Some horror movies can live solely on their carefully crafted hype. Others actual deliver the goods the studio staged ballyhoo promises. And then there is Pieces. Back in 1982, distributors desperate to continue the coattail ride started with Halloween and Friday the 13th took the Spanish splatter film Mil gritos tiene la noche ("The Night Has a Thousand Cries", roughly), renamed it, and added the intriguing tagline "You Don't Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre!" With a final carnival barker punchline - "It's exactly what you think it is." - the results were unleashed on an unwitting world.
Thanks to VHS and the thriving home video market, the sleazoid shocker became an instant cult classic. The question remains, however, does the movie match the marketing - or is this just another case of carefully chosen words speaking a heckuva lot louder than the action on the screen. Luckily, the schlock meisters over at Grindhouse Releasing have given Pieces the kind of polish that reclassifies it as a classic. Once you've seen the film cleaned up, uncut, and offered in startling widescreen anamorphic splendor, you'll wonder why anyone denied (or doubted) it's excellence before.
The storyline is dead simple. We are introduced to a young boy, tormented mercilessly by his blousy whore of a mother. After a particularly gruesome showdown, we flash forward forty years. On a small college campus, young girls are being viciously vivisected by an unseen killer. Using a chainsaw to carve up the bodies, the police are baffled by the murders. Detective Lt. Bracken (a nicely cheesy Christopher George) hopes to crack the case with a two fold approach. First, he will elicit the help of student Kendall James (Pod People's Ian Sera) to snoop among the student body. This BMOC knows all the angles - and the ladies.
Secondly, seasoned cop and star tennis pro Mary Riggs (Lynda Day) will go undercover as one of the faculty. This will allow her greater access to suspects like groundskeeper Willard (Paul L. Smith, with Lawrence Tierney's voice) and the slightly fey Professor Brown (Jack Taylor). As the body count rises, Bracken grows desperate. Apparently, the murdered is making some kind of trophy out of the 'pieces' of his victims…and he's almost done.
Pieces is the kind of fright film that sneaks up on you. It is really nothing more than your standard slasher effort with a chainsaw doing all the slice and dice (well, there are a couple of knife kills thrown in for good massacre measure). Director Juan Piquer Simón digs deep into his fellow Europeans bag of terror tricks and comes up trumps more times than not. The opening is an obvious homage to Dario Argento's classic Profundo Rosso, down to the deadly dynamic between parent and child. Once we move to modern times, Lucio Fulci's full bore gore conceit comes into play. While most of the killings occur off camera, their nasty results get full view visits. Even the ending is unrelenting, delivering not one, or two, but THREE false jolts.
Thanks to the new two disc DVD from Grindhouse, we learn a lot more about the production than previously known. Actor Smith is on hand for nearly an hour of insights, discussing his entire career but also explaining how he came to be involved in the film. As a classically trained performer, he makes a strong case for Willard's famous alse front. Even better, Simón stands up for his actions, taking his 50 minute plus Q&A to argue psychology, scares, and his wonderful cast and crew. It's clear that Pieces was meant as an exploitative effort. It wanted to ride the coattails of the still new slasher phenomenon. But thanks to Simón's sensibility, and the brutality of the murders, the film more or less transcends its type. Besides, the new transfer is terrific.
As with much of the Mediterranean macabre geared toward Western audiences, Christopher George gives his Cheshire Cat capped grin a good workout as Bracken. While not as active here as he is in such gems as City of the Living Dead, The Exterminator, and Mortuary, he provides the necessary despotic smugness that makes these movies work. Bracken has to be self assured and clueless, otherwise, the villain's reveal gets shortchanged. Sure, we see who the bad man is almost immediately, but the cops have to fumble a bit before pulling out their pistols. Similarly, then wife Lynda Day is nothing more than eye candy, reduced at 38 to playing pseudo-paramour for the wispy lothario Sera.
And speaking of Kendall, it is clear that Simón sees him as the calm within the monster movie maelstrom. Instantly cast off the isle of suspicion, he gets to hit on Day, act as an inspector substitute, emote over various F/X corpses, and show off his larger than average "assets" during a laughable love scene. For fans of the unflappable Mystery Science Theater 3000, seeing the musical prick Rick running around san shorts may explain his angry male animal arrogance. But as a romantic lead, he's rather limited. According to IMDb Sera's career was also rather short lived (Smith, who praises the performer incessantly, will be sad to hear this). What started in 1979 was soon over five years later. Google offers up a similar overview.
Even with the cast's uneven facets, Pieces manages to work. It’s a shame that so much talent takes a backseat to naked babes being butchered. Smith, fresh from playing Bluto in Robert Altman's Popeye, does little except smirk and speak like a certain Joe Cabot. Crusty Dean Edmund Purdom has to get by on clipped British courtesy and a nasty five o'clock shadow. Thanks to the dubbing - everyone's voice is redone (even if it was their own in the end), as was the standard for most import productions - Pieces takes on an amplified sleazoid feel. We sense this is a movie that will do almost anything, including substitute actor accents, to get its gruesome point across. Oh, and one thing about the gore. It is plentiful, but clearly culled from an early '80s limit of realism.
Indeed, very little of this fright flick plays like an authentic police procedural. A premise is devised, a killer walks among his potential prey, Greed decade fashion victims disrobe with alarming regularity, and soon - it's power tool time! The Georges chew up the scenery and all is right in the domain of dread. Some will scoff no matter the digital dressing. Pieces is that kind of perverse product. But don’t be surprised when, after it's all over, you're more than a little unnerved. It is that kind of movie - exactly.