8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (1997) Blu-ray Review: As Braindead as Its Name Implies

Though it may not be something I’m particularly proud of, movies from the late ’90s are a source of bittersweet wisdom for me, having spent the entire duration of said era as a very devoted video store manager. It was there I discovered it was one of the few professions where you could actually benefit from being your own best customer, but I didn’t necessarily watch everything that went out on the shelves. Not that we received everything released (not unless there was some sort of bulk discount involved), but I did watch an awful lot of the moving pictures during that time. Of course, today, the only thing I can really remember about the movies I watched back then is that I can’t really remember them.

And yet, I recall 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag. Well, parts of it.

Actually, in all honesty, I only remembered two things about the movie, both of which were jokes. Not good jokes, granted, but I remembered them. Well, again, sort of: one of them ‒ a disposable quip about Nancy Reagan which was already about ten years late to the party ‒ technically belonged to that illustrious, “superfluous rogue disembodied dialogue” section of my brain stuffs which I only recalled after seeing the movie again 20 years later. The thing I actually did remember and manage to associate with 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag was the already hackneyed “Tell me if this sounds like a phone hanging up” gag, as delivered by the already hackneyed David Spade and a formerly popular Joe Pesci.

Yes, that’s correct, kids: that was all I could recollect about a movie about a black comedy centering on a gangster with an octet of freshly severed human heads in a travel bag. Needless to say, I’m not surprised 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag never became a big underground hit. And, looking at it again now, two decades after the fact, I can see a lot of the film’s difficulties lie directly in its (ahem) execution. Pesci is quite good as the top-billed performer here, yes. When you get right down to the brass tacks knuckles, though, his surprisingly reserved screentime is really not enough to keep the film from heading off in the wrong direction, and most of his co-stars either overdo it or simply just don’t do it at all.

Much like splicing recombinant DNA, one simply cannot fuse two entirely different comical elements together with a microscope and a butter knife. And that’s pretty much what one-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society) did here with his first (and to date, only) gig as a director. Imagine a mediocre ’60s slapstick screwball comedy mixed with that dry and dusty Arizona Jeans Company-ish, neo-noir aura of ’90s pretentiousness (complete with the horrid southwesterny salsa jar font, to boot) from the vast, hellish wasteland of post-Quentin Tarantino-inspired independent filmmaking which there was simply no escape from back then.

Made the same year as Gone Fishin’ ‒ the other film which would soon force Joe Pesci into early retirement ‒ 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag finds Pesci as made man who Tommy, who is given the routine task of delivering the eponymous bodiless noggins to a prominent mafia figure as definitive proof of their deaths. Unfortunately for Tommy, he takes a commercial flight, which means he has to check his one article of luggage after his unique disposition calls attention to the oversized bag he snuck onboard. (And I must point out seeing all of the sight gags about how inattentive and unobservant airport security was then may leave some of us living in post-9/11 America with a certain sense of uneasiness. Although I’d love to see Tommy flying United today.)

Naturally, Tommy’s bag gets switched with that of another, and his precious 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag instead wind up in the possession of an annoying, awkward, and overly-eager-to-please college kid named Charlie. Playing Charlie is newbie Andy Comeau, who quickly went to work in television after this for some reason. Speaking of TV, there’s a Buffy in this flick, too ‒ although you would never know it today, since it’s the Buffy all Joss Whedon fans hate: Kristy Swanson, who played famous Vampire Slayer in the 1992 theatrical movie most fans dismiss as non-canon. Here, she’s cast as Laurie ‒ Charlie’s disinterested love interest, who is plagued by his presence during a “vacay” down in enchanting Mexico with her snobby parents.

Alas, as Laurie’s alcoholic and pill-poppin’ mum (Dyan Cannon, who co-starred with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in another sinker that year, Out to Sea) soon finds out, Charlie’s bag is the sort of thing that could cause even the most respectable person to fall twelve steps back. (Which leads to one of the film’s “funnier” scenes as she relapses. It’s less funny when viewed today, however, since it all but predicted the average middle-class American woman of 2017.) Anyway, all of this happens as a mite panicky Tommy picks up Charlie’s manuscript and flies off to interrogate and torture Charlie’s college roommates. Portraying Comeau’s pals are David Spade and Todd Louiso, neither of whom we object to seeing in pain.

What we do object to, however, is the length of time it takes to establish a line of communication between Tommy and Charlie. By the time they meet again in the picture (having met briefly on the flight at the beginning), one already feels like notorious cut-and-paste artist Godfrey Ho edited two unrelated movies together. Sadly, this is when the movie finally starts to pick up a bit. At that point, however, all of the film’s characters are exhausted. As is the audience. Naturally, a send-up to bad ’60s comedies isn’t complete without a supporting role by George Hamilton himself, who plays Swanson’s yuppie father. Even the sight of elderly, chain-smoking backseat drivers getting thrown out of moving vehicles doesn’t liven up this dark comedy much.

The movie also features Ernestine Mercer, Frank Roman, Anthony Mangano, Joe Basile, some of the worst CGI effects ever and at least one joke worthy of laughing aloud at (I must confess the moment where Spade and Pesci subtly gloat over the effectiveness of a switched head had me chuckling, even though it obviously wasn’t funny enough to me to commit to memory the first time around). Strangely, I can’t dismiss 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag altogether. Sure, it’s rocky, but it’s quite unique, too. In fact, it even earned an award abroad. A pity it didn’t receive that much attention in its own country of origin. But then, The Sopranos hadn’t debuted yet, so I guess we weren’t ready for this kind of humor just yet.

Or maybe 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag is just as braindead as its name implies.

Then again, it was the late ’90s, when so-called comedians such as David Spade and Adam Sandler reigned supreme as the rest of us suffered. It may not be as amusingly bad as Dirty Work and The Extreme Adventures of Super Dave (or even Pesci’s Gone Fishin’), but at least 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag is funnier than some of the other movies Hollywood dumped on home video then. And anyone who ever saw Disney’s Mr. Magoo (you know, the one with Leslie Nielsen?) ‒ a budget which, just in case it is worth mentioning, was ten times costlier than that of 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag‘s‒ knows of the particularly unmeritable motion picture ilk of which I speak.

One of the several movies Orion Pictures released after filing bankruptcy, 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag arrives on Blu-ray from Twilight Time via a crisp HD print from its current copyright owners, MGM. The movie is presented in an MPEG-4 AVC codec and displayed in its intended 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Many low-budget movies from this period (before a very lazy George Lucas inspired everyone to start going digital a few years later) have a certain “look” which this title certainly does possess, but at least it was shot on actual film, so I’m happy there. DTS-HD MA soundtracks adorn the release in 5.1 and 2.0 options, and English (SDH) subtitles are included just in case you need to turn the volume off every time David Spade looks like he’s going to open his mouth.

Special features for this Limited Edition release from Twilight Time ‒ of which there will only be 3,000 copies pressed, so don’t lose your head from waiting too long if you’re a fan (or at least mildly curious). TV and B-movie composer Andrew Gross ‒ who also scored The Extreme Adventures of Super Dave (another movie I only remember a single bad joke from), funnily enough ‒ provided the fairly inconsequential soundtrack to this film, which is presented here as an isolated score in DTS-HD MA 2.0. A theatrical trailer (also in 1080p) is also included here, and Julie Kirgo’s essay on the film (as included in the enclosed collectible booklet) wrap these 8 Heads up perfectly.

As I said earlier, I cannot cast 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag aside completely. It may not be all the way “the funny” per se, but it isjust weird enough to warrant at least one viewing, even if it does feature David Spade and the Buffy nobody likes.

Now then, where’s that Blu-ray of The Extreme Adventures of Super Dave?

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Luigi Bastardo

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