The middle and late 1990s saw a decent number of dark comedies — or, at least, an increase in critics using the terms “dark comedy” or “black comedy” whenever a movie tackled a serious subject with any bit of bite. Then there’s something like 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, which revolves around — you guessed it — a duffel bag full of eight decapitated heads and figures that alone is enough.

Removed from their former owners, these heads probably do more traveling than they did attached. From Newark to San Diego to Mexico the heads go, and within those destinations they find themselves on the floor, in a dumpster, and tumbling around inside a dryer. They even get a little musical interlude, with a version of “Mr. Sandman” that changes the lyrics to “Mr. Hitman.”

For you see, the heads were violently removed off-screen after a mob hit, and Tommy (Joe Pesci) must get them to the Boss (Howard George) or his and other “heads will roll.” So he books a flight to San Diego, bringing the heads along with him (back in the quaint days when you could smuggle a duffel bag with eight heads in it through airport security by slipping a gun in the pocket of the woman in front of you?). Unfortunately, he mixes up bags with Charlie (Andy Comeau), the passenger sitting next to him, who’s worried about meeting his girlfriend Laurie’s (Kristy Swanson) parents for the first time.

Charlie, Laurie, and her parents (George Hamilton, in one of his least tanned performances, and Dyan Cannon) go to Mexico, while Tommy tracks Charlie back to his dorm in Bethesda, where he tries to torture information out of his fellow pre-med students Ernie (David Spade, surprisingly not the actor most detached from his surroundings in the movie) and Steve (Todd Louiso), using such brutal tactics as whipping them with a wet towel and banging the business ends of two stethoscopes together while they listen.

It’s a farce, of sorts, if one’s impression of farce is that the humor comes from dumb people doing unlikely things in improbable situations.

Take Charlie’s realization that he’s in possession of the wrong luggage, blindly dumping out the bag on the bed as his girlfriend’s father sits, facing away, in front of him. Noticing the oddly shaped plastic bags, he rips one open, discovers a face looking back at him, and screeches. “Ants,” he makes up on the fly as his father turns — not all the way around, mind you, because that would ruin the shaky premise. Then he screams again, discovering, oh, these are all full of heads, and future dad-in-law — still not turning all the way around — hears, “Cramp!”

Now, Laurie’s mom finds the heads early on (after an extended double take, peeking in the bag, zipping it up, leaving the room, and then coming back), so, obviously, presuming her daughter’s life is in danger, she takes the reasonable approach of crawling around the furniture in her room, downing a bunch of pills with miniature bottles of liquor, bringing a sword to lunch with Charlie and her family, and, without mentioning a word of what she’s discovered to anyone, tackles him.

A blind laundry woman cleans one of the heads and wraps it up for delivery back to his room (even without sight, she must, must question that what she’s holding isn’t clothing, right?), and no one does anything resembling a sensible action in 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag. Whatever “darker” elements are ruined with terrible puns (Tommy has “some time to kill,” to look for replacement heads) and lazy characterizations (a swearing grandma (Ernestine Mercer) who tells Tommy to watch his language). Writer/director Tom Schulman even misses an opportunity for a “He’d forget his head if wasn’t attached” joke after Charlie accidentally leaves the bag in a police car, or maybe he saved us from it.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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