Thursday, October 21, 2010

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Pieces

Boston, 1942. A young boy crouches on the floor of his room, completing a jigsaw. The door opens behind him. His mom enters, gazes lovingly at him. She moves forward, craning her head to look at the puzzle he’s doing. This is where the pastoral scene goes south. Junior’s putting together a jigsaw that shows a naked woman. Mom goes off on one, slapping junior around and shrieking that he’s just like his father. She bawls him out of the room, telling him to get a plastic bag to put this filth in, then tears through his drawers, ranting as she pulls out a stash of girlie mags. Junior reappears. It seems he’s mistaken “plastic bag” for “axe”. He buries said implement in mom’s head. Cut to: concerned neighbour at the door. Cut to: junior hacking away with a saw, blood spattered all over him. Cut to: concerned neighbour and two police officers bursting in. Junior does an Oscar-worthy job of playing the scared kid. Result: junior gets packed off to stay with an aunt while mom’s disembodied head stares lifelessly across the blood-drenched room.

Yeah, ‘Pieces’ is subtle.

So subtle that the title credit looks like this:

Anyway, once the tactful and understated opening credits are out of the way, the movie jumps forward forty years and we’re on the campus of a perennially sunny American university populated by sweater girls, geeky guys and bristly teachers. Oh yeah, and a masked dude with a chainsaw whose chief means of getting his jollies is the evisceration of nubile girls.

Yes indeedy, folks, we’re in exploitation territory.

It’s tempting to imagine ‘Pieces’ made in the 70s, round about the time of ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ and ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ – an edgy, ballsy, terrifying slab of exploitation. The kind of film that gives exploitation a good name. But no. It’s the 80s, so everyone’s sporting a perm, the fashions are an insult to the eyes and edgy, ballsy filmmaking has been sacrificed to the twin gods of power ballads and mullets. Yay! Let’s hear it for the 80s!

While never stymied by inclusion on the DPP’s “video nasties” list, ‘Pieces’ shares much with the majority of titles that were. Namely, an unapologetic desire to shock terminally undermined by bargain basement production values and a stultifying lack of talent both behind and in front of the camera.

Granted, the opening scene of pre-pubescent-boy-on-mother violence is censor-baiting in the extreme but it’s essentially nothing new. Cinema has always mined a rich seam of disturbed Oedipal types, from ‘Psycho’ to ‘Deep Red’. Indeed, in its juxtapositions, musical cues and fetishistic close-ups of leather-gloved hands pawing over childhood keepsakes, ‘Pieces’ almost purposefully patterns itself on Argento’s classic.

But whereas ‘Deep Red’ is, uh, good, ‘Pieces’ isn’t. ‘Pieces’ is woefully, wantonly, wonderfully inept. ‘Pieces’ is one of those bona fide so-bad-it’s-good horror movies. Everything about it – from the attempt to graft giallo stylings onto a straightforward stalk ‘n’ slash template, to a monumentally hypocritical aesthetic which disallows a character utter an oath stronger than “wretched” but has no moral objection to a teenage girl getting beheaded by a chainsaw – is misjudged to such a degree that scene after scene squanders its very real potential for offensiveness and provocation and emerges instead as hysterically funny.

I particularly love the way the killer is so often shown stalking someone. We see him in profile, from behind, in shadow, in silhouette or framed in a doorway or window, and it’s the same each time: androgynous figure, black hat, scarf concealing face, black trenchcoat, back leather gloves. The moment he catches up with his victim du jour, the guy pulls a fucking chainsaw out of nowhere and goes apeshit. Remember that bit in ‘You Only Live Twice’ where Bond hikes up a volcano wearing just a pair of swimming trunks, then when he reaches the top he’s inexplicably kitted out with a frogman’s outfit and a utility belt? This is kind of the same thing. But with a fucking chainsaw. (There’s even a scene where the killer enters an elevator with a victim-in-waiting, the chainsaw hidden behind his back. In a fucking elevator! I mean, come on – the blade on this thing is about three feet long!!!)

Illogicality reigns supreme. The detective in charge of the case assigns a famous tennis player to go undercover at the school and appoints some hormonally-charged kid as her back-up. ’Coz, like, that’s how police investigations work, right? I mean, I can’t understand why I’ve never encountered this scenario in an Ian Rankin novel.

But why ask for logic in a film that features a “kung fu professor”, a snooping female journalist patterned right down to the hairstyle on Daria Nicolodi in ‘Deep Red’ but who fulfils not one iota of the same narrative function, a tennis scene that tries to get away with the same visual joke as Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers on a Train’ and plays out to an oompah band soundtrack, and which tries to pin 80 minutes’ worth of red herrings on its teenage or twenty-something cast when the killer has already been established as a man in his late forties, the personages who fit the bill numbering only three, one of whom is so blatantly a herring of a distinctly ochre pigmentation?

Man, I can’t believe I’ve already expended more words on ‘Pieces’ than I did on ‘Martyrs’, ‘Outpost’ or ‘Ginger Snaps’. Really! 1,000 words on a film that can best be described as crass. But maybe that’s the appeal of films like ‘Pieces’; maybe that’s the fun of writing about them. Gory, bloody, vicious and completely unreconstructed they may be, but they’re also – as a rule – so incompetent in concept and execution that it’s hard to see how even the most dim-witted and easily influenced viewer could be corrupted by them. The harder they strive for terror, the more laughable they become.

‘Pieces’ was never meant as such, but it’s a fucking great comedy.


Kevin J. Olson said...

You forgot about the amazing tennis match!

Great review on one of my favorite so-bad-it's-good horror movies. I loved this!

stonerphonic said...

had me at "scene after scene squanders its very real potential for offensiveness and provocation"


Troy Olson said...

Glad you took a look at this one Neil. It's one of the funnier horror movies I've ever seen (and I've seen plenty of crap, mind you).

As for my thoughts on the film? Well, I wrote about the film back in July and determined the only way to get across how great the film was is to put it all into a single 10-minute video.

Oh, and Kevin -- he did mention the tennis match with this hilarious line: "a tennis scene that tries to get away with the same visual joke as Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers on a Train’ and plays out to an oompah band soundtrack." Hehe.

Neil Fulwood said...

Kevin - I was laughing all the way through this. Occasionally my wife would ask what was so funny. My replies ranged from "He's killing someone with a knife on a waterbed" [followed by half a minute of Dastardly & Muttley style snickering] to "He's hiding a chainsaw behind his back while he gets in a lift" [followed by deep-throated guffaws]. Apparently if I'm a good boy and stop watching horror films I can come back in the house again.

Stonerphonic - thanks, dude. It should be offensive, that's the crazy thing. The first scene should be downright fucking nasty and make you feel uncomfortable. But it's hilarious! The way the kid stomps into the room with the axe and offs his mother. Then it cuts back from the cops outside and he's got himself a fucking great saw from somewhere and he's feverishly sawing away, teeth gritted. If they'd wanted to make a comedy, they couldn't have made this scene any funnier.

Troy - oh, man, that video is a masterwork!

Troy Olson said...

Question: Best line of the film?

"The most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a waterbed at the same time."

"You'll be playing so much tennis it will be coming out of your ears!"

"Bad chop suey"

"Yes. While we were out her fumbling with that music, the lousy bastard was in there killing her. Bastard! BASTARD!! (pause) BAAAAAAAASTARD!!!!"

Neil Fulwood said...

While the "smoking pot and fucking on a waterbed" line absolutely rules because of the mental image it puts in my head (think the Dude Lebowski waking befuddled on the set of 'Confessions of a Window Cleaner' and you're about there), "Bastard! BASTARD!! [oh shit, what's my next line? What is it again? Oh yeah] BAAAAAAAASTARD!!" is utterly priceless. It's my sincere and abiding hope that that last "bastard" was actually rendered with eight As and three exclamation marks in the shooting script.