Home / Blog / The Impossible Royale with Cheese #8: EIGHT HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG — Moviejawn

The Impossible Royale with Cheese #8: EIGHT HEADS IN A DUFFEL BAG — Moviejawn

May 28, 2023May 28, 2023

Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag (1997)Written and Directed by Tom SchulmanStarring Joe Pesci, Kristy Swanson, Andy Comeau, David Spade, George Hamilton

by Alex Rudolph, Staff Writer

I skinned the webbing between the pinkie and ring fingers on my left hand this week and have spent the time since setting off small fire bombs between my knuckles every time I try to pick something up or make too broad a move or let liquid soap drizzle too far down my hand, but the "woe is me" plea I'm sending out here is not about that. A few days before the webbing opened up, I watched Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag. My worst enemy can lose some finger skin. They'll be fine. I just don't want anybody to have to watch Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag.

You can watch it if you want-- the movie's on Tubi right now. You might even read the description and think it sounds fun. Joe Pesci plays an angry Italian man (?!) named Tommy Spinelli, who's been tasked with delivering eight heads to mob boss Big Sep as proof that a hit has gone down. Transporting the heads in a duffel bag on a commercial airline leads to some hijinx! The head bag is switched with an identical one owned by clueless grad student Charlie Pritchett (Andy Comeau), Charlie heads off on a Mexican vacation with his girlfriend's (Kristy Swanson) parents (George Hamilton and Dyan Cannon) and Tommy uses Charlie's roommates (David Spade and Todd Louiso) to track him down.

There is potential there. There is potential in anything. You begin to recognize the thing you're experiencing has squandered that potential when everything that happens is scored by wacky, Baby's Day Out-type music. Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag tries to be cool at times, but everything that happens on screen is met by "slipping on a banana peel" music cues.

Joe Pesci plays his usual prick character and I realized, watching this film, that Joe Pesci is, potentially, a pretty bad actor. He shines in Martin Scorsese films, he's great in Once Upon A Time In America, Home Alone and My Cousin Vinny, but those are good movies. I don't think Pesci has ever elevated a bad film, and he's been in plenty of them. I liked Joe Pesci before this movie because directors gave him well-written parts that kept him in a vanishingly narrow lane, but I'm realizing more and more that he's mostly otherwise a guy who shows up to say things like "You know what I should do, I should smack you in the head for saying that" and "Listen to me closely now or I'm gonna smack you in the head" or "You ask me one more question like that and I'm gonna smack you in the head."

It's possible he's just a lazy actor who needs people to push him to try and in 1997, after electric performances in Goodfellas and Casino and Vinny, he was firmly in his Marlon Brando Earpiece era and nobody could tell him anything.

And so Joe Pesci does a lot of Joe Pesci-ing to innocent bystanders in his kooky scheme. The film apes Quentin Tarantino hardest in the scenes where Pesci terrorizes Spade and Louiso. I was reminded of the Brad Pitt character in True Romance, who happens to be around, smoking pot and watching TV, while his roommate gets sucked into a hyper-violent drug deal. The thing so many of these fake Tarantino movies latched onto was the ensemble nature of Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and Pulp Fiction, and specifically the way the ensembles in the latter two were made up of all types of characters. There were hardened criminals and there were wrong place, wrong time straight men and everything in between. The Bruce Willis chapter of Pulp Fiction works so well because we couldn't see the sudden left-turn into the redneck sex dungeon coming, but the movie had by then made it clear that this was a world where anything could happen and any type of degenerate could be hiding behind any corner. The best of these movies are surprising without feeling totally random.

Eight Heads has one plot that doesn't shoot off into unexpected directions, but it does have a few detours, almost all of which come from the roommates. Pesci tortures them to find out where Charlie is, they help him replace heads Charlie has lost and one of them slowly loses his mind in a big, broad way on the trip down to Mexico. None of these scenes are good, but they're different and, at their best, serve to distract from how thin the movie's one-joke premise is. When you aren't watching Pesci interact with Spade and Louiso, you're watching Charlie try and fail to hide severed heads from his girlfriend and her family.

Here's an incredible piece of IMDb trivia: "Will Smith was offered the role of Ernie. Although the studio offered US $10,000,000 for the role, Smith turned it down. The part then went to David Spade, presumably for a lower price."

I would presume that, yes. It must have been rewritten for Spade's same old lazy smarm. He's playing his standard persona as much as Pesci is playing his. The film's budget was $3 million, which means that if Will Smith had signed on, he would have more than tripled Eight Heads' production costs.

David Spade is a weird actor to think about. He's been in plenty of movies since the 90s, but primarily in cameos and those knock-off 3D animated movies designed to trick uninformed parents running through Target the morning before their kid's birthday party. Besides The Emperor's New Groove in 2000, the only films he's had significant roles in have been Happy Madison productions, meaning he's on his SNL buddy Adam Sandler's payroll (without being in any of the good Sandler movies). He wrote and starred in Joe Dirt and Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, just the worst garbage you wouldn't watch if they were on TV and every other channel was playing footage of failed surgeries. A David Spade film festival would be less appealing to most people than a Your Parents' Sex Tape movie retrospective. He rode Chris Farley's coattails in the 90s and then sold his dead friend's likeness to a DirecTV commercial in 2009. That is bleak. That is more depressing than Rob Schneider's tailspin or Joe Pesci's failed music career or Peg Entwistle or the Lindbergh baby. But the one thing that anybody liked about Spade was his sarcastic "buh-bye" schtick, so that's what he's still doing, over 30 years later. His tone is still "I'm too good for this shit" and you, whoever you are, most likely have a better, more fulfilling life and are contributing more to the world than the guy whose most significant work in the last two decades was The Wrong Missy. The David Spade scenes don't save the movie, is what I'm saying.

This is the kind of movie where a swearing grandma says "Didn't I tell you to watch your fuckin' language?" which is funny because she's swearing about not swearing! Other characters finding the heads plays like something in a Jerry Lewis movie, with everybody turning into Daffy Duck the moment they realize what's going on. There's a dream sequence where the heads come back to life and sing "Mr. Sandman" and it would be novel if it wasn't supposed to crack you up. There's a Mexican stand-off between Pesci, the guy he switched bags with and some mobsters following Pesci and it's cut short by some goofy trumpet music. That is what Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag is.

Everybody hated this movie when it came out. The Washington Post's critic called it "sheer torture." It barely made its money back, only by promising something it couldn't be. Link Wray's "Rumble," which also featured prominently in Pulp Fiction, played in Eight Heads' trailer. A surf rock song cues up right after that. "Rumble" is not in the movie itself. This is not that much of a Tarantino knock-off, honestly, but it was marketed as one and its few side plots mimic Tarantino ideas. In some ways, that makes it a special kind of Tarantino knock-off: somebody had an idea and then the studio did what they could to reformat it in the image of a big success. I don't know if writer-director Tom Schulman intended to copy Pulp Fiction, but somebody certainly wanted him to do that.

That name may sound familiar. I've been burying a lede, trying to describe an artistic failure before giving away its weirdest element. This was Shulman's first movie as a director, but he had already written movies like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids and What About Bob? He had already won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the semi-autobiographical Dead Poets Society.

Eight Heads slowed Schulman's career down considerably. One year later, he wrote the Eddie Murphy flop Holy Man and then didn't have another screenwriting credit until 2004's Welcome To Mooseport. He co-wrote the 2009 TV movie Anatomy of Hope and directed his second film, Double Down South, last year. I haven't seen Dead Poets Society since I was in the seventh grade, which means its reputation as schmaltz is mostly lost on me-- I'd probably dislike it now, but that brand of self-seriousness works for you when you're 12 and I have vague memories of enjoying the movie.

Sometimes you grow as an artist. You take on new influences, become more confident in your skills and work some kinks out as you continue to create. Sometimes you win an Oscar and then cash in all of your cred to make Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

The Year is 1997: David Spade is in a movie that Adam Sandler get him.

Tarantino defectors: none

Weirdest member of the ensemble: George Hamilton

Weirdest pop culture reference: Todd Louiso references Taxi Driver's mirror scene with a head, which is only weird because that's one of the few Scorsese movies that featured Robert De Niro and not Joe Pesci. Either Tom Schulman wrote that bit with the intention of casting De Niro, he never saw Taxi Driver and thought Pesci played Travis Bickle or, almost as likely, he was just making an allusion to an over-quoted film moment because that's what unfunny people do.

Most Tarantino moment: When Joe Pesci's character Tommy tracks down Charlie's roommates (David Spade and Todd Louiso), he strips them down to their underwear, puts socks in their mouths, sets a fishbowl on the floor and prepares to torture them, saying "Look, I don't want to have to put you kids through hell, so let me tell you what's going to happen. First, I'm gonna hurt you. Then you're gonna try to be brave. Then I'm gonna hurt you again, and you're gonna tell me everything." It's straight out of a Tarantino movie, probably bearing closest resemblance to James Gandolfini barging into True Romance and laying out how he's going to torture Patricia Arquette. It's also what happens in Reservoir Dogs, when Michael Madsen explains that he's mostly cutting the cop's ear off for fun and doesn't fully expect the information he needs. Tarantino loves giving violent characters meticulous codes and he loves having them explain to the people they're about to hurt how they've been through this all a hundred times and know exactly how everything's going to play out. In both of the scenes I mentioned, things don't go to plan. In this movie Pesci gets his answers and moves forward as you'd expect.

Needledrop setpiece: The heads sing "Mr. Sandman."

Innovations in the subgenre: The wacky music gives this a tone so far removed from the sense of cool all of these movies cultivated that you're practically watching something from another century.

Most ridiculous line of dialogue: The Todd Louiso roommate starts making head puns out of nowhere: "Heads up! Stop ahead. Anybody need to use the head?"

Where did the writer/director go? He made Welcome to Mooseport, a movie most notable for making Gene Hackman retire. And Joe Pesci retired two movies after Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag. Tom Schulman's been a couple famous actors' lowest point.

Left behind: It's a weird thing to say about an actor who had won an Oscar seven years earlier, but it's Joe Pesci. He was in Casino in 1995, took a year off and then made this and the J.J. Abrams-written comedy Gone Fishin'. In 1998, he was in Lethal Weapon 4 and then retired from acting to return to his original love, singing. He made an album, called Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just For You, as his My Cousin Vinny character. It's worth a listen, if only for "Wise Guy," the worst rap you will ever hear. In some ways, Pesci left the movie industry behind. In more ways, Pesci followed a terrific hot streak with a lot of nothing and the industry moved on well before he did. Following his Irishman comeback, Pesci has shown an interest in returning to acting; he's currently starring in Pete Davidson's Peacock show Bupkis. I would eat a bucket of glass before I watched a full episode of Pete Davidson's Bupkis.

Does it work? Nooooooooo. Nooooooooo. Noooooooooooo. Nooooooooooooo. Noooooooooooo. Nooooooooooo. Nooooooooo. Most of these knock-offs have worked, but this is the first one (and first movie of any kind I've seen in a while) that doesn't have any redeeming qualities.

Eight Heads In A Duffel Bag (1997)Written and Directed by Tom SchulmanStarring Joe Pesci, Kristy Swanson, Andy Comeau, David Spade, George Hamilton by Alex Rudolph, Staff Writer