Choice Cuts: Body Parts & The Unapologetic Entertainments of Eric Red
Eric Red will be the first to admit that he’s never been in the business of making "art films". Rather, he’s always touted himself as a craftsman of “entertainments” — gnarly, unrepentantly fun genre work that burrows straight to the lizard part of our brains with clever hooks, colorful characters, and graphic violence. Raised on a steady cinematic diet of schlock from childhood on, Red always envisioned fashioning such fare as he delighted in the guttural reactions he witnessed in Times Square grindhouse audiences. He wasted little time in inspiring such reactions himself with The Hitcher (1986) and Near Dark (1987), a pair of early screenplays that have been etched into the horror canon, both indelible in the way they weave violent provocation through scrambled archetypes.
Blending the cinematic language of road movies, Westerns, slashers, and vampire lore, Red emerged as a distinctive voice in a familiar, increasingly crowded arena of movie brats who grew up to emulate and update memories of misspent youth unfolding in the flicker of marquees and matinees. What particularly sets Red’s material apart is the literary quality to it: his worlds and the characters dwelling within are rich and textured, and the thematic underpinning resonates. Maybe these aren’t “art films” per se, but there’s a lyrical quality to them that’s striking. I dare say they'd be labeled “elevated horror” if released today, a notion that would likely make Red bristle because he’s always embraced genre instead of treating it as something deserving disdain or in need of “elevating" in the first place.
So it went when he moved behind the camera for Cohen and Tate (1988), a topsy-turvy thriller that allowed Red to get another road movie out of his system before turning his focus back to making a “really good horror film.” Seeking inspiration in classic Gothic novels, he stumbled upon Choice Cuts, a French tome by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (best known for inspiring Les Diaboliques  and Vertigo ) whose logline had been kicking around Hollywood for decades, with even Hitchcock himself taking a stab at it once. With a couple of clever deviations from the novel, Red finally cracked the story, re-imagining it as Body Parts (1991), another genre blender that appropriately feels Frankenstein'd together from familiar elements.
Mad science, psychological ambiguity, and splatter movie theatrics gnarl together to form the strange case of Bill Crushank (Jeff Fahey), a psychologist who specializes in working with death row inmates. Frustrated by his inability to reach or understand his subjects, he puzzles over the nature of evil and criminal behavior. A gruesome car accident unwittingly brings him closer to his work when he loses an arm and becomes the subject of an experimental transplant. Hailed as a medical miracle following the successful operation, Bill becomes unnerved once he discovers his arm previously belonged to Charley Fletcher (John Walsh), a serial killer responsible for dozens of murders. Just the suggestion that he now shares flesh and blood with a maniac leads him to formulate a dark hypothesis: will he be infected with the killer’s homicidal impulses, too?
Of course he will. Red’s decision to twist the mystery of Choice Cuts into a psychological thriller is a crucial one. In the original text, a detective serves as the protagonist trying to connect the dots between a series of gruesome murders involving transplant patients, placing the point-of-view at a remove from the story itself. Centering Bill as the protagonist makes Body Parts a bit more interesting, intimate affair that allows Red and co-writer Norman Snider to explore the existential, psychological implications of the premise. In the aftermath of Bill’s accident, Body Parts becomes a harrowing descent into paranoia and madness, as he begins to reckon with the violent impulses suddenly coursing through his veins. Red hovers on Bill here, harnessing the frigid Toronto landscapes to create a cold, moody detachment. It’s less a pulp thriller during this stretch and more of an icy neon-noir, complete with Bill’s anguished voice-over as his life crumbles after each violent outburst.
The screenplay remains ambiguous at this point, too, leaving the audience to wonder if Bill has actually been victimized or if he’s simply losing his mind. It’s a clever choice that foregrounds the film’s big questions about the biological and psychological roots of evil: when given the slightest suggestion that we’re capable of horrific acts, are we somehow predisposed to carry them out? Or is Bill — a man haunted by his inability to understand the nature of his expertise — just looking for an excuse to vent that frustration through the violent tendencies he can’t comprehend? For a movie titled Body Parts, it makes for some heady, cerebral stuff that includes a gripping middle stretch that’s bolstered by Fahey’s compelling turn.
After garnering supporting roles throughout the years in everything from daytime soaps to Anthony Perkins' Psycho III (1986), it briefly looked like Fahey would ascend to leading man status via performances in this, The Lawnmower Man (1992), and White Hunter, Black Heart (1990). During this oh-too-short prime, Fahey almost felt like America’s answer to Franco Nero: a steely, blue-eyed presence whose rugged handsomeness could be either charming or imposing depending on the context.
Body Parts calls for a little bit of both, and his transformation here amounts to a subtle riff on Jekyll and Hyde. Bill is as mild-mannered as they come, practically shrinking in the presence of the threatening convicts he tries to counsel at work and effusing big suburban dad energy at home. Watching him transform into a brooding, paranoid lunatic takes on the tenor of a tragedy: you find yourself hoping that he doesn’t succumb to these primal urges and that his outlandish theory — that his psychotic donor is somehow influencing his limbs from beyond the grave — is true.
Red resolves these lingering questions with his trademark panache and theatricality. Bill begins to wonder if the other organ recipients are also experiencing side effects after their operations, leading him to Remo Lacey (Brad Dourif), an eccentric, once-starving artist who’s found sudden success thanks to his weird, ghastly new work that he attributes solely to his inspiration and artistic intuition. Dourif’s appearance in this already askew thriller makes for a wonderful treat: it’s easy to imagine an entire Hands of Orlac (1924) riff unfolding in the margins of Body Parts, as this artist is forced to confront the truth lurking behind his success. He’s another one of those effortlessly malleable personas, capable of doing anything on-screen as an accomplished character actor. His few but memorable appearances as the quirky Remo crucially set the stage for the weird, wild twists and turns looming in the movie's riotous climax.
Whatever ambiguity Red teases for most of the film amounts to a red herring by the time Bill uncovers a full-blown conspiracy, effectively transforming Body Parts into an action-packed splatter movie. The film’s tense, restrained energy uncoils with a flurry of gore-soaked dismemberments and a frenetic car chase that leads Bill into a nightmarish den of mad science, where severed appendages dangle from wires, waiting to be stitched together by Dr. Agatha Webb (Lindsay Duncan). Once thought to be Bill’s savior, Webb is actually an unrepentant heir to Frankenstein’s delusions of grandeur, a total loon working to raise the dead at the behest of the dissected psycho. Duncan’s transformation is arguably as remarkable as Fahey’s: her dignified, noble posturing so thoroughly disarms the audience that her third-act heel turn is genuinely shocking. Fletcher himself also finally appears here, his egghead tucked into a neck brace like Peter Lorre’s in Mad Love (1935), a lovely visual reference that also signals the film’s turn towards unrepentant, pulp schlock.
There’s an argument that the sudden shift from evocative, psychological ambiguity to this grindhouse cocktail of car crashes and splatter is jarring. It also perhaps undermines the thematic complexity Red establishes during Bill’s dark night of the soul and sweeps aside all of the script’s big questions in a torrent of blood and guts. Maybe all of this is true, but it’s hard to argue that Red isn’t true to himself by going big and bold with this delightfully unhinged climax. At the helm of his first major studio production, he damn sure wasn’t about to squander the budget and resources afforded to him. Body Parts ultimately feels like the work of a mad artist furiously scratching a fevered itch as Red indulges his exploitation movie urges. Perhaps it isn’t a nuanced treatise into the depths of psychology and the nature of evil. It is, however, entertaining as hell and endures as an oddball entry in the horror cycle.
With the genre at its early-90s crossroads, Body Parts reflects the “anything goes” mentality of a time when studios were trying to fill the slasher movie void. Few filled it with the aplomb of Red, whose love of high concept inspired him to stitch together gothic horror, action movies, and grindhouse gore into one of the era’s most distinctive and strange offerings. If Body Parts is a Frankenstein monster, it lurches with the confidence and purpose of a creator who was born to hatch such delirious madness, toiling away like a deranged genius in his own exploitation movie sandbox. It’s not often that a filmmaker can say he managed to accomplish what Hitchcock couldn’t, after all.