In 1983, I was fourteen years old and, as much as my mates and I talked about horror films and wished we could get hold of Betamax copies of The Evil Dead or The Entity, the fact is that the two films I most wanted to see that summer were Return of the Jedi and Octopussy. If we’d known at the time about Pieces, a 1982 slasher horror from director Juan Piquer Simón, I’m sure we’d have put it on our list – nubile girls, plenty of nudity and lots of gore. What’s not to love?
As it turns out, it’s taken me almost thirty years to get around to watching it, which I was able to thanks to its recent release from Arrow Video . I sat down with my wife, telling her nothing of the story – not that I knew a lot myself – and we spent the next 82 minutes or so thoroughly captivated. It’s not a good film, please don’t let me misguide you on that, but it is a great deal of fun.
The script originated from Joe D’Amato (director of a wide range of exploitation gems, including Antropophagous and Porno Holocausto) and Dick Randall (a man who truly enjoyed his exploitation films) and directed by Simón, who later made a film version of Shaun Hutson’s Slugs (which I saw years ago and am still trying to wipe from my memory). A Spaniard, he shot the film in Valencia (even though it’s set in Boston) and then went on to become the city’s film festival director (sadly, he died last year).
The film starts in 1942, as a young boy is making up a jigsaw puzzle of a naked woman. His mother comes in (after knocking first), screams at him for being a pervert – “just like your father” – and tells him to go and get a plastic bag so that she can burn the filth. He goes to get one as she works her way around the room, finding pornography everywhere until he comes back with an axe and proceeds to chop her up into pieces. The police and a helpful neighbour turn up, assume the boy escaped the killer and then we flash forward to 1982.
This short opening sequence not only sets up the story, but also reveals what we need to understand in order to be able to enjoy the rest of the film. It’s 1942, a title card tells us that, but the naked woman is clearly a photograph from the late seventies (from her waved hair to other details), plastic bags are routinely used and a push button telephone is shown in close-up. This film has a logic all of its own and your enjoyment will depend completely on whether you can buy into that logic or not.
In the present day, co-ed students of a Boston university are being menaced by a chainsaw-wielding maniac. It’s the summer, but no-one gives a second glance to the man wandering around in an overcoat, fedora and sensible shoes, who always uses the same model of chainsaw (a yellow one) that he often leaves at the murder site. The Dean (Edmund Purdom) is concerned, but not enough so that he’s willing to close down the campus. Instead, the police are called in to set up extra patrols. Leading them is Lieutenant Bracken (Christopher George) and his sergeant, Holden (Frank Brana), who also gets the film’s best line. When asked what the police are doing, he says “we’re just buying clothes without a label and trying them on for size”. Purdom acquits himself well, with his pale colouring and cautious demeanour perfectly suited to the role, but George seems to rely on long pauses in his dialogue (and you can almost see the other actors lean forward, as if waiting for him to start again), and his comedy bits-and-pieces (he spends the whole film chewing on a cigar, constantly asking Holden for a light only to be told – every time – “I don’t smoke”) are shot down by his poor timing.
Bracken decides to enlist his girlfriend Mary Riggs (Linda Day – actually Linda Day George), a championship tennis player who also happens to be an undercover cop. She is assigned to be a tennis coach and, in one painful scene, she and a student play together, but the same piece of film is used over and over, making it very clear that neither woman can play tennis at all. Also gathered into the fold is student Kendall James (Ian Sera), the boyfriend of one of the victims. Resembling Keith Gordon in Blow Out (and performing a similar role in the plot), he’s something of a lothario, working his way through the co-ed students – unaffected by either his girlfriend’s death or his constant discovery of fresh dead bodies – and even has a crack at Riggs.
The audience only sees the killer in shadow, or from shots of his sensible shoes or his black Marigold-gloved hands, as he puts the jigsaw together again and again before each kill (and, for a 40-year-old toy, it’s holding up remarkably well). There are plenty of red herrings thrown in, chiefly Professor Arthur Brown (played by Jack Taylor), a homosexual who is taunted by the students and lives at home with his mum (which, surely, would rule him out) and Willard the handyman, played by Paul L. Smith who clearly thinks he’s still playing Bluto in Altman’s Popeye, though his wide-eyed leering and lurching are good fun to watch.
Although it’s not made especially clear (or, at least, the film here uses a subtlety that it doesn’t bother with elsewhere), the killer is trying to recreate the woman from the jigsaw – or some kind of dream woman, at the very least (though he’s going about the project with even less finesse than the hero of Frank Hennenlotter’s Frankenhooker, if that’s possible). The head comes from one young lady, the arms are cut from another and so on. This is where the film does come into its own since, in fitting into the slasher-film cycle that was then in vogue (and D’Amato and Randall were nothing if not masters of this style) Pieces features some well crafted kill sequences.
The first victim is decapitated with a chainsaw whilst sunbathing (I think it might be the same girl who is skateboarding at the start, though she appears to collide with a mirror but is never seen again otherwise), which does lead to a lovely shot of the killer, bathed in lens flare, waving his weapon around. One victim is half-drowned in a pool, fished out and then chopped into small pieces, whilst another is attacked in a lift (her arm is quite impressively chopped off, then she’s left to bleed to death). The final death is a tennis player, who is attacked in the changing rooms. She ignores the front door and, instead, takes refuge in a small shower forcing the killer to break in and cut her in half – very nicely done. However, for me, the most impressive death scene belonged to the nosy newspaper reporter who is attacked on a waterbed. Filmed in slow motion, with some nicely chosen shots, it’s a lot classier a sequence than the film in general deserves.
Part of the skewed logic I mentioned above leads to some sequences that are bizarre but priceless. After the girl is killed in the swimming pool, the detectives and Professor Brown are surveying the gory remains with a yellow chainsaw right in the middle of the carnage. Lt Bracken asks for Brown’s expert opinion and he comments that it’s probably safe to assume that the chainsaw was involved. Later still, Mary is harassed by a martial artist, in a sequence that has no bearing on the rest of the film at all – she puts him down with a well-aimed knee, Kendall explains that the man is his Kung-Fu teacher, and said assailant slinks off never to be seen again. Of them all, the one sequence that I would love to watch with an audience comes right after the final death scene, when Mary – clearly angry and frustrated at what’s been happening – screams “Bastard!” at the top of her lungs several times, whilst Kendall looks on with an embarrassed expression etched onto his face.
For all that, the film is a lot of fun to watch (assuming you like cheesy, sleazy horror films from the eighties, that is – I think it’s important that I highlight that clause) and delivers the gore and nudity that you’d expect from a film of this time period. Simón keeps events ticking along at a good pace, it’s well made and edited, and the locations look nice. Once you get the tone of the piece – yes, it’s gory but it’s not taking itself one-hundred-percent seriously – it becomes all that much more enjoyable. I still don’t get the ending though.
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