Body Parts (1991) – Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

Last Updated on June 27, 2024

Eric Red already had two genre classics to his name before he made his feature directorial debut with the hitman thriller Cohen & Tate. He had written the Robert Harmon film The Hitcher, and co-wrote Near Dark with director Kathryn Bigelow. After he finished working on Cohen & Tate, he felt like directing a horror film himself, and went searching for a subject that would allow him to mix psychological thrills with body horror and gruesome gore effects. That search led him to the 1965 Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac novel Choice Cuts, which he brought to the screen as 1991’s Body Parts (WATCH IT HEREOWN IT HERE) – the film we’re taking a look at in this episode of the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw.

CREATORS / CAST: Attempts to make a cinematic adaptation of Choice Cuts began long before Eric Red got his hands on the book; in fact, when Red looked into obtaining the film rights, he found that a Choice Cuts film had been languishing in development hell for about twenty-five years by that point. Several scripts had already been written, most notably one by Robert Benton, who won Best Screenplay Oscars for Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart, and his Bonnie & Clyde and Superman co-writer David Newman. The project had also passed through the hands of other directors, including the legendary Alfred Hitchcock – and it makes sense that Choice Cuts was such a hot property when you take into account the fact that Boileau and Narcejac had also written the novels that had been turned into Diabolique and Hitchcock’s own Vertigo.

Red was able to save Choice Cuts – or, as he would end up calling it, Body Parts – from development hell rather easily. All it took was a chance meeting with Paramount’s Frank Mancuso Junior, the son of Paramount chairman Frank Mancuso Senior. Red pitched the idea of Body Parts to Mancuso Junior, who then took him to see Paramount’s president Sid Ganis. Once Ganis heard the pitch, he gave the project a greenlight immediately. Red was told he would have a ten million dollar budget to work with and would be filming in six months. So then Red had to get busy working on the screenplay.

While it’s easy to understand why someone would want to make a Boileau and Narcejac adaptation, it’s also easy to understand why filmmakers found Choice Cuts to be a tough story to crack. Told from the point of view of a police secretary, the novel begins with the execution of a criminal whose body parts – arms, legs, heart, lungs, everything – are harvested and transplanted to various recipients. Then something goes terribly wrong, and all of the people who have parts of this criminal in them and on them start turning up dead. There were some things in that source material that could have come off as being silly if brought to the screen and not handled in the right way, like the story of a woman who received one of the male criminal’s legs meeting and falling in love with the man who received the other leg. There were also a lot of recipients to deal with – and, according to Red, the main problem was one of perspective. The narrator of the novel was removed from the situation, observing from the outside. When given the chance to take his own approach to the subject, Red decided to make the lead character someone who’s smack in the middle of this strange situation: the man who receives the criminal’s right arm.

Red’s adaptation is very clever. His version of the story centers on criminal psychologist Bill Crushank, played by the great character actor Jeff Fahey. As part of his job, Bill has to interview Death Row convicts to determine whether or not they’re sane enough to be executed, which is tough for a man who got into this profession because he wants to help people and wishes he could cure them of their mental illness. When Bill loses his arm in a car accident, his lost limb is replaced with a fully functional arm from a donor. But once Bill starts suffering from nightmares, disturbing visions, and changes in behavior and attitude, he begins to worry that his new arm is at the root of his troubles. His fears seem to be confirmed when he discovers that the arm belonged to a serial killer who was executed. As Bill says, there’s now a murderer’s blood in his blood. Which brings up the question: where does evil come from? Could Bill be infected with the evil of the man his arm used to belong to? Having a psychologist as the character who has to deal with this issue was a great idea.

Red also simplified things by having the killer’s body parts go to much fewer recipients than they did in the novel. There are only three recipients in the film: the killer’s legs went to athlete Mark Draper, played by Peter Murnik, and the other arm went to artist Remo Lacey – who is played by genre icon Brad Dourif, and has a creative and financial breakthrough when he uses his new arm to paint with. Neither Draper nor Lacey have negative side effects to the degree that Bill does, but as the film goes on they will run into plenty of troubles of their own.

After writing the first draft of the script, Red had to pass the writing duties over to two other screenwriters, Norman Snider, who co-wrote Dead Ringers with David Cronenberg, and Larry Gross, who was a writer on Walter Hill’s 48 Hours, so he could focus on getting ready to direct the movie. Since so many versions of Choice Cuts scripts had been written on the way to Body Parts going into production, the Writers Guild had to look through all of the existing drafts to decide which writers should be credited on the film – and while Red and Snider ended up sharing screenplay credit, Gross unfortunately didn’t make the cut, even though Red requested that he be credited for his work on the script. The guild also decided that Joyce Taylor and the film’s co-producer Patricia Herskovic should have story credit, which remains the sole writing credit for both of them.

Heading into production, Red assembled a strong supporting cast around the transplant recipient characters. Kim Delaney plays Bill’s wife Karen, with Lindsay Duncan as Doctor Agatha Webb, the surgeon (or mad doctor) who performs the transplants; Zakes Mokae is a detective who enters the story in the second half; Paul Ben-Victor plays a Death Row prisoner Bill interviews on a couple different occasions, and turns in a very intense performance; and there’s John Walsh as Charley Fletcher, the killer whose limbs were transplanted. This is where we have to truly pass into spoiler territory, as Red made the story more exciting and cinematic in the way he handled the twist that comes late in the novel. In the book, the police secretary discovers that the presumed dead criminal is actually still alive and the transplant recipients are being killed because the criminal is reclaiming his body parts so he can be put back together. Body Parts reaches that twist earlier than the book did so Charley Fletcher can be an active participant in the second half of the film, attacking characters and retrieving his limbs while sporting a neck brace in tribute to a popular image from the 1935 The Hands of Orlac adaptation Mad Love – a story that was about a man who receives the hands of an executed murderer. Charley’s mission to get his body parts back allows Red to achieve the mixture he originally wanted when he set out to make a horror movie: a psychological thriller with some gross-out gore effects, which were provided by Gordon J. Smith and his team.

BACKGROUND: Body Parts had a comfortable 45 day shooting schedule that went rather smoothly. A slight issue came up when a test screening audience wasn’t satisfied with the way Charley Fletcher was taken out in the end, so some additional photography was done to give him a more definitive death. With a crowd-pleasing ending in place and a couple severed arm gore effects removed to appease the ratings board, the film continued toward a wide theatrical release that was scheduled for August 2nd, 1991. Then real-world horror came in to cloud the public’s perception of Body Parts: less than two weeks before the release date, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was captured in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As news reports filled papers and airwaves with talk of the victim body parts that were found in Dahmer’s apartment, Paramount decided to pull the ads for Body Parts in Milwaukee – and when this move was noticed by the media, Body Parts became associated with Dahmer’s crimes in the exact way Paramount had been hoping to avoid.

Body Parts was released on August 2nd as intended, but the film didn’t recoup its ten million dollar budget at the domestic box office – its take in North America ended at just over nine million. The film did go on to reach more of an audience on home video and cable, and has developed a cult following over the years. Its following doesn’t seem to be nearly as large as the ones The Hitcher and Near Dark have, but it does have its appreciative fans, and in 2020 Scream Factory chose to honor it with a special edition Blu-ray release.

WHAT MAKES IT GREAT: Body Parts is a great example of a film that provides satisfying pay-off to fascinating build-up. Red draws the viewer in with the dark mystery of what’s going on with Bill Crushank following his arm transplant, and Jeff Fahey gives a terrific performance as we watch the mild-mannered psychologist, whose wife describes as the best man she knows, fall apart and turn into someone with violent mood swings, who will even hit his kids in anger. Many viewers will probably predict that Bill is going to be the villain by the end of the film – but then Red and his collaborators made the smart decision to shift gears and widen the scope of the film. This isn’t just the story of a man’s mental deterioration, or of his corruption by the limb of a killer. It’s bigger and crazier than that. As Red said, when figuring out how to bring the Choice Cuts story to the screen it seemed obvious to him that, “In a movie, the whole last act had to be the killer out on the street ripping his parts off the transplant recipients in slasher movie fashion so the movie would escalate from psychological thriller into full-on horror action mode.”

That escalation is what makes this such an entertaining movie to watch; the psychological thriller stretch of the film is highly intriguing, then things get adrenalized when Charley Fletcher enters the picture, bringing with him gory death scenes, car chase action, and explosions.

It’s also great to watch Bill interact with his fellow transplant recipients, especially the always captivating Brad Dourif, who has an excellent scene in which he tells Bill how well his artistic endeavors have been going since he received his new arm, and Bill tells him the imagery he has been painting are things Charley Fletcher saw when he was killing people.

BEST SCENE(S): One of the best scenes in the movie involves all three of the transplant recipients hanging out in a bar. Of course, as often happens in movies, this bar scene breaks out into a brawl, and during the scuffle we see that Charley’s limbs still seem to have violent instincts in them. Bill beats the hell out of several fellow patrons with his new right arm, and is so out of control that he even hits Mark Draper in the middle of the fight. Draper immediately reacts by kicking Bill with one of his new legs.

Another standout moment is the accident in which Bill loses his arm in the first place. This crash is a jaw-dropping sight, as Bill is tossed through the windshield of his car, then hits the trunk of the vehicle in front of him and gets thrown further through the air. Part of why this is so shocking is due to the fact that it was a stunt gone wrong, the stuntman wasn’t supposed to get tossed around quite so much. Thankfully, he wasn’t hurt in this accident, so it worked out well for the movie.

But the very best sequence in Body Parts is also the one that was the toughest to plan and film. It’s a major stunt sequence in which Bill is sitting in the passenger seat of a car when Charley Fletcher pulls up beside him in another and handcuffs his right arm – the one that used to belong to Charley – to his left arm. Charley then starts speeding through traffic, hoping to rip Bill’s arm off in the process. The handcuff sequence took two and a half nights for Red and his crew to film, in sub-zero temperatures on Lakeshore Drive in Toronto. As Red describes it, “There were over a hundred intricate and complicated set-ups required to get all the coverage. Filming involved plenty of inter-coordinated car stunt work with some very 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 Fahey and the other actors in cars on tow rigs for some shots.”

The result is a spectacular sequence that, once you’ve watched this movie, you’ll never forget.

PARTING SHOT: An adaptation of the Choice Cuts novel could have been good if it had been made at an earlier point during its time in development hell. It certainly would have been interesting to see what Alfred Hitchcock would have done with the concept. But genre fans really lucked out when the story ended up in the hands of writer and director Eric Red. With Body Parts, Red delivered something quite special, an awesome blend of thrills, action, and horror that is carried on the shoulders of Jeff Fahey, in one of his best roles, driven forward by a score from Loek Dikker, and features some incredible stuntwork and shocking gore. The film didn’t reach as big of an audience as it should have when it was released in 1991, but its audience is always growing and the film is still readily available to be discovered by new viewers. Once people do have the chance to see Body Parts, it tends to go over well. Red has even said that this is the only movie he has made where the audience applauds over the end credits at screenings because they enjoyed it so much. He witnessed this happening at separate screenings that were held twenty-five years apart, proving to him that his film has stood the test of time.

The applause is earned, because Body Parts is yet another very cool movie from the man who has brought us films like The Hitcher, Near Dark, Bad Moon, and 100 Feet.

The Best Horror Movie You Never Saw series can be seen below. To see more, and to check out some of our other shows, head over to the JoBlo Horror Videos YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.