The slasher was my first real insight into the idea that a film doesn’t have to be particularly good to be enjoyable. I fell in love with action B-movies much earlier, those gloriously cack-handed Golan-Globus productions just as sketchy, but as an uneducated tyke I genuinely believed that Michael Dudikoff was the greatest actor alive (it might be worth noting that I also had serious aspirations of becoming a ninja).
As I approached my early teens horror became my unbridled fascination, the likes of Fred Krueger and Jason Voorhees consuming me absolutely. I had no awareness of pacing, dramatic tension or the dozen other facets that make a movie great in the traditional sense, even if, with the likes of Halloween, I was a aware on some primal level that what I was experiencing was something special. All these years later, I’m much less passive, but I don’t enjoy so-called lesser movies any less. I actually enjoy them more, understanding that there’s as much fun to be had with films that are so inept from a technical standpoint that highlighting their various flaws is a fun and fulfilling experience in itself.
When it comes to sheer ineptitude, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger perpetrator than the slasher sub-genre. Called out for its lack of invention and general artistry during its dominant 80s run, it was damned by critics who felt that its creative aspirations forged a moral bankruptcy that not only degraded the art of filmmaking, but a generation of slasher fans clamouring for the kind of creative violence that was much closer to reality, and as a result more damaging. Not that it mattered. As proven by Sean Cunningham’s commercial catalyst Friday the 13th, a blatant Halloween rip-off with an inspired summer camp setting that made a whopping $59,800,000 on a budget of only $550,000, it was the cheapest and easiest way to turn a profit during the 80s home video boom. As long as there was a demand for cynical, blood and guts horror, the slasher was here to stay.
Cries of creative regression were not only valid, they were part and parcel of the genre. If you look back at the evolution of how the slasher came to fruition, you’ll witness the equivalent of a human baby evolving into a fully formed ape. Psychological suspense films such as Michael Powell’s claustrophobic exercise in voyeurism Peeping Tom and Alfred Hitchcock’s gallows humour masterwork Psycho, movies which invited audiences into the minds of killers in a way that posed deeply uncomfortable questions, were witty, cerebral endeavours that were arguably the genre’s true progenitors. Giallo films, though written off as Hitchcock derivatives with unseemly lashings of gore, were bold, inventive, and visually and technically brilliant, as were American efforts The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas and Halloween. The slasher’s golden age was merely an exercise in formula, a fast food approach to cinema that fed audiences no frills slaughter and fulfilled their anarchic urges, transforming characters into vacuous stereotypes, employing familiar settings, setups, and other endlessly regurgitated tropes.
Because of their relative simplicity in terms of execution (at least in theory), the slasher was the perfect entry point for low-end or upstart filmmakers and indie distributors looking for the next commercial phenomenon. On paper it was pretty straightforward: make a movie in which a masked killer stalks promiscuous teens through a series of heavily contrived set-pieces while a perverted revelation draws nearer. Golden age slasher fans aren’t a picky bunch. Not only do we anticipate such a generic approach, we demand it. We don’t expect to be mentally stimulated or inspired or taken by surprise, even if the movie in question happens to have a twist, because ninety percent of the time we see it coming a mile away. Characterisation means squat. Technical panache? We’ll take it where we can but good luck finding it for the most part. A memorable villain is something we hope for, but again they’re few and far between. Ultimately, 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.
That’s not to say all slashers are acceptable. The sub-genre’s early-80s boom led to an overabundance of shoddy, low-budget efforts that were not only devoid of artistry, but in many cases mind-numbingly boring and from a technical standpoint borderline unwatchable. Even the most die hard genre fanatic will admit to having endured some absolute stinkers, the kind so devoid of ingenuity that they qualify as a slasher in business sentiment alone. The very cream of the crop, movies such as My Bloody Valentine, The Burning and The Prowler, excelled in creative violence, were redolent of a landmark era of horror movie censorship that saw films cut to ribbons or even banned outright and rented under the counter. Others, like The Slumber Party Massacre, Sleepaway Camp and The Boogeyman, were notable for their narrative quirks and/or outright silliness, attaining cult status for altogether different reasons. Fewer still had both in abundance, but if one slasher managed to tick all the boxes, it was Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces.
The motive-establishing setup is textbook slasher fare, but Pieces isn’t the kind of movie that does things in half-measures, revealing its savage tone and outright silliness from the get-go. In the opening prologue, the boy who’ll grow to be our unnamed killer is scalded by his mother for piecing together a nudie jigsaw. He hacks her to pieces for her fit of parental outrage, first with relentless axe blows to the skull and then with a hand saw. It’s absolutely brutal, perhaps the most brutal opening to a golden age slasher I’ve ever witnessed, yet I was laughing hysterically all the way through. Not because of the violence itself, but because of the camp nature of the execution and Simón’s general apathy towards the details.
For one thing, events begin forty years prior in 1942, but the jigsaw in question features a naked lady who looks distinctly 80s — unless women in the 40s 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? Finding the mutilated corpse of our killer infant’s mother, the local police presume that the bloodsoaked boy hiding in the same room is merely an innocent bystander, the gruesome evidence hardly registering with 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! “Not to worry, kid,” one of them calmly assures as clumps of viscera drip from the ceiling. One of them even asks for a plastic garbage bag — an insensitive remark, but also a dubious one as they hadn’t been invented yet. Perhaps he had a few prototypes in his patrol wagon.
In it’s pure, uncut form, Pieces is unapologetically violent, peddling trash with the ruthless efficiency of a Madison Avenue ad exec employed by Patrick Bateman. It’s also crazier than a shithouse rat let loose in a crack lab, teeming with pricelessly woeful actors, insane plot developments and all manner of cinematic faux pas, some characters appearing randomly with absolutely no bearing on the plot. Early in the movie, a random girl skateboards through a plate of glass being carried by two workmen. You presume she’s dead, or at the very least injured, only moments later the same actress is having her head lopped off with a chainsaw while smilingly reading a book on the campus grounds in broad daylight. Is it the same character? Have we leapt dramatically forward in time? According to actress Roxana Nieto, they are the same character, the intent being that she survived the crash without any injuries, the broken glass acting as a trigger for our killer’s obsession with making a fully formed body from the limbs of his victims, only that isn’t established with any kind of clarity. We’re barely past the credits and I’m already confused as hell.
During the movie’s equally dissonant second act, an ex-tennis pro-come-undercover cop (Lynda Day George) is attacked on a college campus by a Bruce Lee lookalike who attempts to spin-kick her into oblivion, relentlessly attacking the camera like Lee from Enter the Dragon. After George’s character, Mary Riggs, manages to disable the attack with a swift kick in the knackers, a student assures her that her random aggressor isn’t the killer as she’d assumed, but his totally harmless kung-fu professor. Kung-fu professor?!! That’s a new one! Producer Dick Randall, who was simultaneously making kung-fu movies in Rome, actively created a cameo for famous Brucesploitation star Bruce Le for no logical reason, and it’s a jarringly dissonant scene, an absolute mindfuck that throws you even further off course. George is a terrible actress too. Just look for her screaming reaction after stumbling upon the movie’s most sickening display of mutilation. Never has the repeated use of the word Bastard been simultaneously more and less emphatic.
The silliness isn’t restricted to characters who are shamelessly shoehorned-in. At barely 85 minutes, Pieces is a pitilessly economic exercise in mindless slaughter that has little time for narrative subtleties, slapping us in the face with red herrings so suspicious they smell like they’ve been fished out of the back of an old man’s sofa. Our first curveball comes in the form of campus handyman, Willard, an insane-looking brute with the patience of a geriatric mountain bear who stalks the campus with a bright yellow chainsaw, the same weapon responsible for a spate of grisly murders involving missing body parts. Not only is Willard the most suspicious man walking god’s green earth (just look at his expression in the above image), he’s suspicious of every person he comes into contact with, lashing out at students and laying waste to an entire police force while under investigation. He deserves to be locked up regardless. Portrayer Paul L. Smith has all the subtlety of Bluto auditioning for the part of Tony Soprano after a case of Popeye’s spinach, which is presumably why he was cast as the character in Robert Altman’s hugely divisive film adaptation. He basically gives the exact same performance completely out of context.
Another suspect is written in a way that should absolutely make him the killer barring an unimaginable level of coincidence. Not only does this person have the wiry features and shady pencil moustache of a shifty Disney waiter, he’s unmarried, lives with his mother and specialises in anatomy, professionally and when confronted by big-breasted harlots looking to embarrass him in a way that begs for brutal vengeance. He even handles a bloodied chainsaw at the scene of the film’s latest murder as if trying to contaminate the evidence. But don’t be fooled. There’s no rhyme or reason to the movie’s mystery elements. Our killer, who somehow wanders the college campus dressed like The Shadow without ever arising suspicion, is visually reminiscent of a giallo killer, but narratively it’s closer to a Scooby Doo Mystery, and with one-dimensional teens being hacked to pieces and smeared all over the walls, it’s certainly a slasher in spirit.
Indie distributor Film Ventures, who were more concerned with the movie’s graphic content, weren’t initially keen on optioning Pieces, but representative Edward Montoro, who was “stunned with shock” after first experiencing the film’s relentless abattoir, had a change of heart after witnessing the reaction of a test audience. “I didn’t want to take the film until producer Steve Minasian said, ‘Go screen it for an audience’,” he would tell Fangoria. “Well, I screened it for a paying audience in San Diego, and they screamed at the gore parts, but basically they laughed all the way through the film. They absolutely loved the picture. That’s what made them change my mind about this particular film; I normally wouldn’t want this type of slasher picture, but the audience started laughing right away. You know, you put 200 people in a theatre and they start to laugh and it’s infectious. There’s a lot of gore, but for the most part it’s really very unintentional camp.”
To be fair to our ludicrously conspicuous killer, the film’s cast sure make it easy for him, particularly Lieutenant Bracken, whose investigation is so insouciant and without reason you wonder if he’s the killer himself (trust me, anything is possible here). Surely the best solution to a relentless siege of on-campus slayings, one that sees a torso sawed in half and another girl stabbed through the head and out through her mouth, would be to close the school down until the culprit has been identified. No such luck! Not only does Bracken allow the campus to operate, he fails to provide them with a proper police presence, illegally acquiring the help of campus hunk Kendall (Ian Sera) and even denying the murders to a local reporter investigating rumours of a campus killer. “Those kinds of rumours are spread at the university every couple of months”, Bracken claims, which apparently does the trick. Presumably the victims’ parents weren’t informed either.
Bracken is played by horror and exploitation stalwart Christopher George, wife of co-star Lynda, 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, performing his best Columbo impression amid so much implausibility and scattergun plotting. Watching it all unfold is an absolutely priceless experience.
The contrived nature of our killer’s victims also contributes to the ease of his discrepancies. Many questions spring to mind as the film’s antagonist, as conspicuous as a black ninja strolling through a blanket of the purest snow, descends upon his victims at will on what is supposed to be a heavily populated campus, the obvious one being, where the hell is everyone? Budget probably took care of that oversight, but students should still be aware of the dangers. You know those moments in slashers when a victim mindlessly runs into a remote forest in the dead of night? Those girls are geniuses compared to the vacuous creatures forged during a production in which dialogue and scenes were improvised based on the 30-page treatment of a made-for-TV movie. At least those other characters are typically taken by surprise in a remote area miles away from anywhere. These girls are fully aware that their classmates are dropping like flies and yet they insist on hanging around alone at night, skinny dipping alone, showering alone, partaking in solitudinal dance sessions as the devil incarnate looms. You’ll be screaming at them until your voice grows hoarse.
Ultimately, plot and general logicality are peripheral in a movie whose sole purpose is to garner notoriety and make some cheddar. What’s 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. Sarcasm aside, it’s pretty damn gruesome, about as grim as you’ll find in the sub-genre’s golden age. Simón, who owned his own independent studio in Madrid, Spain, designing many of his own special effects sequences, knows how to pile on the gore. 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 waist but is actually the flesh of a real, no-fooling pig. 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 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. If it weren’t for the fact that everything in-between is so insanely ludicrous, you’d be reaching for the sick bucket.
Being their first unrated movie at a time when blood and guts horror was a veritable goldmine for indie distributors, Pieces represented something of a breakthrough for Film Ventures, convincing Montoro that their target demographic wasn’t just a bunch of sickos out for perverse kicks as sections of the media had suggested. “The Italians had a whole run of cannibal/gore movies, but I never distributed any of those pictures,” he would explain. “They distinctly lacked any sense of humour, either intentional or unintentional. To me, they weren’t entertaining. Pieces, most likely unintentionally, certainly has a sense of humour about it. And at the same time, the picture incites enough of a scream from the audience to make it pay off for the gore aspect. Personally, when I see things that are very explicit, I usually turn my eyes away. I like being scared, but I don’t like gore. With Pieces, though, I didn’t take my eyes off the screen, because it never affected me, maybe because the fun parts took the edge away. It was too ludicrous.”