In Praise of ‘Pieces’
by Jeff Kirschner
“You Don’t Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre!” screamed the tagline on the lurid poster for Pieces, the 1982 Spanish splatter-flick, released the year before in its native country under the title Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche (roughly translated as Night Has a Thousand Screams). Well, not literally, no – you just had to go to your local movie house to view Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic, of which the tag line not so obliquely references. But if what the marketers meant was that viewers were in store for a visceral, harrowing horror experience like no other – the sort that Hopper, Hanson et al gave us – well sure. Instead of taking place in backwoods Texas, the carnage in Pieces occurs on an unnamed university campus in Boston, Massachusetts (although, it should be noted, Pieces was filmed not in the good old U.S of A. but rather in Madrid). Except Texas Chain Saw Massacre is while Pieces isn’t. Pieces is neither harrowing nor visceral. What it is, however, is gory – super gloriously gory. And lunk headed, and ridiculously lurid, and more than a little perverse. It’s also a helluva lot of fun. Trying to capitalize on the success of a previously successful horror flick was nothing new in the world of grindhouse cinema, so let’s just say that the similarities between Pieces and Texas begin and end with the use of the weapon with the rapidly rotating teeth, leave it at that, and assess Pieces on it’s own (relatively few if you’re talking artistic; quite considerable of you’re talking gratuitously gruesome thrills) merits. The film’s super-sleazy opening is a prologue set in 1942. A young child is sitting on the floor of his bedroom, lovingly piecing together a puzzle depicting a very naked young woman (a miniature replica of which Grindhouse Releasing generously provided inside their recent Blu-Ray reissue; those who favor digital streaming over physical take note – Netflix will never provide you with something as glorious as that!) Mom walks in, sees what her little tyke is up to and goes ape shit. After mom calls her son stupid a number of times as well as a “filthy little boy”, little Timmy has had just about enough, thank you. He hacks momma in the head with an ax, then cuts her into pieces with a saw. He then goes back to his puzzle!. When the cops enter the blood-spattered room, they find mom’s head in a closet (quickly swapped with a mannequin head for the long shot). Never mind that this scene doesn’t come within shouting distance of looking period appropriate and even features a super-anachronistic touch tone phone! As far as horror openings go, it’s a fucking doozy.
Flash forward 40 years, and a man in the traditional garb of the giallo killer (black gloves, fedora and trench coat) is seen removing the blood-stained, massacred mom’s clothes from a box. We’re now on the campus of a New England institute of higher learning (one where no one seems to have any classes to go to, mind you), and someone’s got a whole lot of murderin’ to do! The kills start ludicrously enough with one not facilitated by the killer. A coed on a skateboard loses control, and in a setpiece worthy of Looney Tunes, crashes right through a giant mirror hoisted by two movers. This is juxtaposed with a shot of mommy smashing the mirror during her conniption fit and black-gloved hands reassembling the dirty puzzle. Obviously something has been triggered for someone, and the beast is loose!
There’s a tree surgeon on campus, a big burly man named Willard, afflicted with a constant case of cut-eye and played by acclaimed actor Paul L. Smith (Exodus, Midnight Express). A student in short shorts is lolling about on the grass. A man wielding a chainsaw approaches her and removes her head from the rest of her body as rivulets of the red stuff spray. Willard finds her corpse but the cranium is missing. Never fear for Lt. Bracken is on the case. He’s played by the wonderful genre-fave Christopher George (City of the Living Dead, The Exterminator, Day of the Animals).
Bracken is a tough talking, stoic, cigar-chomping detective who’s pretty terrible at detecting (and never seems to have the forensics report). To whit, he conscripts one of the students, a nerdy kid named Kendall who all the ladies inexplicably seem to love, to help with that pesky crime-solving business. “I’d put my life in his hands”, says Bracken. What? Based on what evidence? Furthermore, there’s the brilliant idea he comes up with of having famed tennis champ Mary Riggs pose “undercover” on campus as …tennis champ Mary Riggs!
The murders continue and they’re about as gory as can get. Forget Tom Savini-esque FX wizardry though. Pieces employed pig carcasses for close-ups of chainsaws cutting through flesh. As the murders continue, the red herrings pile up quicker than a day-old sale at a fish mongers’. Of course, Willard is blamed but exonerated fairly quickly. One constant though is that all the victims seem to recognize the killer. They know who he is but don’t question why he’s dressed like Lamont Cranston from The Shadow.
There’s so much stupidity in Pieces, but damn if it isn’t lovable in spite of itself. I mean, this is a film where a Bruce Lee impersonator pops up out of nowhere, does a little kung- fu, then disappears as quickly and inexplicably as he appears. The female student body is all ridiculously good-looking and frequently naked to boot. There’s also the use of John Phillip Souza’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” to distract tennis ace cum crack sleuth Mary Riggs long enough for the killer to do his dirty work. And the final scene completely beggars belief and is worth the price of admission all on its own. The second tagline for Pieces is “It’s Exactly What You Think It Is.” What audiences were meant to make out of that, I have no idea, but what Pieces is is a sleazy, gruesome, lurid piece of film making that at times borders on incompetence, yet is eminently re-watchable and a must own in every horror fan’s collection.