They say that there are only so many story ideas to go around, and that everything is influenced by something else. This theory is never more true than when it is applied to horror films, where even the best slasher or haunted house movie is indicative of an earlier movie; let’s face it – Devil’s Due is basically Rosemary’s Baby and Ouija is essentially Witchboard. Some are pretty obvious (basically, all vampire movies can be traced back to Nosferatu), but many are subtle. In 1931, Universal Studios made the definitive version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, turning Boris Karloff into a horror legend. Sixty years later, in 1991, one of the more clever variations of the Frankenstein tale was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public when Body Parts was released.
Body Parts is about a criminal psychologist named Bill Chrushank (The Lawnmower Man’s Jeff Fahey) who has his arm torn off in a horrible car accident. With the permission of his wife, Karen (Kim Delaney from Mission to Mars), a surgeon named Dr. Agatha Webb (Lindsay Duncan from Birdman) performs a highly experimental operation which grafts a donor arm onto Bill’s shoulder in place of his missing arm. Right from the start, Bill has weird experiences with his new arm; the arm doesn’t always obey his brain’s commands. When he learns that the arm belonged to an executed serial killer named Charley Fletcher (played by stuntman John Walsh from X-Men: Days of Future Past and Warm Bodies), he tracks down two other patients who have been given donor limbs from Fletcher with strange results; an artist named Remo Lacey (Brad Dourif, the voice of Chucky from the Child’s Play movies) who got Fletcher’s other arm and a young man named Mark Draper (Hard Rain’s Peter Murnik) who got his legs. Soon after Bill meets Remo and Mark, they both turn up dead – with their respective donated limbs missing. Bill realizes that someone – or something – is coming after Fletcher’s reattached limbs, and he is next on the list.
Body Parts was directed by Eric Red, a filmmaker who has found much more success as a screenwriter, having penned horror classics like The Hitcher and Near Dark. He also co-wrote the screenplay for Body Parts with Norman Snider (Dead Ringers), the story being a screen adaption of the novel Choice Cuts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (better known as Boileau-Narcejac, the duo behind the books for Vertigo and Eyes Without a Face). It’s a cool retelling of the Frankenstein mythology, with Dr. Frankenstein being replaced by Dr. Webb and the monster – Charley Fletcher – consisting of parts that actually belonged to him in the first place instead of having been stolen from graves. Neither Dr. Webb nor Charley Fletcher are the main character in Body Parts, and that’s what makes it such a great variation on the story; it almost seems like a modern prequel to Mary Shelley’s tale. Frankenstein parallels aside, Body Parts is just a good, old fashioned popcorn-munching fright flick.
One of the things about Body Parts that makes it so different from other horror films of the early nineties is its killer action sequences. Of course, there are tense and suspenseful moments in the film, but while other movies toil away in the undercurrent of dread that they work so hard to create, Body Parts leans on the gas with bar fights, car wrecks, and footraces. The whole film culminates in one of the most awesome car chases ever committed to film. Charley, driving one car, pulls up next to Bill, a passenger in another. Charley handcuffs himself to Bill’s arm and floors it, taking off down the street. Bill screams frantically as the detective who is driving Bill’s car (played by Zakes Mokae from The Serpent and the Rainbow) desperately tries to keep up with – and next to – Charley’s car, before Bill’s arm can be ripped off (again). It’s a breathtaking segment, and one of the most memorable scenes in Body Parts.
Photographically, Body Parts is the epitome of the early nineties horror film. Shot by cinematographer Theo van de Sande (Blade, Volcano), the film has more of a realist look than the dreamlike slashers of the eighties. Whenever possible, van de Sande manufactures light that imitates natural sources, bathing the sets in neon, halogen, and fluorescent light, creating a very urban feel. The iconic image from the film is of Charley Fletcher’s torso and limbs floating in a bottom-lit tank, looking simultaneously warm with life yet still existing within the cold confines of science. The film is full of shots like that; Theo van de Sande’s cinematography gives Body Parts a distinct style that sets it apart from its genre predecessors while still managing to maintain the look of a horror film.
There aren’t a ton of make-up effects in Body Parts, but practical special effects wizard Gordon J. Smith (Deadly Eyes, Natural Born Killers) makes the most of his moments. Predictably, most of the effects deal with severed arms and legs, and Smith realizes them by walking the line between medical accuracy and splatterific gore, hanging out in the space between realism and exploitation. Smith does everything from making actors look like they’ve just had limb reattachment surgery to making the bodiless arms and legs move on their own, and he does it all seamlessly.
The music for Body Parts was composed by Loek Dikker (The Babysitter), and it’s the perfect combination of horror movie score and action film soundtrack; it’s full of shocking stingers and suspenseful vamps, but still kicks into high gear when it needs to be energetic. The music sounds electronic and modern, yet still has a familiar cinematic feel to it. Dikker’s score won him the 1992 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films Saturn Award for Best Music, and the award is well-deserved; the music for Body Parts is great.
With horror movies in particular, original ideas are few and far between. The key then becomes thinking of an original way to tell a familiar story. Body Parts pulls it off nicely.