Body Parts (1991) Retrospective

SUMMARY

Bill Chrushank is a psychologist working with convicted killers at a prison. While driving to work, Bill gets in a horrific car accident and loses an arm. At the hospital, Dr. Agatha Webb convinces Bill’s wife to sign off on an experimental transplant surgery. Bill awakens from the surgery and begins to adjust to his new arm. After he is released from the hospital, he resumes his work and things seem to be back to normal. However, Bill starts seeing visions of horrible acts of murder (as if he is committing them) and occasionally loses control of his new arm. At the prison, a convict tells Bill that the tattoo on his new arm is only given to inmates on death row. Bill has a police friend scan his new fingerprints and is shocked to discover the arm came from convicted serial killer Charley Fletcher, who had murdered 20 people.

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Bill confronts Dr. Webb and finds the identities of two other patients: Mark Draper and Remo Lacey who received the killer’s legs and other arm, respectively. Bill visits Remo, who was a struggling artist before the transplant but now is making a small fortune selling paintings he made with his new arm. Noting Remo’s paintings depict the same visions he had, Bill tells him that he is painting what the killer saw. Remo, however, only cares about his newfound success and dismisses Bill’s warnings. Bill meets Mark and tries to warn him but Mark is just happy to be able to walk again and advises Bill to be grateful and move on.

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Bill becomes increasingly agitated and violent. He demands that Dr. Webb remove his arm but she refuses, stating that the problems he is experiencing are insignificant compared to her experiment’s success. Bill meets up with Remo and Mark at a bar. A drunk man recognizes Bill from news about the surgery, and demands to see his arm. Bill snaps and a bar fight breaks out where Bill single-handedly takes out several men and almost kills one before being stopped. As Mark returns home, his legs suddenly stop functioning. Scared, Mark calls Bill, who hears Mark yell and struggle with someone. Bill goes to Mark’s apartment and finds him dead, with both legs missing. Bill calls the police and implores the lead detective to check on Remo. However, they are too late as Charley — who is still alive, having his head transplanted onto a new body rips Remo’s arm off and throws him out a window.

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As Bill and the detective stop at a traffic light, Charley pulls up in a car beside them and handcuffs his wrist to Bill’s. Charley speeds away, and the detective desperately tries to keep up, lest Bill’s arm gets ripped off. Bill uses the detective’s gun to destroy the handcuff just before they hit a divider that splits the road in two. As the detective leaves the car and opens fire on Charley, Bill drives away to pursue the killer. Charley brings his old limbs back to Dr. Webb.

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Armed with a gun from the detective’s car, Bill enters the hospital and finds Charley’s torso and limbs in a glass case, wiggling as if having a mind of their own. Dr. Webb appears and says she is ready to take the arm back, and Charley knocks Bill unconscious. Bill wakes up strapped to an operating table. As Dr. Webb approaches him with a circular saw, he breaks his restraints, knocks her out and wrestles with Charley for his shotgun. Right before Charley can pull the trigger, Bill is able to snap his neck. He destroys the glass case and shoots at Charley’s body parts. Charley, still alive, aims at Bill with the detective’s gun, but accidentally kills Dr. Webb. Bill shoots Charley in the head, killing him for good. Bill sits with his wife in a park. In his journal, he notes that he hasn’t had any other problems with the arm after Charley’s death, and he is still thankful to both Dr. Webb and Charley for the new arm.

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DEVELOPMENT

“The idea of someone losing their arm, then receiving one from a killer, had all the elements of classic horror.” Red comments from a Paramount editing room, his soft, unassuming mariner hardly revealing the inner demons that claw at his films. Your personality would change, and it would be a mystery whether the murderer was taking you over, or if it was trauma stemming from the initial operation. There’s a fundamental question of ownership when you get into the area of transplants, and I wanted to explore those themes. Besides, Body Parts offered plenty of opportunities for gory horror moments!”

Producer Frank Mancuso Jr. was also interested in Red’s mix of psychology and shock value giving him a chance to take the numbing splatter of the Friday the 13th movies to a more refined level. “Frank was immediately attracted to the idea of an innocent man being taken over by a killer, and he pushed for that complex approach throughout filming, Red confirms. “Right from the initial story conferences, we decided not to have the arm reach out and strangle someone, Body Parts is a lot subtler than that, especially since our hero is a strong family man. When the arm begins to express itself in bursts of violence, Bill leaves home so he can’t hurt his wife and kids.”

Lining up a high angle shot on a platform for BODY PARTS with DP Theo Van De Sande, on the left.
Lining up a high angle shot on a platform for BODY PARTS with DP Theo Van De Sande, on the left.

Unlike writers who are married to their scripts, Red had no qualms about bringing in Norman Snider and Larry Gross to flesh out his initial draft. “Since Body Parts essentially started from an idea, my script didn’t have a proprietary quality. Norman gave the story a troubled psychological mood. while Larry put in some great action scenes. Their contributions really brought something to the party.”

“It’s an original script that we found had similarities to the novel “Choice Cuts” by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. We bought the rights so we could ensure we could make the film along the same lines without any legal repercussions.” A cursory examination of the film’s plot also reveals striking similarities to another French novel, Maurice Renard’s oft-filmed 1920 thriller Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac).

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Body Parts draws comparisons to 1935’s Mad Love, Hollywood’s first limb transplant film where a pianist receives the lethal touch of an executed knife thrower. Though Karl Freund’s expressionistic direction and Peter Lorre’s deranged performance are well-regarded, Red doesn’t share its admirers’ enthusiasm. “Any horror movie deals to some degree with a normal person who’s taken over by evil. Mad Love isn’t a particularly great film, but it does have that fantastic Image of Lorre in a neck brace, which is used in Body Parts. But we don’t have the ‘mad scientist. since Dr. Webb’s tragic flaw is her over commitment. She’ll break all laws so her experiment will happen. People like Webb ignore societal constraints, much like Charles Darwin going up against the creationists. That’s because she wants to be certain that people in the future will be able to get new limbs, all because of her groundbreaking work.”

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PRE-PRODUCTION

With a screenplay that fully met his gritty expectations. Red was given three months of prep time to storyboard Body Parts and gather such formidable talents as makeup artist Gordon Smith, Dutch composer Loek Dikker and a cast including Zakes Mokae as a suspicious detective and Kim Delaney as Bill’s wife. who’s caught between revulsion and desire for her remade husband. The film shot for 45 days in Toronto on a budget of $10 million. “Body Parts is, ironically, called a low-budget studio film, but that’s a lot of cash to me.” Red comments. “Frank Mancuso Jr. deserves a tremendous amount of credit for making sure the picture had everything that it needed. You have to get the makeup and casting absolutely right.”

To fully submerge himself in the bloody world of limb grafting, Red went to several operations during the shoot. “Body Parts deals with medical technology that’s happening now, and it’s reached a point where they can put you back together with a high degree of success,” he observes. “Doctors are still unable to replace your arm with someone else’s because of the different immune systems, but that’s in the works now. Our film had to be 100 percent accurate, so we brought in all the necessary equipment for the scene where Bill has his arm reattached. The whole process of technicians sewing your nerves back on, bit by bit, is incredibly meticulous. What you’ll see in Body Parts is how it would really be done, and while I don’t find the real thing to be squeamish, our operation sure is! Audiences had to know on a very visceral level that this man was getting a new arm.”

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BEHIND THE SCENES

But Red has no doubts that Body Parts will fulfill his vision of queasy entertainment. warping the conventions of good and evil as it plays havoc with the human frame. He wants viewers to question whether it’s the killer’s arm that’s taking over, or if the darkness is all just in the characters’ heads. “Body Parts will appeal to a wide audience.” Red believes. “It’s got a provocative title that could mean any number of things. Even though I didn’t want it to be about limbs flying around. there’s nothing like getting scared with the right audience. I love horror films because they have such tremendous energy, and a lot of them don’t go far enough. I’ve attempted to give my pictures a real human level, and Body Parts is my best example of having major action set pieces with tremendously identifiable characters. I want audiences to jump when they see it.”

And when Eric Red is driving, be sure to wear your seatbelt. I honestly don’t know where the vehicular manslaughter theme that runs through my pictures comes from, but Body Parts has the ultimate of these crashes,” Red comments. “A few happy accidents can make a film work, and the freeway wreck that opens the film is the most realistic one you’ll ever see, especially because a stunt mishap caused Bill’s car to flip over unexpectedly. But his double managed to walk away, and we had three cameras to him the whole thing!”

But Body Parts’ most unexpected turn against madman clichés is allowing Brad Dourif to be likable. The eccentric actor portrays Lacey, a graft recipient and starving artist who finds that having a murderer’s left arm isn’t such a bad thing. “He’s a terrible painter who suddenly begins doing these incredibly violent pictures, and is able to sell them for $250,000 apiece when the New York Times calls him a great and original talent! ” Red chuckles, “So for Lacey, a killer invading his personality has made for fame and fortune. His motto is: This arm murdered people? Great, man!” He’s a funny character, and Brad gives the picture a lot of humor. It’s the most sympathetic he’s ever been in a horror film, and he’s the perfect foil for Bill, who just wants to remove his arm.

Red’s drastic rethinking of Dourif’s persona is symptomatic of the way he views the eternal fight between light and darkness. “I want to make evil poignant instead of making it straight-out monstrous,” Red insists, “People aren’t black and white. They live in gray areas, and I like giving my heroes and villains different shadings. If you have a strong bad guy, then viewers will naturally feel for him.

The hardest scene by far to plan and film was the handcuff car chase. It was all first unit and took two and a half nights to shoot. The sequence involves the killer Charley Fletcher in one car handcuffing himself to Bill in another car then trying to rip his arm off in a high-speed vehicular chase into oncoming traffic. There were over a hundred intricate and complicated set ups required to get all the dynamic coverage of the car chase so I completely storyboarded it in advance. Filming involved plenty of inter-coordinated car stunt work with very some tricky camera placements. We used cars hooked together with camera rigs on back, we shot off insert cars, had cameras on bumper mounts, side mounts, you name it—we used precision stunt drivers for many of the shots and used Jeff and the other actors in cars on tow rigs for some shots.

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We were very safe, because the sequence was very well planned and rehearsed, but you’re still dealing with complex and dangerous vehicular stunts around lots of crew and big equipment so we had to be careful and follow correct safety procedures staging it, which we damn well did. Needed to light a mile of freeway underpass because it was all night work. Plus it was freezing—we were shooting on Lakeshore Drive in Toronto in the dead of winter and riding on the back of insert cars going 50 MPH in 30 degree below zero weather with the wind chill factor, so it was a grueling sequence to film. It’s one of the movie’s highlights though. – Eric Red

“I read the script and, while I didn’t hate it, it seemed a little too fantastic for me,” Jeff Fahey explains. “So I cancelled a couple of meetings I had set up with director Eric Red and producer Frank Mancuso Jr. Finally, Eric got on the phone with me and asked if we could just meet so he could explain his vision. I said OK, fine.

“So I went in, and Eric asked me for my take on the character. I told him that the script dealt too much with the horror of the arm. My idea was to explore the intellectual dilemma and emotional breakdown of this man, and I asked for a rewrite. My ideas were considered. and much of what I wanted this character to be ended up in the final film.”

The actor reports that a key difficulty in making the movie stemmed from one particular limb. “The prosthetic arm was a pain in the ass some days.” he groans. “There were times when I’d sit in the makeup chair for eight hours and end up only being in a 45 second shot. But after a while it sort of became part of the beast. and I became resigned to the fact that I was going to have to deal with this thing. At that point, it became a little easier.”

Playing a character of the complexity of Body Parts’ lead also took some getting used to. The character’s Jekyll-and-Hyde personality changes proved challenging to the actor as he explored Chrushank’s violent tendencies.

“He’s not the killer, but he thinks and wonders about it a lot.” Fahey offers. “He wasn’t an easy character to play, and there were times when exploring Chrushank became emotionally draining. But it never got so real that I began to doubt my own sanity. Doing Body Parts was a wonderful journey, as long as I knew that I could eventually come back.”

Filming the BODY PARTS freeway wreck sequence, a huge set up, on location in Toronto.
Filming the BODY PARTS freeway wreck sequence, a huge set up, on location in Toronto.

SPECIAL EFFECTS

Red made sure that his violence would make a point. “Any thriller’s objective is to scare the hell out of the audience.” Red states. but it still needs a human level to it, which this story has, If you don’t feel for these people, then you won’t care what happens to them. I handled the film with absolute and total realism, because it would be lost ir viewers ever doubted Bill’s predicament for an instant. The sequence where he loses his arm had to be very graphic, with him seeing the limb after it’s cut off.”

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Most important to Body Parts’ believability is its muscular appliance arm, a monster that Bill can’t get rid of as It wreaks horrible damage on those who love and threaten its new master: “The makeup effects were a bitch.” Red groans, because the qualities of foam latex don’t allow you to put it next to human skin. That would cause a real problem when you see Bill’s new arm, so we ended up using urethane, which has a translucent and highly realistic quality. Gordon Smith also created radio-controlled arms, legs and a torso, 10 body parts in all that were mostly used for quick cuts.”

Noted effects supervisor Gordon Smith, “We tried to be as medically authentic with it as possible. We researched what amputations looked like. In reality you can lose your arm just above the elbow and it can be re-attached. It takes quite a while to function as before. Same thing with putting a toe where your thumb used to be. We went to doctors to find how it is done.”

Red pointed out that he had worked with special effects before on COHEN AND TATE, his film directing debut, “but nothing like the massive effects in BODY PARTS.” Smith described his working relationship with Red as “frustrating but interesting. He had to be guided very carefully through the picture. Initially, he had a hard time with the visual aspects. He very much wanted to make it a cartoon in the sense of making everything oversized. He wanted a guy with an arm like a gorilla, which he interpreted as something quite horrific. The reality of trying to manufacture something like that and putting it on an actor would be anatomically impossible.”

According to Smith, Red’s original concept was to have the serial killer, whose limbs are grafted onto Fahey and the film’s other principals, be a giant. “Had we been doing animation it could have been done that way,” said Smith. “We battled like crazy. Eric was open-minded enough to just accept what he was being told. It took a long. long while, mind you, which wasted a lot of time and energy, to get him to believe what we were telling him. Once he came around, everything turned out very, very well.”

Smith said the film’s producers were “afraid of the special effects,” leaving them to the last minute. “As a result they ended up not even getting half of what was originally supposed to be in the movie. That is typical with a director not used to dealing with effects. He was scared so he stayed away from it as long as he could.” Added Smith, “I think I was the one who scared him, which was unfortunate.”

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Pursuing the luxury of experimentation that Smith enjoyed creating the little seen hallucination monstrosities in JACOB’S LADDER, urethane formulations were utilized exclusively in creating the prosthetic limbs seen in BODY PARTS. “The application time was cut down radically,” said Smith. “Very little makeup required for any of the prosthetic work.”

Added Red, “What is difficult about conventional prosthetics, like foam rubber, is it doesn’t look very good next to human skin. We used translucent urethanes to give it a more skin-like quality. They have their limitations too, but generally worked well. I certainly pushed Gordon to do things I think he thought were impossible, but quite a few of them we did.”

What Smith found most exciting on the film was creating the special effects of the story’s animated dismembered limbs, seen in the climax. “They were all remotely controlled,” said Smith. “You could hold a leg in your arm and it would wrestle itself free from you. It was almost difficult to hold onto. The leg would begin to take on a life of its own. Toes twitched.

Jim Gollie and Peter Colpitt designed the inside mechanics. It was a very small, confined area to do that many movements. Both legs, arms and torso were all moving separately, simultaneously. I tried to get them to utilize those pieces as much as possible because that is where the horror of the whole show existed. The guy had been disembodied but he was somehow alive, still violent.”

Smith insisted that the film’s emphasis is on its psychological aspect. “It’s not a gorefest,” said Smith. “When you see the horrors, many could be hallucinations.” Smith gave Red high marks as a director despite what he termed his “technical downfalls.”

Noted Smith, “Eric knew what he was doing he’s a master of the structural reality of what it is to make a film. He knew the script so intimately he was able to get it done. His DOP Theo Van Desande really saved the day. He was always getting shit from Red and the producers for wasting time but he was the only one putting major quality into the picture. It turned into a very big stunt show, a lot of car crashes. They traded off the special effects I had built for some mundane stunts. They are more fun to shoot. They aren’t as technically oriented. You just hire a bunch of guys daring enough to wreck cars with themselves inside.”

Smith complained of inadequate preproduction lead time to prepare the elaborate effects Red envisioned. “I was given three weeks preproduction and we kept building all the way to the very, very end,” said Smith. “No time for testing, no time for design. Eric wanted ten times more than we could give him but time prevented it. There was only enough money to pay for the time they had. We were certainly flying by the seat of our pants. Many days we weren’t sure we could pull that day’s gags off or not. We almost blew the hospital stuff because we lacked the time to get it made properly.”

BODY PARTS was shot on an “extremely tight schedule,” per Smith, one that he said was inadequate to shoot the effects that were envisioned. “They pissed their time away,” said Smith. “No time was allotted to us to shoot the special effects. We repeatedly told them how many hours were required to do them and they totally disregarded it until the end. The last day they decided they wanted to get all the special effects done. A week’s worth of shooting in one day! We had a bit of a blow-out over it it. Someone had to call Frank Mancuso Jr. to get it straightened out. They decided to shoot solely what they needed and call it a day.”

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Despite the difficult shoot, Smith said he had no hard feelings. “I like Eric a lot,” insisted Smith. “Eric loves his writing. He’s the kind of guy who could talk about his writing forever, because it’s orgasmic reality to him. And he’s a very good writer. We battled like cats and dogs, but it was a professional thing.”

Unfortunately, yes. Dahmer was all over the news, but that didn’t affect Body Parts until some genius in Paramount marketing removed the ads for the movie in Milwaukee where the serial killer was apprehended. Next day, the front page of the LA times read, “Paramount Pulls Body Parts Ads In Milwaukee.” Of course, this created a totally erroneous and undeserved association in the public mind between our movie and Jeffrey Dahmer; one that didn’t exist before Paramount yanked the ads, and hurt us at the box office. God bless Howard Stern who defended our movie on his show. When somebody called in saying Paramount should close the film, Stern said on air, “You idiot, the movie was called Body Parts and made a year before Dahmer, and doesn’t have anything to do with Dahmer, so have a Coke and a Smile and shut the f- up!”  – Eric Red

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Audiences loved it, when they went. It played for audiences like I hoped it would. Can’t complain about the distribution, either. Body Parts got a major theatrical release and Paramount opened it in about 2,200 theaters with a pretty decent P&A commitment on TV and newspaper ads. It was a respectable release and we did good opening weekend business. I felt the film would have done much better at the box office if we hadn’t been subject to that awful timing and if Paramount hadn’t gotten gun-shy in the marketing afterwards. There are a lot of things a director controls making a movie but timing is not one of them—that’s out of your hands. I was nominated for a Saturn Award as director and Loek Dikker won a Saturn as composer. It got a lot of great reviews in papers like the L.A. Times and The Boston Globe, who did a major article on it, which was all very nice.  – Eric Red

CAST/CREW
Directed
Eric Red

Produced
Frank Mancuso Jr.

Screenplay
Eric Red
Norman Snider

Story by
Patricia Herskovic
Joyce Taylor

Based on
Choice Cuts
by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Jeff Fahey as Bill Chrushank
Brad Dourif as Remo Lacey
Kim Delaney as Karen Chrushank
Zakes Mokae as Detective Sawchuck
Lindsay Duncan as Dr. Agatha Webb
Paul Ben-Victor as Ray Kolberg
Peter Murnik as Mark Draper

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Cinefantastique v22n02
Fangoria#105
Fangoria#106
Fangoria#112

 

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