Just the same, Remo’s artwork has taken a drastic post-surgery turn towards the macabre, with his latest creations displaying a twisted imagination that’s new to his work. While Bill regards this as a sign that Remo’s new arm has a mind of its own, Remo isn’t inclined to complain or ask questions. Since his art has gone in this new direction, his sales and reputation have skyrocketed. As for Mark, from his point of view, having legs is better than having no legs – even if his new legs do crazy things some times, like not letting off the gas pedal when he’s driving. When it comes to the origins of their new appendages, Mark and Remo may be taking a stubborn see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil attitude but as it turns out, the prior owner – the supposedly executed Charley Fletcher (John Walsh) – wants to put his old body back together. The result is the most lopped limbs on screen since King Arthur met the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Red does a fine job with this movie. Even though it’s never particularly scary, thanks to its mad science storyline it’s always good, garish fun and almost twenty years later, it remains a memorable film. It never quite takes off as being one of the greats but it’s undeniably solid and it has a handful of scenes that are permanently branded on my brain.

The car crash is one of those. Another is the supremely eerie scene in which Bill witnesses – through the mental fog of his injuries and anesthesia – the removal of Charley Fletcher’s head in the operating room as armed guards in surgical garb oversee the procedure. There’s also a cool bar fight (if you’re going up against drunken rednecks, it’s good to have a serial killer’s arm landing your punches for you) and a wild car chase in which occupants of seperate cars are handcuffed to each other as they speed headlong into oncoming traffic.

And the cast is notable, too; with the lack of teen characters allowing the film to be stocked with much more seasoned performers than what was usually seen in B-horror films of the early ‘90s. With Fahey doing some fierce emoting (his big blow-up with the icy Dr. Webb as he demands that she remove his arm is a classic), with Dourif being his dependably quirky self, and with the always welcome Zakes Mokae (Serpent and the Rainbow) making the slight role of Detective Sawchuck stand out, it’s clear that Red had a good head on his shoulders and his heart in the right place when it came to casting Body Parts.

Body Parts may have had the potential to be a sleeper hit but the film was the victim of bad timing. Released on August 2nd, Body Parts arrived in theaters just weeks after the arrest of Wisconsin-based serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Even though the film’s storyline had nothing to do whatsoever with the ghoulish events of the Dahmer case, a skittish Paramount pulled TV ads for the movie from the Milwaukee area in deference to the families of Dahmer’s victims and Wisconsin’s largest theater chain didn’t carry the film at all. Nationwide, Body Parts performed poorly and quickly faded. Even without the bad press dogging it, though, it’s very likely that Body Parts would’ve been a box office underachiever in line with most of the horror crop of the time. Back then, most horror films both good and bad tended to receive the same cold shoulder.

Little known and under seen to this day, it’s not going out on a limb to say that Body Parts was the best horror film of the summer of 1991. Yes, it was also the only horror film in theaters at the time besides Child’s Play 3 and Kenneth Branagh’s Hitchcockian thriller Dead Again but even in a more robust movie summer, Red’s film would’ve been a Body worth admiring.

Other horror films released in the summer of ’91:

Dead Again (August 23rd)

Child’s Play 3 (August 30th)

SUMMER OF 1979:

The Amityville Horror (Jeff Allard)

Phantasm (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1980:

Friday the 13th (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1981:

Deadly Blessing (Jeff Allard)

Wolfen (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1982:

Poltergeist (Jeff Allard)

Friday the 13th: Part 3 (Ryan Turek)

SUMMER OF 1983:

Psycho II (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1984:

Dreamscape (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1985:

Day of the Dead (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1986:

The Fly (Jeff Allard)

SUMMER OF 1987:

Predator

SUMMER OF 1988:

The Blob

SUMMER OF 1989:

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan

SUMMER OF 1990:

Class of 1999





Source: Jeff Allard