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.
There were other slasher progenitors, particularly Bob Clark’s trope-wielding Black Christmas and Tobe Hooper’s seminal, ‘based on real events’ classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the genre was basically an Americanised variation of the Italian giallo, but Carpenter’s collosal breadwinner, a movie that inspired Friday the 13th creator Sean Cunningham to suggest, “Halloween is making incredible money at the box office. Let’s rip it off”, was the film that triggered the sub-genre’s explosion.
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 home video 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 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. 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 vicariously expel our throbbing immoralities. 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. 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 matters. Simón began his career in advertising, and he peddles his trash with ruthless efficiency. 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 and mystery elements, Pieces is also a movie very much in the giallo mode, one that lacks the intelligence of the genre’s better entries, but with one-dimensional teenagers being hacked to pieces and smeared all over the walls, it’s a slasher in spirit. 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. Simón doesn’t possess the same artistry as one-time Argento protege Soavi, but he’s 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.
Pieces 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 revealing itself, 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. The boy’s mother comes across as a little nutty herself, and for a fleeting moment you smell the familiar whiff of Norma Bates in the air, but 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, it seems.
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. Despite 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 find 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. The college Dean even stops to casually discuss the school’s recent spate of 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.
Perhaps most startling is the moment when a Bruce Lee lookalike springs from out of nowhere to harass female protagonist Mary Riggs (Linda Day George) with seemingly violent intentions. It turns out to be a false alarm, the man quickly identified as the college’s kung-fu professor. A FUCKING KUNG-FU PROFESSOR?!!! This, I presume, was an audacious, wildly dissonant and utterly inappropriate way for the commercially savvy Simón 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 America was with self-improvement during the Reagan 80s. When it comes to tapping into popular fads, Simón is utterly shameless.
What truly sets 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 despite 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. Once again, he’s right at home.
Ultimately, 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 a chainsaw in the gut. You actually see the weapon tearing through what appears to be her chest but is actually the flesh of a real, 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.