Tagline: You Don’t Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre!
Director: Juan Piquer Simón
Writers: Dick Randall (screenplay), Roberto Loyola (screenplay)
Starring: Christopher George, Lynda Day George, Frank Braña, Edmund Purdom, Ian Sera, Paul L. Smith
Unrated | 1hr 29min | Horror, Slasher
Budget: $300,000 (estimated)
Low-budget slashers ― once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, right? If you’re judging them in terms of originality, then yes ― particularly those from the early part of the 1980s before censorship hysteria shackled the industry. They are invariably cheap rip-offs of John Carpenter’s genre-defining Halloween, movies in which a masked killer stalks promiscuous teens through a series of heavily contrived set-pieces while a perverted revelation draws ever nearer. But while Carpenter’s opus was innovative and fresh and genuinely terrifying, those who imitated his money-spinning template were typically looking to capitalize on the low-budget VHS boom with the sole intention of turning a quick profit.
Fans of the genre are fully aware of this. They don’t go into a slasher flick expecting to be surprised, not even if the movie in question happens to have a twist, because ninety percent of the time we see them coming a mile away, and this one is no exception. In fact, fans expect very little from giallo’s bastard offspring. Characterisation means squat. Technical panache? They’ll take it where they can, but good luck finding it for the most part. A memorable villain is something we hope for, but again they are few and far between. Ultimately, slasher fans aren’t a picky bunch. We go into a movie for cheap thrills, to test the limits of our nihilism and expel our throbbing immoralities vicariously. We know what we’re about to see is brainless, exploitative trash, but that’s why we dig it.
One thing slasher freaks do expect is lots of blood. They also expect to see at least a couple of kill sequences that either shock or disgust. Overall, that’s where the creativity starts and stops, and with 1982’s Pieces, Spanish filmmaker Juan Piquer Simón fully gets that. In other ways the movie is flawed and silly and teeming with cinematic faux pas, but the violence is next level, and for many that’s all that really matters. Simón began his career in advertising, and he peddles his trash with ruthless efficiency. As a director he doesn’t possess any particular flair or exhibit any kind of technical mastery. In fact, he is competent at best, but what he does do well is steal, and with a tagline as blatantly derivative as ‘You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre’, his project was destined to succeed.
With its black gloved killer, crime and mystery elements and general aesthetics, Pieces is also a movie very much in the giallo mode, but one that lacks the intelligence of that particular genre’s better entries, and with one-dimensional teenagers being hacked to pieces and smeared all over the walls, it’s a slasher at heart. Like Michelle Soavi’s neon cocaine nightmare Stage Fright, it’s something of a hybrid, an unholy matrimony of genres marketed to an American audience. But unlike Stage Fright, there is no artistry here, no tense set-pieces or inspired composition, no sense of surrealism or intelligent self-mocking. It is a ruthless and unconscionable exercise in misogynistic slaughter, and its all sold through an ad man’s lens. Simón may be an unremarkable director, but he is no fool, and with Pieces he produces a bloodsoaked slice of notoriety that ticks all the commercial boxes. He isn’t trying to scare us or thrill us or even intrigue us. The idea is to shock and disgust, and in those terms he does a very fine job indeed. Of course, if you are to sponge off the popularity of others in an oversaturated market, a gimmick is essential in setting your movie apart, and Pieces has a gimmick that is part Hitchcock, part Tobe Hooper, comparisons that are superficial at best.
The movie is also bursting with accidental hilarity, so if you like your horror a bit on the silly side you won’t be disappointed. It wastes no time getting there either. We begin in 1942 with the perquisite origins scene, one that sees a miniature Norman Bates hack his mother to pieces with an axe, thus triggering the deranged acts of his future self. This is the kind of incident that might scar a person for life, perhaps even see them grow to become a leading figure at a private institution while calmly plotting the ultimate homage to that fateful day: a human jigsaw made from female body parts. The fact that a man of such wanton insanity could wait forty years to enact his grisly plot shows incredible restraint, and if you’re not a person who relishes in this kind of nonsense you may have to muster similar resolve if you are to stay the course.
Even sillier is the reason why the boy went schizo on his mother in the first place — an act of revenge on his part having been scolded for putting together a jigsaw of a naked woman. To be fair, the woman comes across as a little nutty herself, so maybe she did deserve some kind of punishment. Not that we’d know, since her character is given precisely thirty seconds to develop before having her head chopped off, the gruesome evidence of which hardly registering with the police and a neighbour lady who quickly stop by to check on the commotion. It’s as if they were expecting to find the room caked in a woman’s innards; all in a day’s work, as they say. Conversely, they have nothing but sympathy for the boy having found him hiding in a cupboard. The fact that he is dripping with the victim’s blood doesn’t seem to raise any kind of suspicion; this, even though there are absolutely no other suspects in sight.
There are so many holes in this movie it’s almost offensive, but that’s what makes it so watchable. For one thing, events begin forty years prior, but the jigsaw in question features a naked woman who looks distinctly ’80s, unless women in the 1940s had a similar penchant for hairspray and all- over tanning. I mean, how would you even get your hands on a jigsaw of a naked woman back then, especially if you were an eight-year old boy? The dubbing is rather silly too. It was common back then to have actors dub their own voices after the fact, which today sounds like the most pointless exercise imaginable, and it lends the movie a cheapness that ultimately adds to its charm. There’s a ridiculous scene in which two ladies compete in a tennis match on a small campus court. In spite of its low-key nature, an umpire calls the match through a megaphone, and the dozen or so watching fans are dubbed to sound like a particularly raucous Wimbledon final featuring thousands of spectators. It’s really quite surreal.
Other absurd occurrences include the most obvious red herring you are ever likely to see in Willard, a campus gardener who stalks the premises with a chainsaw while perving on a plethora of nubile students. For a while, nobody bats an eyelid, and the college Dean even stops to discuss the murders with the insane looking brute tasked with keeping the institution neat and tidy, a person who later attacks the police having been found in possession of a chainsaw next to a couple of mutilated bodies. Naturally, the police have to let him go due to a lack of evidence, and Willard returns to work as if nothing ever happened. There is even a moment in the movie when a Bruce Lee lookalike springs from out of nowhere to harass female protagonist Mary Riggs (Linda Day George) with seemingly violent intentions, before being proclaimed as the college’s professor of kung-fu by a passing student, a way for the commercially savvy Simon to tap into the then popular martial arts genre. The crafty beggar even manages to squeeze-in a sweaty aerobics session featuring a group of spandex-clad beauties, and you know how obsessed people were with aerobics back in the ’80s. You can thank the likes of Jane Fonda for that cinematic fad.
But what truly sets the Pieces apart — asides from the kind of relentless gore that leaves you gagging on piles of steaming viscera — is the movie’s resident cop, Lieutenant Bracken, who in spite of going to great lengths to do his best Columbo impression is as inept as they come. Not only is he unable to ascertain the fact that the bloodied chainsaw sitting next to a pile of limbs is in fact the murder weapon, he later fails to search a crime scene where our killer lurks, putting his teenage assistant in danger as our middle-aged damsel lies paralysed on the sofa, her eyes almost popping in disbelief as he decides to search out in the hallway first. Bracken is played by horror and exploitation legend Christopher George, who starred in a whole host of sleazy productions during the home video revolution, including vigilante exploitation flick The Exterminator, Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead and golden age slasher Graduation Day, and as a personality he is once again a joy to behold.
In the end, plot and general logicality are peripheral to a movie whose sole purpose is to garner notoriety and make some cheddar. What is crucial are the abundance of mutilations on display, the kind so horrific they barely have an effect on the many witnesses who continue to stroll around without a care in the world. Particularly gruesome is a moment in which a cornered student takes the killer’s chainsaw in the stomach. You actually see the weapon tearing through what appears to be her chest but is actually the flesh of a no-fooling pig, and when her body is later discovered you get the most shocking image in a movie crammed with them: the woman’s mutilated corpse and a whole mess of real internal organs slopped across the room, dripping off the walls and ceiling like a blood-based Jackson Pollock thrashed out in an abattoir.
Perhaps there is some art in there after all.
Unable to outrun a fifty-year-old man carrying a giant chainsaw, super-fit tennis champion Suzie is cornered in the locker room and cut to ribbons in a display of graphic brutality that inspires perhaps the only appropriate response in the entire movie ― a series of theatrical screams which inevitably cross over into the realms of implausibility.
Most Absurd Moment
Finding the mutilated body of our infant killer’s mum, the local police presume that the blood-soaked boy hiding in the same room is merely an innocent bystander, in spite of the fact that his fingerprints are all over the murder weapon and the closet he was locked in wasn’t actually locked. ‘Not to worry, kid,’ one of them calmly assures him as clumps of viscera drip from the ceiling. They would later inform his boy scout leader that he would be unable to attend camp that week.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Stumbling upon a couple of mutilated bodies lying next to a bloodied chainsaw, super sleuth Lieutenant Bracken has some questions for Professor Brown:
Lieutenant Bracken: Now look, professor, I don’t want to wait for the coroner’s opinion, so can you give me yours? Now, could that have been done [points to body] with a chainsaw [points to second body] like that one over there?
Gee, let me think..?
Pieces is an incredibly violent affair, marketing blood and guts with an almost business logic. Contrived, cynical and completely devoid of tension, this is horror at its most shallow, but the film’s goofy oversights are good for a giggle, while gore hounds will no doubt bask in its crimson facade.