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.