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Pieces (Arrow R2 DVD)

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Arrow Video
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Juan Piquer Simón
Christopher George
Linda Day George
Frank Braña
Paul L. Smith
Edmund Purdom
Bottom Line: 
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I’ve never really been very convinced by the so-called ‘so bad it’s good’ saw, so often used to try to rescue, and tentatively redeem critically, any old piece of tat you might feel the need  to want to make excuses for actually enjoying; but if there really does deserve to be a list of films filed under the heading ‘so bad it’s good’ then there is only one film that truly qualifies to be on that list and that film is Juan Piquer Simón’s absurd (and absurdly entertaining and well-made) 1982 giallo-slasher hybrid, “Pieces” (“Mil gritos tiene la noche” in Spanish, or “One Thousand Cries has the Night”, a bizarrely portentous title for what is in reality just a tacky piece of drive-in sleaze-pandering that just happens to be built to last). This is a US, Spanish, Puerto Rican co-production which has enjoyed, at one time or another, the shamelessly brilliant tag lines “Pieces: You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre!” and “Pieces: It’s exactly what you think it is!” Produced by exploitation guru and money man extraordinaire Dick Randall (“Slaughter High”), allegedly co-written by Italian sleaze godfather Aristide Massaccesi (foregoing his usual non de plume of Joe D’Amato for the even more obscure pen name, John Shadow -- It’s almost as if he were ashamed of the film or something!) and filmed in Madrid, supposedly as a stand-in for 1940s/’80s Boston, New England (some of it was apparently filmed in the US, but it all looks European anyway), “Pieces” combines all the nonsensical plotlines and the badly dubbed performances from slumming it North American actors, that we expect from and so  love to see in all those hammy mid-‘70s gialli and in the dingy period euro pudding exploitica  of Jess Franco, and adds liberal doses of the delirious grindhouse nihilism of American independent horror’s slasher boom, in the pre-Multiplex days when there was still room for the unrated, low-budget, independently produced exploitation flick to flourish in unaffiliated mom & pop theatres across the states.

These are the movies that provided the fuel for the Video Nasty hysteria when it ignited in the UK later in the 1980s. While Paramount haggled with the MPAA over blink-and-you’ll-miss-it micro-seconds of on-screen blood splatter to secure an ‘R’ rating in mainstream outlets for the next sequel in their  interminable “Friday the 13th“ franchise, “Pieces” lets loose with unrestrained on-screen bloodletting of such sustained ferocity it becomes funny, not least because its blood-sloshed rubbery effects now look so unconvincing. The film is as completely artless a jigsaw of incompatible thriller sub-sub-genres being forced together as is its own psycho killer’s on-screen recreation of his butchered mum from a series of body parts of chopped-up college girls stitched together: structured around the tardy, old-fashioned police procedural associated with the whodunit, the film posits a black glove and fedora-wearing killer, on loan from the gialli of prime Bava and Argento classics, stalking his frequently nude prey while wielding a noisy chainsaw, rather than the traditional shiny phallic blade (although he does get to polish off one victim on a waterbed with this traditional giallo weapon as well), that he even manages to conceal behind his back in order to enter a lift with one of his more unobservant victims during one of the film’s crazier scenes. Logic, coherence, believable characters, and any kind of shame or responsibility whatsoever have all been written out of the script on this one: “Pieces” is pure unadulterated pandering to the lowest common denominator in the  audience for trash cinema … and it’s gruesomely good fun in the retrospectively camp way bad cinema of past years rarely manages to live up to. It may be nonsense, but the pace is fairly relentless, there is always something on the screen to appreciate, whether it be some appalling but hilarious performance, an illogically shoehorned-in nod to a period genre fashion of the day (disco dance movies featuring lots of leg warmers, Kung Fu action cinema) or the fountains of blood, gruel and naked body parts pruriently dwelt on in lingering Slow-Mo: there is no escaping the fact that “Pieces”, somehow, has become a bona fide cult classic!

An opening on-screen title gives the scene-setting prologue a whole heap of trouble by setting the action in Boston, 1941 – something no one told the set dresser about, judging by the amount of period anachronisms on show here. A studious young boy is pictured in his rather spacious bedroom, intently completing a jigsaw puzzle of a fully naked glamour model (easily available in 1941, obviously) on the carpet, when his mother catches him and throws a hissy fit. (As ex-Fangoria editor Tony Timpone rightly says on the Arrow Video commentary track, the fact that the mother first politely knocks on the door before entering her son’s room is a detail which doesn’t accord with most people’s experience of being caught out in these kinds of embarrassing circumstances!) In fact, mom goes rabidly ape shit over her unwanted discovery; sending the shamed lad out of the room to fetch a plastic bag for the offending item to be taken out to the trash in, she proceeds to tear his room apart looking for more ingeniously secreted porn, which she finds in abundance -- stuffed into bedroom drawers and toy boxes (this kid’s been impressively busy it seems), taking the glossy form of Playboy mags that surely wouldn’t have been around in the 1940s. Unfortunately for mom, the psychological damage that comes of being prematurely au fait with the naked female in her pre-dismembered cardboard jigsaw form leads the youngster to return, not with a plastic bag but a heavy axe, which he clumps into the forehead of the diligent parent repeatedly. This scene is bloodier and more protracted than Argento’s shocking axe to the forehead scene in “Tenebrea”, but Simón hasn’t even got started yet. The boy has also got hold of a hacksaw and proceeds to dismember his mother while the locked out nanny outside attempts to gain access to the house. She calls the police, who eventually force entry, only to find the blood-soaked bedroom now houses body parts stashed all around the room, with mummy’s head proudly displayed in the closet!

Cut to the present day, and after witnessing a completely perplexing girl-on-roller-skates-crashes-into-plate-glass-window scenario, the now grown-up killer has become a fully paid up member of the giallo psycho-killer fraternity, who keeps a box-full of mementos (his mother’s torn dress and her blood splattered stilettoes) in a desk drawer, which he lovingly caresses while wearing black leather gloves to gee himself up just before each of his murders, like the killer in “Profondo Rosso”. He also completes the original offending jigsaw again each time (now stained by 35 year-old smudges of dried blood) as another ritualised prelude to the next chainsaw kill, no doubt in order to recreate the psychological rage and re-enact the circumstances of his mother’s death with each repetition, as does the killer in “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”. We’re never given the usually obligatory scene where the killer, his identity revealed, gives a deranged account of his motivations at the end of the film (this film has long since left all pretence of any kind of sense behind by this point), but it’s made fairly clear that the whole thing is an attempt to recreate a mother corpse from the stolen body parts of the killer’s victims.

The black-clad stalker starts by obtaining the surrogate head from a student relaxing in the gardens of a Boston college campus, chain-sawing it off in broad daylight while he’s posing as the beleaguered, squint-eyed gardener Willard (Paul L. Smith giving a bravura performance of delightfully comical facial tics). This sets in motion a lackadaisical police investigation led by cigar-chomping Grindhouse veteran Christopher George (“City of the Living Dead”) as Lt. Braken, and a bemused Frank Braña as Sgt Holden. Despite more and more murders of increasing ferocity (body parts of the latest victim piled up beside the college swimming pool; legless, armless corpse in the school lift), attractive female students seem perfectly content to wander about the premises late at night on their own, the suited school Dean (Edmund Purdom) seeming hardly worried at all by the relentless daily slaughter on campus, while almost everybody else looks suspicious, although only a limited number of the staff are anywhere near old enough to seriously be considered true suspects, one of them, Jess Franco regular Jack Taylor, playing an anthropology professor who we’re meant to suspect simply because he’s a homosexual who lives with his mum (surely that instantly disqualifies him, given what we know happened to the killer’s mother?) who the college girls all make fun of behind his back.

Conventional sleuthing proves inadequate so Bracken, somewhat cavalierly, resorts all too hastily to some bewilderingly unconventional methods -- employing one of the college students, a curly haired sop in a naff knitted jumper called Kendall (Ian Sera), to look into the mystery in his own free time; which he does … in between bedding the remaining female cast members who haven’t yet been hacked into tiny pieces. He teams up with a famous ex-tennis pro called Mary Riggs (Christopher George’s then wife, Linda Day George in a memorably daft role which she will no longer talk about in interviews), who’s been working a desk job back at police headquarters  the whole time (?) and becomes the lure for the killer’s next slay-to-order body part. More silliness abounds as even this crack team of random halfwits prove completely helpless to prevent even more deranged on-screen carnage. Despite the camp value of the ludicrous script and the surreal plot developments, most of this stuff is actually being played straight; the murders still have a particularly grimy, down-and-dirty feel about them, with victims depicted trembling with fear in the build-up  to their executions (one of them is shown  urinating herself in terror while hiding in a toilet cubicle) just before being literally hacked into pieces, often in slow motion, and in a pruriently sexualized fashion – no wonder this film was one of the prime offenders (along with William Lustig’s “Maniac”) back in the early ‘80s when feminists began to question the misogyny they felt lay behind the  popularity of the slasher genre.  

In fact, the film is the ultimate crossover between the bespoke North American slasher and the traditional Italian giallo, taking both to the outer extremes of excess but coming a bit late in the day to play as anything other than parody of either sub-genre. Indeed, both were beginning to seem well past their respective sell-by dates in 1982. “Pieces” retains all the whodunit structure of the giallo thriller, and the score for the English language mono audio dub track (by someone or something called CAM) even apes the prog rock stylings of “Dawn of the Dead”-era Goblin to cement the association. But the film excises all the narrative complexity and labyrinthine (if implausible) plotting found with the standard Italian thriller form, with the resulting product reduced to a string of gory set-pieces that play exactly like the body count cinema of the, by then, typical slasher, a whole slew of which had recently come to prominence off the back of the success of “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”.  The Arrow Video version allows you to watch the film in its Spanish language incarnation as well as the more playable English dub, and it’s worthwhile checking out the differences, since the Spanish incidental score by Librado Pastor alternates between melodic, almost Tangerine Dream-alike ambient synth-based cues and overwrought piano riffs that sound like the accompaniment to a Perils of Pauline-style silent picture.

“Pieces” came to DVD in the US recently in a double disc special edition packed with copious extras. Arrow Video’s UK disc musters an equally good transfer and includes a small selection of exclusive new extras from the in-house High Rising Productions. The commentary track features Calum Waddell and Fangoria magazine’s Tony Timpone, but although the duo do discuss the film in question, it is very much secondary to Waddell’s interest in the state of horror fandom in the 1980s during Timpone’s stint in the editor’s chair at the US magazine. This does end up being a fascinating discussion (and Timpone has lots of insight into how the horror genre has changed over the years, including how it turned from being an exclusively male interest when he first started editing, to 60% of the horror industry’s target audience now being female) and he does have a few facts about how “Pieces” was received at the time; but in the main, Timpone admits to not being all that great a fan of the slasher genre and most of the conversation has little to do with either the sub-genre in general or this film in particular.

The disc also includes two featurettes: “Pieces of Jack: An Actors Experience of Spanish Splatter” (18 mins) is a fixed camera interview with Jack Taylor about his career, that looks like it was shot in his hotel room. Taylor gives a brief account of his beginnings in the industry, and then moves on to talk about his move to Spain, which includes several key films in the Jess Franco filmography; but it’s an all too brief exposition (we learn about Franco’s improvisational method of working, but not much else), with most of the interview concentrating on the making of “Pieces”, even though Taylor can’t remember that much and admits to never having seen it.

The extras highlight, though, is a 23 minute love letter to Juan Piquer Simón’s stupefying film (the director passed away earlier this year): “Pieces of Deconstruction: Looking Back at a Grindhouse Classic” features a collection of horror alumni – “Hostel” producer Scott Spiegel, filmmaker Howard S. Berger, Fangoria’s Michael Gingold and horror historian Santos Ellin Jr. – reminiscing about when they first encountered the film on 42nd Street, and the huge impression it made on them at the time. Most agree that despite its silliness (a sequence in which the heroine is attacked by a Kung-Fu professor for no reason whatsoever, has to rate as one of the daftest and most random in the history of slashers) “Pieces” is actually pretty well-made and energetic: Its compulsive viewing, and still oddly holds up despite its total lack of sophistication and the comparatively primitive nature of its effects by today’s standards. It also has one of the all-time so-stupid-it’s-great endings.

The UK DVD isn’t the all-singing-all-dancing special edition available in North America, but it’s a respectable release and includes the usual Arrow Video packaging attractions of reversible sleeves, fold-out double-sided artwork poster, and collector’s booklet with writing by Stephen Thrower, author of Nightmare USA. The film is presented in its theatrical anamorphic 1.66:1 aspect ratio and looks pretty good apart from the occasional line running down the screen, mostly near the start.

Eli Roth loves it and you will too: this is one of those movies that no description can truly do proper justice to, and Arrow Video have unleashed one of their most essential discs yet. Needless to say, the film is now uncut and is recommended viewing.

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